As kids start back to school, many of them will be packing smart phones. In some cases, teachers even encourage students to use the devices in the classroom as a learning tool. But how can parents be sure their children are safe in cyberspace when they leave home?
Rawdon Messenger, CEO of TeenSafe, offered Wrangler News some startling statistics to put the issue in context.
“Five years ago, less than 20 percent of kids had smart phones. Now it’s up to 80 percent. And even though that’s a wonderful thing in terms of communication, entertainment, all the great learning — there’s so much that a device can add in value to our kids’ lives — it also brings a lot of issues.”
For one thing, there’s “sexting.” It is estimated that 40 percent of all high school students have sent or received a “sext” and 70 percent of teens admit to sexting with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Because of feeling pressured, 61 percent of both sexes engage in the behavior, but girls are asked to send risqué photos 68 percent more often than boys.
“I can’t imagine when I was in school taking a picture of myself and handing it around class or handing it to a guy. It just wasn’t something that you’d do,” Messenger said. Of course, there were other ways to get into trouble, he added, but the difference now is, kids have a device with a camera wherever they go, and a ton of pressure to fit in and be popular on social media.
Karissa Greving Mehall and Patricia Dobratz, clinical directors of The Arizona Marriage and Family Therapy Clinic, located in the Gila Springs neighborhood of West Chandler, offered words of advice regarding kids and technology.
“For most teenagers, technology and social media are a part of their daily life and can represent an extension of themselves. Along with that familiarity and identity, may come a false sense of safety online,” Dobratz said. “This is where keeping the lines of communication open with parent and children is critical, because they may be more likely to come to their parent if something is happening to them online.”
Both therapists emphasized the importance of having a proactive approach when it comes to technology. Starting when the children are young, they recommend developing a family plan about the use of devices as well as strategies for monitoring usage.
“If a parent starts to notice their child acting differently, it could be for many different reasons, however, in today’s parenting world, parents now have to consider how the influences of technology may be impacting them socially and emotionally,” Dobratz said.
Diane DeLong, senior program manager with the North Star Youth Program offered her take on the issue.
“Our youth have immediate access to worldwide social connections. As parents, we have to realize the window of danger open to them. It’s important to have conversations with your teen and to set rules about internet use,” DeLong said.
“Tell them to not feel pressured by others to do something that makes them uncomfortable. It’s important that they also understand this is truly a safety issue, not a parental control issue.”
What many kids don’t realize is that nothing on the internet is truly private. North Star urges parents to teach their kids to keep personal information and passwords private and to not add someone they don’t know to their friend list.
TeenSafe goes a bit further. For $15 per month, parents can download an app that allows them to access their children’s smart phones. Things like their location in real time, which internet and social media sites they’ve visited, what they’ve downloaded and their text messages — even if those messages have been deleted.
But does that go too far, invading a child’s privacy?
“I think it’s really all about context. It’s all about your family and your values,” Messenger said. “Some of the stuff that we see, the parents had no idea…There are so many things out there you can’t know about, and if you don’t know about them, you can’t help your child.”
According to bullying.org, only one in 10 teens tell their family they are being bullied. Some of those messages have been known to have devastating consequences. One mother Wrangler News spoke to saw messages such as “Why don’t you just kill yourself? Hurry up and die!” on her 13-year-old child’s phone.
“If you don’t know, how can you protect them?” Messenger mused.