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Do you know what your kids are doing online?

“Ninety-five percent of kids ages 12-18 go online every day, so we’re talking about kids living most of their lives online from a young age,” said Kristen Amicone, San Diego Police Foundation Director of Education & Technology, during a social media presentation before 20 parents Oct. 21, hosted by The Children’s School.

Delving into the various social media platforms and how to safely use them, Amicone said she also speaks to children on the topic. “If there is one thing I want to hammer home with the kids, it’s that once you post something on the Internet, it never goes away, and you can’t control how other people use that information,” she said. there are ways for texts and tweets (via twitter) to be saved and shared without the knowledge of the sender. Amicone asked parents how many of their children had a social network profile. After a few raised their hands, she reported that 71 percent of teenagers have at least one. And although having an online presence opens the door to cyberbullying, there are ways to keep teens safe on social media platforms. It’s all about spotting certain red flags on social sites and keeping the account private, she said.

John Fowler, head of The Children’s School, with Kristen Amicone, San Diego Police Foundation Director of Education & Technology.
John Fowler, head of The Children’s School, with Kristen Amicone, San Diego Police Foundation Director of Education & Technology.
(Ashley Mackin)

“If your kids cannot set their profiles to ‘private,’ they should not be on that site, or if they’re unable to block users or report harassment. these are very basic protections,” Amicone explained.

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All social network settings should be on “friends only,” she added, which means only pre-approved friends can see posted content. While many platforms have the option to allow “friends of friends” or the public at large to see posted content, she advises against it – limiting visibility to friends only. She also said incoming messages should have a filter and users should know how to block people if they are being harassed.

On Instagram, the No. 1 social media platform used by teenagers in the United States, she suggested setting all photos to “private,” so only pre-approved friends can see them, and turning off the location-sharing function.

On Facebook, which can be set to private or public, having a public account can open the door to online predators. Amicone explained “Internet creepers” look at public Facebook profiles to discover a teen’s interests, so they have an icebreaker, and then they start messaging the teen. the ultimate goal, she said, is for predators to get into a teen’s circle of trust, which can lead to more illicit exchanges. “Simply having an account set to ‘private’ helps deter this,” she said.

To further safeguard one’s account, use a solid password, she said. “even today, people still use ‘password,’ ‘123456’ and ‘qwerty’ as passwords, but there are ways to take such bad passwords and turn them into good passwords,” she said. For example, adding punctuation in place of letters or numbers such as p@33w0rd.

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Cyberbullying

A sad reality facing today’s teens, Amicone said, is when approved “friends” within one’s online social circle turn to cyberbullying. “Cyberbullying has a simple definition: using anything that connects to the Internet or a cell phone to be mean to somebody else,” she said. “that can mean excluding someone from a group, sharing someone’s personal information, posting rumors or pictures meant to embarrass somebody, forwarding texts or pictures that are meant to be private, and pretending to be someone else online.”

But with cyberbullying, Amicone added, there is no escape. “When it’s schoolyard bullying, you have a way to get away, you can go home. But now (teens) are literally carrying their bullies around in their pockets. So if they have their cell phones with them at night, there is no reprieve.”

However, she said according to San Diego Police Association research, 60 percent of teens would not go to a parent if someone were harassing them online. When asked the reason why, Amicone said the No. 1 reason is “kids are afraid they would lose their phones. For them, that’s like losing a limb.”

As an alternative, Amicone advised parents to sit down with their children and have them pick three trusted adults they can talk to if they are being harassed online. “Once you know who the trusted adults are, write down their phone numbers so your child has them,” she said. “Then call those three people and explain the situation, assigning the trusted adults the goal of getting your teens to talk to you about the situation.”

The concept of the three trusted adults was a pertinent takeaway for parent Stephanie Adams. “My son is a seventh grader and while we have a good relationship, I still think I will look into having him pick three trusted adults,” she said. Another takeaway, she said, was having stricter privacy settings on social media. “I have Facebook, but I struggle with it and maintaining the privacy settings. It’s a whole new world from what I grew up in.”

Added parent Clint Williams: “As the presentation went on, I became more uncomfortable. I thought I knew what I needed to know before I came because I’m online myself everyday, but I have no idea what it looks like to my (two daughters). This presentation brought things into focus. Now I have to have a talk with my daughters!”

Parent Tips for Social Media Safety

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■ Check out Account Killer, a program with step-by-step instructions on how to shut down social media accounts.

■ Consider installing anti-virus, anti-phishing and parental controls. n Install parental controls on devices that block inappropriate

content or limit screen time, depending on your family’s needs.

■ Establish privileges and consequences before kids get a phone or soon after.

■ Set up Google alerts for your family members’ names.

■ Review your children’s social networking friends lists and contacts; if you don’t know their friends, ask who they are and how they know them. If they can’t answer, those friends should be deleted.

■ Identify three trusted adults your kids can talk to about Internet concerns.

■ Talk to your kids about their online lives; take an interest so they will be more likely to talk to you about issues.

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■ When in doubt, search for how-to guides, as in “I don’t know how to block someone from my phone.”