Monitoring a child’s online activity is much easier when they are younger than when that kid is older. But even older grade schoolers and high schoolers could still use some parental guidance for their online activity to ensure they stay safe. Parents will spend a lot of time teaching younger kids how to be safe and mindful on the internet and will then have to spend more time ensuring that those lessons stick as the child becomes older and gains independence. It is up to parents to make sure their kids are maintaining that mindfulness they learned when they were younger. They also must consider the consequences of their actions online which could potentially make or break them later in life.
By Melissa Anderson
As children get older and learn how to better navigate the online world, they will encounter a lot of new apps (applications). These apps are available in overabundance with new ones being launched daily in many different categories from games to entertainment to messaging services. Why do parents need to keep tabs on this?
“It is important to stay up to date on new applications because a lot of time our youth will move from one application to the next. Each application may present a new challenge to a parent or a youth,” Special Agent Jesse Smith of the North Dakota Criminal Investigation said.
Agent Smith, who has worked with the Cyber Crimes unit for nearly a decade, explained that apps have become more sophisticated in allowing for secrecy. The apps could have features that allow secret storage or anonymous chats. It isn’t just new, unknown apps that parents need to be concerned about. Existing and popular apps also go through updates that could potentially be problematic.
“As an example, Snapchat, when first released, was all about disappearing messages. Later on they added a GPS feature so you could see the location of your friends and family. Then one of the newest features for Snapchat is “for my eyes only” which allows a user to add photos from Snapchat into this location and keep them,” Agent Smith explained.
Another aspect of these apps that poses a danger to youth is the ability for cyberbullying to occur. Agent Smith wants parents to be aware of and remember that kids are now able to take technology with them everywhere thanks to cellphones, tablets, and constant internet access. As a result, the bullying never stops as they can always be reached.
“Our youth face great pressure from their peers. Before the internet bullying took place at the school. Now with social media, bullying can follow our kids home, and they can be bullied at anytime and anywhere. This can have huge effects on our youth when they cannot disconnect from this negativity,” Smith said.
Bullying is nothing new, however, but the inability to escape from the bullying is. At St. Alphonsus Catholic School, bullying is a consistent topic for counselor Barb Boesl. She explained that the primary reason bullying occurs is because the person who is doing the bullying wants to feel powerful.
“It’s really important for parents to develop a relationship with theirr kids at a young age where they feel safe talking to you,” Boesl said.
Some of the key conversations that parents should have with their older grade schooler and middle schooler is about ethical online behavior. They should not be using the Internet to spread gossip, bully, or make threats against others. Youth need to understand about limiting the occurrence; if somebody does not respect your wishes and are given the chance to rectify the behavior and don’t, then they should not be given another chance.
“It really starts with self-esteem and self-belief. ‘I’m not going to be treated like this, and I deserve to be treated better.’ Setting those boundaries,” Boesl said.
Boesl meets with the students of St. Alphonsus in their classrooms once a week. As a counselor, she tries to understand where the students are coming from first before making a decision on how to proceed. Kids have feelings, too, and they are going through a lot of things in the pre-teen and teenager stage. Boesl is a big believer in looking beyond the behavior to what or why they are acting this way.
This approach, however, also needs to be understood by the adult in their behavior towards the youth. When it comes to adult and child interaction as well as adult to adult interaction, Boesl recommends to treat others as you would want to be treated. Parents need to be aware of their own behavior and try to not react negatively to kids when discussing app usage.
“My approach is to have my kid teach me. Show me about this and how this works. That’s my approach. You can take the ‘give me your phone’ approach, but I like the ‘teach me about this’ method,” Boesl shared.
The premise of a lot of the most popular apps is social interaction with others their own age. Many seek to build relationships with online acquaintances. Pre-teens and young teens are susceptible to crushes on older teens or young adults. It is at this age that kids are at the most vulnerable age to become victims of sexual predators. Talk with your kids about their online friends and activities just as you would about any real-life activities. Explain to your kids that they should avoid face-to-face meetings with anyone they only know online. “Online friends” may not be who they claim to be.
“A lot of time when we deal with online predators and social media applications, they are posing as other youth. They pose as both male and female and build trust with the youth they are talking to by having common interests,” Smith said.
Many of the applications that Smith and other agents tend to deal with are the applications that our youth use such as textNow, Snapchat, KiK, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
“As the youth move from one application to another so do our predators,” Agent Smith said.
Parents need to understand that these predators are great manipulators and will slowly get the youth to feel more comfortable with them as they groom them. Smith gave the following example: they will start off by getting them to exchange a normal picture then will get them maybe to compare something like shirts, shorts, dresses or underwear. Then they will ask to compare or talk negatively about a body part and send them a picture of a private part of their body, hoping they will receive a positive comment back and ask to see how theirs compare.
After they receive this image the predator will make more requests from the youth making more and more demands to make graphic images or videos. The predators will even include threats with these demands including photos of family members and friends they find on Facebook and threaten to send the images to them.
“Parents need to have open and honest discussion with their youth about these things. As a parent myself, it’s hard not to overact when it comes to these situations. It’s good to take a breath and slow things down,” Smith said.
Boesl was in agreement with Smith stating, “Don’t freak out if and when they say something. Listen to what they have to say. Don’t go straight into parenting mode. Just listen. Get all the facts and go from there.”
When Smith gives presentations about online safety to both youth and parents, there are several things that he stresses to the youth. Smith stresses to kids that reaching out for help is not a bad thing. He tells them to talk to a parent, a friend or a trusted adult if something happens online that makes them feel uncomfortable. Smith also stresses to the youth that if they know of friends going down this path, to be proactive and tell an adult before things get out of hand.
“Know who you are talking to. Just like you wouldn’t talk to strangers on the street- don’t talk to strangers online,” Smith said.
One way to ensure the safety of your kids is to utilize security on social media applications to limit access on who can view and contact them. Boesl explained that kids do need to know that parents are in charge and that parents can make them safe. Adolescents especially will push back.
“But setting limits to be involved in their life is really important. Be firm and in charge of things while also being caring and loving is the balance that parents need to strive for in a healthy relationship,” Boesl said.
One of the last aspects of being online is that everything on the internet stays on the internet. There is no such thing as deleting a post once it has been placed online. Smith always includes this in his presentations as the posts that kids make today could come back to haunt them later when applying for a job or some other important area of life.
“What you post or share may be out there forever so think before you post. If you would be embarrassed if your parents, friends or employer saw that picture or post- you may not want to do it,” Smith said.
Smith also wanted to be sure that adults understand that it is not just youth that are being targeted by online predators.
“We have adults being targeted by predators as well. Most of the time they are being targeted by those seeking financial gain, however, we also have adults being sextorted as well,” Smith said.
We all need to be careful of what we share and post because we never know who is watching our social media accounts, and the information they can obtain from us to use to approach our kids.