How to help your tween safely navigate social media

By Timothy Collins on April 28, 2016


If you think the phenomenon of young people staring like zombies at smartphone screens begins in the teenage years, you’d be mistaken. A recent Canadian survey of about 5,400 children between grades 3 and 11 by MediaSmarts (formerly the Media Awareness Network) showed that about 25 percent of nine- and 10-year-olds have their own device (either a smartphone or tablet) with which they can access the Internet.

By Grade 6, the number jumps to nearly 40 percent. “The numbers were definitely higher than we expected at the younger end,” says Matthew Johnson, MediaSmarts’ director of education.

What’s even more surprising (some may say disturbing) is that the same study showed that most of the younger children reported that their smartphone use is “never supervised” by an adult.

Smartphones: the name is a misnomer, actually, as there seems to be no evidence that they make their users any smarter, or for that matter that these devices are primarily used to make phone calls. Their attraction is rooted in part in their ability to access social media, although it would be fair to ask how “social” these devices actually are. They are used to exchange texts, pictures (often of food) and videos of a host of topics that to an adult, might give a new meaning to the word inane.

Snarkiness aside, I’ll concede that smartphones can be truly wondrous communication and information tools. But they also have a dark side. They’ve created a new platform for harassment, pedophilic stalking and scams of every imaginable description. Not a week seems to go by without a report of cyber-bullying, sexual exploitation, or ruined reputations tied to these powerful bits of technology.

The MediaSmarts survey also indicates that while young people are aware of the dangers of the Internet, they believe themselves to be savvy enough to avoid trouble. Over half reported that they felt that the Internet was a safe place. In Grade 4, that number was 77 percent, perhaps indicating a overconfidence borne of youth, or a lack of information.

But the truth is that there are individuals and tech companies who are constantly coming up with new tools that make a lot of the worst abuses possible. Parents may do their best to stay abreast of the latest problem “apps” but it’s next to impossible to beat technology. Instead, the best way to protect your kids is by talking to them.

What Parents Can Do

Talk to Your Child

  • Set some limits and rules and have set consequences for breaking those rules.
  • Tell them that as long as you are paying for their phone, you have the right to look at it at any time. Then do it. Take your time and check call and text logs and inspect apps that you find troubling. Remove the ones that you feel are inappropriate after discussing your reasons with your child.
  • Inform your child of the dangers and, together, set out agreed upon expectations for safe behaviour. Real life examples of consequences to even very young children that have strayed into dangerous corners of the net are easy to find and should be discussed.

Put Safeguards In Place

Mom Sharon Standfird was frustrated when her daughter continually ignored her calls. So she created Ignore No More. When you install this app on your child’s phone, you can disable your child’s phone remotely, allowing only emergency calls and a call home. Phonesheriff allows parents to monitor their child’s phone activity and limit screen time. Qustodio is another app that sets time limits and can monitor up to five devices simultaneously.

Here are some apps that are cause for concern when used by tweens

Snapchat: This photo-sharing app allows users to send photos to specific people while assigning an allotted time before the photo “disappears”. Popular for sexting because of the myth of the disappearing images. In fact, images can be captured and reposted and distributed.

Meerkat / Periscope: A favourite of adult predators, these apps enable users to stream live video. The app’s terms of service notwithstanding, users are known to post nude images or pornographic content; images that are then captured and redistributed.

MeetMe: There’s no age verification on this app and the account is linked to Facebook. The app uses GPS to allow users to meet “new people” who live nearby. There’s a popularity rating that gives the app a game-like characteristic. Predators can use the app to identify the user’s location.

Skout: This “flirting app” is used to meet new people. Teens are led to believe they are interacting with same-age peers, but this safeguard can be bypassed by entering a false birth date (cue the creeps). Users can message and share photos with strangers who can also see their location.

Chat Roulette: Here’s a video chat site that randomly matches users with someone around the globe to video chat. (The roulette moniker seems apt.) Nothing prevents the person with whom you’re chatting from recording your video chat and posting it elsewhere.

Private Photo (Calculator): This app looks just like a calculator except that a secret code unlocks stored files that are otherwise undetectable. Its sole purpose is hiding information. You can keep photos, chat logs and other files from prying (parental) eyes.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April/May 2016.

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