The Uphill Battle
I put my hand forward and demanded, “Put it in my hand.” The panicked look on my oldest son’s face gave me confidence in only one thing—I knew whatever I was going to find on the iPod Touch that he gripped tightly in his hand was not going to make me happy. When he began to try to tap rapidly at the touchscreen in front of him, I looked to his father who told him sternly, “Give it to your mother, NOW!” My son dropped his head forward and finally handed the device over. With only a few taps and swipes across the screen, I discovered several sexually charged text conversations and a photograph of a young girl I did not recognize. Looking no more than fifteen years old, she stood in what appeared to be her own bedroom, her back arched, her lips pursed together, lifting her shirt up; her bare breasts were completely exposed. My seventeen-year-old son had met her through a “texting app” he had downloaded on his iPod. I had always tried to be diligent about monitoring my son’s cell phone and computer use, but the software application on this device, one I thought was restricted to playing music and games, was the loophole my son found to invite the outside world into our home.
“Sexting,” is a word derived from the combination of the words “sex” and “texting;” it is used to describe the sending and receiving of sexually explicit photographs and/or text messages via the Internet or on cell phones. The majority of those “sexting” are teenagers (Goldstein 516). Truthfully, sexting is only one of several new challenges that has arisen for parents raising their children in this technologically advanced day and age. The days of simply locking the front door to keep our children safe from the harm of the outside world no longer exist. Today the “world” and most of the ills it has to offer are right at the one’s fingertips. Parents have to decide what boundaries they will create to keep that world in check and protect their children and teenagers, and then they will have to work diligently to keep those boundaries firm.
American Academy of Pediatrics’ “tech expert” Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe and author of the book CyberSafe indicates that there is no “right age” to allow children to “dip a toe into the digital pond” (Tahnk 65). Herein lies the longtime, great challenge to parents: there are no simple answers in parenting; the added complication is of course that the cyber-factor has brought the level of challenge to an entirely new level – a level that is in constant flux with the continuous new development in technology. Toddlers with tablets; middle school students posting “selfies” to their Instagram; a group of teenagers “together” at Starbucks, noses “to the screen” of their smartphones– ten years ago these phrases would have sounded like a foreign language. Today they are commonplace activities, and moms and dads have to determine the rules and policies for handling them in their homes.
The reality is that because the history of the cyber world is so brief, at this point in time there are more questions than answers about the risks and long term effects to “plugging in” and/or “signing on.” The gamut of cyber concerns runs from the benign to the dangerous. Whether or not a child is spending too little time using their imagination in traditional play seems trivial compared to whether or not an adolescent has put him or herself at risk of a predator on the internet. When I took my son’s iPod Touch in hand and looked more closely at the pornographic picture sent to him, it was with just a few careful observations of the photo’s background that I was able to determine a variety of personal information: the girl’s name, the name of the high school she attended, the extracurricular activity she participated in. With a quick Google search of the unusual school name, I was able to determine what town she lived in. One can only hope she did not knowingly put herself at such risk. In the 2010 book Inside the Minds of Sexual Predators, authors Katherine M. Ramsland and Patrick Norman McGrain warn “Children are especially vulnerable to a predator’s encroachment, because they spend hours in chat rooms talking with strangers, tend to miss the signals of deception, and may be seeking what they believe will be an innocent adventure. Often they’re unaware of the true danger” (136). The fact is that even in the five years since the Ramsland/McGrain book was written, the opportunity for danger has only increased.
Kik, Snapchat and ask.fm are three of the most popular applications being used by teens and adolescents in 2015, and they aren’t their parents’ Facebook. Kik is a Wi-Fi based “texting app” that enables a young person to send private instant messages without being monitored by their cell service and keeping no record outside the app of messages being sent or received. This creates a challenge for parents who might think monitoring their child’s cell phone bill is sufficient to determine their texting use. Kik profiles can be made private; however, they can also be made public. The phrase “Kik me” has become a commonplace tagline in the profile descriptions of young people’s Instagram accounts, offering up their “address” to be reached for a private conversation. Typically Instagram profile taglines can be seen even by an unfamiliar user who stumbles across a young person’s otherwise “private page.” Snapchat is also an SMS text message style application. With its added enticement—the promise of disappearing pictures and texts, it has gained the reputation as the “sexting app.” However with the ability of most smartphones to snap a “screenshot” (a picture of texts or pictures displayed on a receiving phone’s screen) nothing is guaranteed to truly disappear and an impulsive moment can last a lifetime. The application ask.fm entices users to “ask anything” and to do so with total anonymity. Ramsland and McGrain (specifically describing Facebook and MySpace in 2010) refer to kids seeking to “create a place of their own where they can exercise self-expression and a certain amount of independence” (136), but the opportunity has moved far beyond the open platforms like Facebook and MySpace and has moved into darker corners with newer and more private applications. It is the job of parents to oversee and monitor their children’s activities, they “are the most effective monitoring device” (Tahnk 65), but the job continues to become a steeper and steeper uphill battle.
Recently this author created a survey titled “Technology and Social Media” on SurveyMonkey. In it, people of all ages and stages were asked about their own technology and social media usage as well as the usage of their children. If responders had no children they were invited to speculate what they thought their policies would be if they did. Among the 118 responses to the survey 63% of respondents indicated they would never allow their child to bring technology to the dinner table, but nearly 34% do/would allow their children to have their cell phones in their bedrooms at night after bedtime, and nearly 35% would allow their children to use social media and technology with which they themselves are not familiar. There appears to be a discrepancy here, whether it is a lack of understanding or a difference in priority will remain to be seen. Interestingly enough, when it came to questions about the ages children and adolescents ought to be allowed to use technology and social media, it was the people surveyed who had no children who had the strictest standards, many indicating that no use should be allowed until adulthood. As tempting as it might be to lock the proverbial “door” on the cyber world and shut it out completely, the logistics are not there. “The media spends a lot of ink… on the scary aspects…, but there are also a great deal of benefit that kids can reap” (Tahnk 65). The fact is, 2015 is a technology and social media based world, and children will not only “dip their toes” in, but at some point they will actually have to fully swim in the “pond” that is unavoidably in practically every American “backyard.”
It is the burden of parents to determine what their roles as “lifeguards” will entail in their own home and family. Kids are “generally more savvy about computers than their parents, they can also explore things and talk with strangers in ways their parents might try to block. (In fact, about 50 percent of parents fail to even monitor what their children do online, and most have no clue about encryption tricks kids devise and pass around to hide information)” (Ramsland 136), so the actuality of how that will look will surely be a process of trial and error. Merrimack Valley Child and Adolescent Health’s pediatrician Carolyn Roy-Bornstein warns, “Technology is developing at a rate that may be faster than our ability to monitor it and ensure its safe use” (11); however, this does not relieve parents of their duty and obligation to do so.
There are more questions than answers about social media and technology and the long term effects on children and youth, but perhaps, “questions” are exactly where the process needs to start: What? Where? When? How? What are the goals and purposes for social media and technology use in one’s household? Where is social media and technology use appropriate? When is it appropriate to allow children to use technology and social media? How are safety and good communication going to be implemented? The conversations need to happen between parents and children in order to equip them to use technology and social media in a healthy and enriching environment. Why? This is the one question that can be answered here: technology and social media aren’t going anywhere, and for that matter, neither are the kids. It’s the job of the parent to find the way to have both live together in a healthy harmony.
DePriest, Diana. "Technology and Social Media." Survey. Survey Monkey. Palo Alto: SurveyMonkey Inc, 1999-2015. Web. 07 May. 2015.
Goldstein, Dayna. "Sexting." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Ed. Thomas Riggs.
2nd ed. Vol. 4. Detroit: St. James Press, 2013. 516-517. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Web. 1 May 2015.
Ramsland, Katherine M., and Patrick Norman McGrain. “Cyber Predators.” Inside the Minds of Sexual Predators. Santa Barbara, Ca: Praeger, 2010. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 5 May 2015.
Roy-Bornstein, Carolyn. "Pediatric Points: Texts, Sexts What’s Next?" Pediatrics for Parents 27.3/4 (2011): 11. Health Source - Consumer Edition. Web. 6 May 2015.
Tahnk, Jeana Lee, and Shawn Bean. "Digital Milestones: Raising a Tech Savvy Kid.” Parenting School Years 26.6 (2012): 64-67. Health Source – Consumer Edition. Web. 1 May 2015.