When I provide my talks to school children on cyber sense, they often nod in agreement when I mention that they aren’t the only ones who need to learn to find a healthy balance in their lives between social interaction, activity and technology. Adults are just as bad as children when it comes to overusing the technology we have at our disposal. The disturbing part is that is that we’re meant to be role models to our kids. The days of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ are over. Whether we like it or not, kids are pretty informed these days about their rights and they’re strongly influenced by outside forces. It’s far easier to set boundaries for children when they can see that we’re setting them for ourselves.
Technology has a way of insidiously creeping into our lives and then spreading its tentacles until it has taken us over completely, reducing our real-time interactions with others. For many of us, life has become so busy that if we don’t fill every moment, we feel guilty. When (and why) did it become a requirement to be available every minute of the day? It fascinates me that the more independent and ‘free’ we have become, the more bogged down we actually are.
Few of us take the time to ‘stop and smell the roses’ – as in relax, breathe, do yoga, dance, exercise, play, read, be still. Instead, we tend to go back to our crutch, technology, to get off the endless treadmill. Many of us are so addicted to our gadgets and unused to spending time with our own thoughts or conversing with others that we feel lost without a cell phone or other gadget in our hands. We’re losing our ability to think creatively (just ask Google!) and do things with our hands – play a musical instrument, paint, build, create.
The real point I’m trying to make is that our children are losing out. Aside from learning unhealthy habits, many feel neglected and sad that their parents spend more time on their devices than with them. The message they’re getting is that work (and social media) is more important than making time for them.
Here are a few ideas for being a better technology role model:
- Walk the talk – When kids are around, set an example by using media the way you’d like them to use it. Eat together at the dinner table where you can catch up on each other’s day. Put all cell phones on silent or off in a basket nearby. Only keep the phone on if you’re expecting an urgent call, but try to keep that time together sacrosanct. Turn the TV off if no-one is watching it – record or PVR shows to watch later. Remove or switch off all distractions during important family time. Just like you’d want your child to turn their devices off when they’re studying, doing their homework or at a social interaction, you should do the same.
Note: If you’re really desperate about your child’s over usage, look into new apps like ‘DinnerTime Parental Control’ which enables parents to restrict when children can use their smartphones and tablets. ‘DinnerTime Plus’ lets parents manage the apps their children use, see what they are watching in real-time plus you can purchase reports on how much time they are spending on certain apps. With ‘Screen-Time’ parents can push a button on their android phones to block usage on their children’s devices and they can also set daily time limits for particular apps. ‘MyMobileWatchdog’ is an app that allows parents to keep a check on what their children are up to on their phones (not advisable unless you have reason to worry).
- Set boundaries – It’s a good idea to start setting time limits on the use of devices when your children are young. You can discuss these with them and if necessary, gradually increase these limits when they get older. Work out how much time they can spend on their i-pads, playing video games, watching TV and using their cell phones. There are health implications to all the electro-magnetic rays we are all being exposed to and some scientists believe that children are especially vulnerable, as their brains are still developing. It’s really important that we set boundaries for ourselves too by separating work time from family time – this will set a good example to our children, improve relationships and help them create healthy habits later on.
- Use media together – Whenever you can, watch, play with and listen to your children. Ask their opinion of movies, TV shows, ads, social media. Share your values, and help kids relate what they learn in the media to events and other activities in which they’re involved. Share posts from your FaceBook and Instagram accounts with your older children. Ask if you can be their friend on social media sites so you can keep a benevolent, watchful eye over them like a helpful guardian – don’t embarrass them by being too involved!
- Set a good example of cell phone etiquette – Put your phone on silent when you’re with your child, a friend, or anyone else – unless you’re expecting an important call. In that case, if it rings, answer it and explain you’re busy but will phone them back when you’re free. It isn’t good manners to chat away loudly on your cell phone while everyone has to sit around listening to you. Usually it isn’t anything that can’t wait. If it is something you absolutely have to deal with right there and then, excuse yourself and explain why you have to take the call. Turn phones off or on silent while at movies, at weddings, funerals, school meetings, etc. Unless you have hands free, don’t talk on your phone while driving. Aside from setting a bad example, you are endangering your life, your passengers, and others on the road. More and more accidents are being caused by drivers distracted by their cell phones.
- Keep up to date with the latest technology trends – Children always seem to find out the latest trends way before we do, but try your best to stay abreast of things that may impact your child. Ask them what’s new and trendy (the car is usually a good place to start this conversation) and listen. Most of us know about apps like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Whatsapp and Google+ but what about Vine, Wanelo, Kik Messenger, OoVoo, Yik Yak, Ask.fm, Omegle, Whisper, Slingshot, Bolt, and Secret? Or dating apps like Tinder, Skout, Badoo and HotOrNot? These may not yet be popular in South Africa, but they’re gaining popularity amongst teens in the USA and other parts of the world. Some have positive aspects but watch out for the negatives.
The more commonly used sites/apps:
- Twitter (Microblogging site allowing users to post brief, 140-character messages ‘tweets’ & follow other users’ activities) – Be careful when kids share their ‘tweets’ with the general public. In the heat of the moment they may share something inappropriate (as we’ve seen many celebrities do with dire consequences). They also need to be reminded that lots of marketing strategy goes into the tweets of those they admire – they’re designed to reel kids in and keep them worshipping their idols!
- Instagram (Users can snap, edit and share photos and 15 second videos with followers or public) – Kids want as many ‘likes’ as possible. Some even BUY likes to make themselves seem more popular. Unless privacy settings are adjusted, public photos are the default. Hashtags and location info of photos & videos shared can be problematic if shared publicly and accessed by undesirable people. Instagram Direct allows users to share ‘private’ messages to up to 15 users in a chat forum. Kids may be tempted to share inappropriate stuff. Also strangers can send private messages and kids can then decide whether or not to open and view or discard the picture. Mature content can slip in; even though users are meant to be 13 or older and not allowed to share nude, partially nude or sexually suggestive photos.
- Snapchat (Messaging app allowing users to put a time limit on the photos & videos they send before they disappear) – Snapchats don’t actually go away forever – they can be recovered or the receiver can take a screen shot of the pic sent (even though the sender may be notified). Unaffiliated third-party services like Snapsaved (which was recently hacked) allow users to save and recover any Snapchatted pic. Because kids believe the pic disappears, they may think sending inappropriate pics, e.g. sexting, is okay.
- Tumblr (A cross between a blog & Twitter – a streaming scrapbook of text, photos, videos & audio clips. Users create short blogs (“Tumblelogs”) which can be seen by anyone online – if made public) – Pornographic images & videos, violent and offensive images and language are easily searchable. Privacy can be guarded, but the first profile a member creates is public and viewable by anyone on the Internet. Members who want full privacy have to create a second profile, which they can password protect. Posts are often copied and shared. Many teens like and want their posts re-blogged. But do you really want your kids’ words and photos on someone else’s page?
- Google+ (Google’s social network, now open to teens. Tried to improve on FB’s ‘friend’ concept using “circles” that give users more control about what they share with whom. Teens not wild about it yet, but many feel that their parents are more accepting of it because they associate it with schoolwork) – Data tracking & targeting are concerns. Google+ activity (what you post and search for and who you connect with) is shared across Google services including Gmail and YouTube. This information is used for targeting ads to the user. Users can’t opt out of this type of sharing across Google services.
A few less common sites/apps:
- Vine (Social media app that lets users post and watch looping six-second video clips. This Twitter-owned service has developed a unique community of people who post videos that are often creative and funny — and sometimes thought-provoking) – It’s full of inappropriate videos. There’s a lot of funny, clever expression on Vine, but much of it isn’t appropriate for kids. There are significant privacy concerns. The videos you post, the accounts you follow, and the comments you make on videos are all public by default. But you can adjust your settings to protect your posts; only followers will see them, and you have to approve new followers. Parents can be star performers (without knowing). If your teens film you being silly, you may want to talk about whether they plan to share it!
- Wanelo (Want Need Love) (Combines shopping, fashion blogging & social networking all in one. It’s very popular among teens, allowing them to discover, share and buy products they like) – If you like it, you can buy it. Users can purchase almost anything they see on Wanelo by clicking through to products’ original sites. Brand names are prominent. Upon registering, users are required to follow at least three “stores” (for example, Forever21 or Marc Jacobs) and at least three “people” (many are other everyday people in Wanelo’s network, but there are also publications like Seventeen magazine). There’s plenty of mature clothing. You may not love what kids find and put on their wish lists. Wanelo could lead to even more arguments over what your teen can and can’t wear!
- Kik Messenger (App-based alternative to standard texting that kids use for social networking. It’s free to use but has lots of ads) – It’s too easy to “copy all.” Kik’s ability to link to other Kik-enabled apps within itself is a way to drive “app adoption” (purchases) from its users for developers. The app also encourages new registrants to invite everyone in their phone’s address book to join Kik, since users can only message those who also have the app (like whatsapp). There’s some stranger danger. An app named OinkText, linked to Kik, allows communication with strangers who share their Kik usernames to find people to chat with. There’s also a Kik community blog where users can submit photos of themselves and screenshots of messages (sometimes displaying users’ full names) to contests. Teens’ usernames identify them on Kik, so they shouldn’t use their full real name as their username.
- ooVoo (It’s a free video, voice, and messaging app. Users can have group chats with up to 12 people for free. The premium version removes ads from the service) – It can be distracting. Because the service makes video chatting so affordable and accessible, it can also be addicting. A conversation with your kids about multitasking may be in order. Kids sometimes find it hard to log off when all of their friends are on.
- Yik Yak (a free, location-aware, social-networking app that lets users post “anything and everything” anonymously through brief, Twitter-like comments, which are distributed to the geographically nearest 500 people who are also signed in to the app.) – It reveals your location. By default, exactly where you are is shown unless you toggle location sharing off. Each time you open the app, GPS updates your location. It’s a mixed bag of trouble. This app has it all: cyberbullying, explicit sexual content, unintended location sharing and exposure to explicit information about drugs and alcohol. Many schools have banned access as some teens have used the app to threaten others, causing school lockdowns and more. It’s gossipy and sometimes cruel nature can be toxic to a high school environment, so administrators are cracking down.
- Ask.fm (a social site that lets kids ask questions and answer those posted by other users — sometimes anonymously) – There are lots of mean comments and some creepy sexual posts. This iffy content is part of the site’s appeal for teens. Bullying is a major concern. The British news website MailOnline reported that the site has been linked to the suicides of several teens. Talk to your teens about cyberbullying and how anonymity can encourage mean behaviour. Anonymous answers are optional. Users can decide whether to allow anonymous posts and can remove their answers from streaming to decrease their profile’s visibility. If your teens do use the site, they’d be best turning off anonymous answers and keeping themselves out of the live stream. Q&As can appear on Facebook. Syncing with Facebook means that a much wider audience can see those Q&As.
- Omegle (a chat site and app) that puts two strangers together in their choice of a text chat or video chat room) – Being anonymous can be very attractive to teens, and Omegle provides a no-fuss opportunity to make connections. Its “interest boxes” also let users filter potential chat partners by shared interests. Users get paired up with strangers. That’s the whole premise of the app and there’s no registration required. This is NOT an app for kids and teens. Omegle is filled with people searching for sexual chat. Some prefer to do so live. Others offer links to porn sites. Language is a big issue. Since the chats are anonymous, they’re often much more explicit than those with a user who can be identified might be.
- Whisper (a social “confessional” app that allows users to post whatever’s on their minds, paired with an image) – Whispers are often sexual in nature. Some users use the app to try to hook up with someone nearby, while others post “confessions” of desire. Lots of eye-catching nearly nude pics accompany these shared secrets. Content can be dark. People normally don’t confess sunshine and rainbows; common Whisper topics include insecurity, depression, substance abuse, and various lies told to employers and teachers. Although it’s anonymous to start, it may not stay that way. The app encourages users to exchange personal information in the “Meet Up” section.
- Slingshot (Facebook’s answer to Snapchat. The twist is that before you can view a photo or video you’ve received, you’ll have to send the sender a shot of your own. After you’ve viewed it, the shot disappears) – Although the app comes from FaceBook, you’re not required to have a FB account to use it; you can send and receive shots with people who aren’t your FB friends. Anyone who knows your teen’s phone number or Slingshot username can send photos and videos to your teen. Users register for the app with their FB account or a mobile phone number, and the app will search your contacts for friends who have the app. Unless you decline use of location services, your city, date, and time will appear each time you send anything from Slingshot.
- Bolt (Instagram’s answer to Snapchat) – Bolt aims to let you share photos privately, but very quickly, and only with one person at a time. The unique sharing model was pioneered by Taptalk, and was recently adopted by several other new apps including Mirage. Just like with Snapchat, the temptation to sext pics is high.
- Secret – Speak Freely (A social-media app that’s designed to let people voice whatever’s on their minds anonymously) – Although it encourages people to vent, confess and share freely, it does try to prevent users from defaming others. It detects when someone is mentioned by name (most of the time) and sends you a warning about it. It requires some private information like your email address and phone number, despite the fact that it promises user anonymity. Kids may encounter strong language!
- Dating apps like Tinder, Skout, HotorNot, MeetMe & Omegle although designed for adults, are becoming more and more popular with teens. Tinder estimates about 7-10% of their current users are teens. Although adults use these apps for both casual hook-ups and for scouting out more long-term relationships, they’re risky for teens. Firstly, it’s easy for savvy teens to get around age restrictions. There is usually no age verification. Secondly, adults can pose as teens and vice versa. Location sharing increases the potential for a real-life meeting. Less dangerous but still troubling, is the heavy emphasis on looks as a basis for judgement.
It’s possible that teens are only testing boundaries with such apps. Many are eager to be on the same wavelength as their 20 something counterparts, and the prospect of meeting someone outside their social circle is exciting. Since so much of their social life happens online, teens feel comfortable using apps to meet people – but they really aren’t a safe way for them to explore dating. If you learn your teen is using dating apps, take the opportunity to talk about using social media safely and responsibly — and discuss what’s out of bounds. Keep lines of communication open; talk to them about how they approach dating and relationships and how to create a healthy, fulfilling one – and remind teens that relationships usually don’t start with a swipe.
The bottom line is that if teens are using these tools respectfully, appropriately and with a little parental guidance, they should be fine. Keep lines of communication open with your kids, take inventory of the apps they’ve downloaded from time to time, stay informed and discuss the positives and negatives with them. And don’t forget to role model healthy technology use!