[CN: violence, suicide, sexual assault]
Last week, a 15-year old boy was arrested for sending a tweet to the Miami police department that he was going to "rape a lil girl." When the cops arrived, the kid tried to explain that he was just joking. Clearly, he doesn't get it--social media or the legal system. He's not the only one.
Last month, a teen was arrested for tweeting a bomb threat to American Airlines. A lot of the talk on Twitter following the threat and subsequent arrest poked fun at the cluelessness of a teenager. How could she make such a thoughtless tweet? It’s social media, everyone can read it! People wondered where her parents were. Some laughed when, over the course of tweets, the girl became anxious and apologized. Others were in disbelief that anyone, even a teen, would find such a hoax remotely funny.
But that’s just it, here we are, a bunch of adults trying to find reason in the actions and mindset of one of the most unreasonable of human beings--the teenager. I’m not excusing what this girl did. Clearly, she needs to learn that there are repercussions for making such public statements, and she should be taught that bomb threats are never cool. But her case, and countless others like it, point to the growing problem none of us seem to want to deal with. Whether it’s laziness or lack of awareness on the parents’ part, too many are not discussing Internet and social media safety with their children. It’s clear that at the minimum an overview of the legal ramifications should be included in those talks as well. Don’t wait until your kid is in high school to do this either.
I attended a “social media awareness” presentation at the beginning of the school year. The assembly was for parents of incoming 7th graders. Guess what school districts? Waiting until middle school and 7th grade (ages 12-13) is a couple of years too late. 4th graders (9-10 years old) have social media accounts. It’s a step in the right direction, unfortunately schools need to do more. The presentation itself wasn't awful. For someone who spends a significant amount of time online and on social media, I tried my best to not poke fun at it.
After about a 30 minute slide show followed by some Q and A, I felt like this should be only phase one. It was an introductory course and clearly parents and guardians need a lot more information. They did interactive surveys during the assembly; a lot of the parents either were not online for personal use or the extent of their experience with social media was with Facebook. This slide show let them have a sound bite or two about Tumblr, WhatsApp, Snapchat, etc. If it were me, I’d send some infographics home and advise parents to dedicate a few hours each week to setting up accounts online and learning the inner-workings of social media. Sidenote: I feel schools do have a large chunk of responsibility when it comes to teaching students the ins and outs of the Internet and social media, particularly as they assign and encourage kids to use both in class and at home.
According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of 12 to 17 year olds: 91% have a photo of themselves, 92% share their real name and 71% share their city and/or school via their social media accounts. 64% of teens have a public Twitter profile while a lot of their parents don’t even know what a tweet is. A knowthenet (UK) survey concluded that only 32% of parents feel “very confident” about keeping their kids safe online. That same survey found that 59% of children are on social networks by 10 years old. Again, waiting until middle or high school to educate them and their parents about this is far too late in the game. More from knowthenet:
A child’s social media development begins aged nine and over the next four-year period, their internet activity evolves from simply viewing content online to being active on social media. At nine, children first access YouTube and will use a mobile or laptop. Aged 10, they start using Internet slang (e.g. “BRB”, “YOLO”) and instant messaging.
The greatest proportion of internet activity takes place when children reach 11 years; this is when they are likely to first post an image or video of themselves, post a nasty comment online and set up a fake social media profile. A year later (aged 12), kids will first try Twitter and Whatsapp and message someone online they haven’t met in real life. When children reach 13 – their social maturity – they first try services like SnapChat and Ask FM and will try sexting for the first time.
A couple of months ago, I was talking about Internet safety with a friend and I mentioned Tumblr. He had never heard of it and had no idea what it was. He is a teacher and has a 13-year old (Let's just say he got a bit of an earful from me!). I saw something iffy on a teenage family member’s Facebook page a while back and asked her mom if she had seen it. They are “friends” on the social media site, I wasn’t exactly ratting her daughter out. Her response? “Ugh, no, I avoid her Facebook page altogether.” Um... At least glance at it from time to time. We owe it to our children to help them stay safe in this new digital age. If that means taking time out of our day to check in on their online activity and educating ourselves on Internet safety and social media, then so be it. As technology evolves, so must our parenting responsibilities.
We go from warning our children to look both ways before they cross the street to allowing them play in traffic on the information superhighway. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. But handing kids a laptop or smartphone and saying “have fun!” without offering them any understanding of how the Internet and social media work is no laughing matter. From messaging strangers to viewing porn to getting arrested for "making a joke," the online world is a new and tricky place to navigate.
In most states, before you get a license, one must attend a driver's ed course, receive behind-the-wheel training, obtain a permit wherein you’re only allowed to drive with people who’ve had their license for an extended period of time, then finally you take a written and driving test---all of this before you actually receive a license to drive. Parents continue to check up, asking their kids if they have a full tank of gas or warn them of rain or other conditions that may make driving more hazardous. They check the air pressure and oil levels. Some parents may teach their kids how to change a tire in case of a flat or give them a roadside assistance membership. We're handing kids keys to the Internet, which at times is far scarier than a car, with zero to minimal training and few precautions.
Most parents and nearly all schools warn children of the dangers of smoking, alcohol use, and drug abuse. My kids started learning about these topics in grade school. I’m glad they taught my 4th grader about all the chemicals inside a cigarette and the health effects smoking can have on the body, but at 9 years old, teaching her about sharing personal information on social media would serve to protect her more. I’m not saying it has to be either-or, I’d like it to be both.
We are teaching young children about drugs and alcohol, things many won’t see or attempt until years later, all the while avoiding discussing that which they are currently using. It doesn’t make sense. Teach a drug and alcohol program, but address social media and Internet safety too. It doesn’t have to be a special course, but it should be incorporated whenever the class accesses the internet. There should be periodic dedicated lessons on the legal issues and responsibilities of using social media and sharing personal information on the Internet.
We continue to see teens arrested or suspended from school for posts and photos shared on social media. Whether misconstrued or flat-out ignorant, they are being hauled off to jail for what they share online. We’ve sat idly by as kids continue to be bullied to death. Social media invites an instantaneous mob culture and in order to survive, it’s often bully or be bullied. Between leaked nudes and posts bragging about illegal behavior, it’s clear our children haven’t figured out this new world. Kids, and teens especially, will always rebel and experiment. That’s why even though we tell them not to drink or date that 19-year old, they will do so. I’m not saying teaching them the ins and outs of social media will prevent any tragedies or legal issues, I’m saying we at least need to give them that information. We can never expect them to know better if they in fact do not.
These examples are not to debate whether a crime was committed and who was at-fault. The point is to show the extent of what teens will share on social media. These are not punchlines (and why I wasn't laughing on Monday).
In England, a 17-year old was arrested for making threats to Olympic diver Tom Daley on Twitter.
Shortly after the Newtown shooting, a 16-year old student in Miami was arrested after tweeting he was going to “shoot up this school this Friday.”
Seven teens, aged 15 to 17 years old were arrested in Chicago after recording the beating of another teen and posting it to YouTube.
Two 13-year old girls were arrested in Utah after arranging a drug pick-up on Twitter.
In Louisiana, police arrested a 17-year old girl after a picture of marijuana was posted on her Instagram account.
Oregon police arrest an 18-year old after he updated his Facebook with “Drivin drunk…. classic ;) but to whoever’s vehicle i hit i am sorry. :P”
A 13-year old boy was arrested in California after threatening to bomb a school on Instagram.
In Florida, two girls, ages 12 and 14, were charged with felonies for "allegedly taunting and bullying another 12-year old girl until she committed suicide.”
A 17-year old boy was arrested for posting a nude picture on Instagram of a 15-year old girl.
In California, a 16-year old boy was arrested after naked pictures of underage girls appeared on his Twitter account.
Missouri police arrest two boys after posting a video to Facebook of them abusing a dog.
I had to trim my list from above, as there were far too many stories relevant here. Keep in mind, the above are actual arrests and legal cases, not students being suspended from school over social media postings. Those are plentiful too. In addition to landing in jail or being barred from graduation because of online activity, be mindful that employers and colleges are peeking in at our social media activity. Ahem, don’t forget, if your social media accounts are public, that means anyone can see them. It apparently bears repeating. Parents must also be aware of the amount of information and “inspiration” available online for eating disorders and self-harm. Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram are ripe with posts celebrating and encouraging them. Although the companies have tried to protect its users by banning certain tags, the content is still immense and readily available at your child’s fingertips. Tumblr is a dumping house for posts offering advice and tips promoting anorexia, others seem to embrace depression and suicide. Although the social media blog site has taken measures to help its users, such as specific landing pages advising bloggers to seek help if one enters certain search words, those posts and blogs are out there.
I haven’t mentioned “online predators” until the end because I feel like parents are somewhat more aware about this part of online safety than the others. It’s the first thing most parents think of when they hear “internet safety,” and so common that it is a frequent sitcom joke. We were inundated with the now meme-ified To Catch A Predator, I think parents thought that was the only danger online. Parents should remain vigilant to the fact that social media can open the door to predators, but our responsibility doesn’t begin and end there.
Also, when we do discuss this topic with our kids, let’s drop the ripped from a Law and Order episode horror story to “scare” your teen from talking to strangers online! It isn’t working nor is it accurate. Never mind the fact it’s hard to know who is a stranger when Facebook calls them my “friend.” It’s easy to get comfortable online amongst our friends and followers, and teens especially may be quick to forget those “friends” don’t care about you no matter how many times they “liked” your posts. When we feel at home on social media, it's easy to forget that what we are posting is often there for the whole world to see. We can’t allow ourselves or our children to ever become complacent when online. Comfort and a lack of understanding are a big part of why kids and teens don’t give a second thought to sharing every detail about themselves online and engaging in illegal activities there.
We’re letting our kids hop online with no concern, yet if they said they were going to a party at some stranger’s house this weekend, we might have more than a few questions for them. Listen, I’ve been to a few wild parties in my time, I have seen some things… All of that pales in comparison to the Internet. I'm not saying it’s evil, I love the Internet. I embrace social media, I think Twitter and Tumblr in particular are wonderful tools for expression. I want teens to use them and I think they can be extremely positive.
What I am saying, parents, is ask. Ask questions and be aware, keep your kids safe. Be proactive. Give your children the information they need as they navigate all there is to explore from their smartphones, tablets, and computers. Let them know (and mean it!) they can come to you when the Internet gets too big for them and they may be in trouble. We all make mistakes, plenty of adults are getting in trouble from over-sharing online. Teens are traveling this awkward bridge between childhood and adulthood. We have to educate and support them, and anticipate they may stumble at times. We are not preparing them for the responsibilities that come with social media, and instead only reacting then they mess up. Their mess-ups are getting uglier, it’s time we notice.
Teens and tweens don’t understand the ramifications that social media and the Internet bring, especially the big consequences (hello frontal lobe!). If none of us are explaining this to kids continually, and checking up on them, how the hell should we expect more from them? Parents, don’t wait until next week. The resources are all there for you. You could even go upstairs right now and ask your teen for help, they’ll love that. Be sure to throw in a lot of “lulz” and "totes" and “I-K-R?” into the conversation so they see that:
Sarcasm aside, there’s no excuse to not be educated and to teach your kids what they should and shouldn’t be sharing online. Explain the consequences could be jail time, loss of a college acceptance, etc. but without sounding so parent-y (Just the facts, ma'am!). Also, if you're not a parent but a social media savvy aunt, friend, neighbor, help out and talk to the parents and kids in your life about these issues.
Some helpful tips:
Originally published on LAMontheLAM.
More from living