Teenagers online: a crash course for the clueless parent

A study this week found many parents have no idea how to guide or keep their children safe on the internet. Here’s how

I confess, I don’t know my Tumblr from my Flickr, declare video games a bore and have resisted an online presence. I’m a typically ignorant parent; a cyber-snob. I have three sons aged, 11, 9, and 7. Can parents of my generation really afford to be so clueless?

A study this week has made me resolve to change my ways:43 per cent of children aged 12 and older have messaged strangers, according to research by online support site knowthenet.org.uk. Over a fifth have posted negative comments, and a quarter have hijacked another person’s account and posted without permission. Meanwhile, only 32 per cent of parents feel very confident about helping their kids stay safe online, and many have no idea how to install parental controls. It’s essential for adults to understand this parallel universe. How can we guide them through it otherwise?

Too many of us stick our heads in the sand, proudly declaring that we loathe the internet and social networking. “It’s a dangerous attitude,” says James Diamond, of esafety.guru. “The first thing that stops teenagers telling parents they’ve got into trouble is they think: ‘My parents don’t understand the internet, the social media site, the game I’m playing, so they can’t help me; I’m not going to tell them,’ ” Diamond says. “You don’t need to open a Twitter account, but you do need to know what your children might be up to and help them make safer decisions.”

Protect your teenager, don’t judge

Diamond says: “Sexting has been a huge issue: teenagers sending pictures of each other, which are shared, and — apart from being a very serious criminal offence — cause emotional harm. But I can’t help thinking that if we’d had access to digital cameras as teenagers, we’d have done the same. Our children aren’t different from us, they’ve just got different opportunities.”

But our wilful ignorance causes us to panic. So teens fear if they confess that they sent a naked selfie that is being shared, their parents will confiscate their phone. Don’t take the risk that your child won’t trust you. Diamond says. “This connection with their peers is so important, they’d risk further harm rather than give it up. So our response must be ‘You’ve done the right thing by telling me, we’ll fix it,’ not ‘You’ve done something wrong.’ ” Support, don’t blame.

Teach your child to set time limits

The truth is, most parents are weak on time limits. Because, of course, there’s nothing more delightful than relaxing with a coffee and the paper, knowing that your teens are happy in their online world, rather than marauding round the park or roaming the streets.

Then you finish the paper, feel vaguely guilty, so you take away the iPad, and minutes later, they’re hunched over their smartphone. “It’s a battle, but you must persevere,” says Dr Terri Apter, senior lecturer in adolescent development at Cambridge University and author of The Myth of Maturity.

Andy Phippen, Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at Plymouth University, says: “There’s quite a lot of agreement that excessive screen time is bad for child development. It’s fundamental stuff like tiredness, but also their attention span and mood can be affected, and they end up not wishing to interact with the real world. It might affect behaviour. Teens who play games online — not necessarily war games — admit they feel it makes them feel aggressive. When they come out of the game, even a football game, there’s an attitude problem. ’

Play Minecraft and other games with them — and start young

Even if the prospect makes you long for the days of watching Dora the Explorer, playing games with your teen, preferably ones that don’t involve blowing peoples’ heads off is, says Dr Richard Woolfson, a child psychologist and expert for knowthenet.org.uk, “a 100 per cent yes. Any chance you have to connect with your child and be involved, snap it up. You do a jigsaw, read a book, why shouldn’t you play an online game? Far better than saying ‘It’s a load of nonsense, not for me, do your own thing.’” He adds, “You can model good internet behaviour; teach them that you start — and you finish, perhaps one, not four hours later.”

Don’t assume they want total privacy from you

My 11-year-old Blackberry-messages his father, aunt and grandma (even if they can’t quite understand the slang). And a friend’s daughter expected her mother to friend her on Facebook, and follow her on Instagram. Seven out of ten young people have parents as friends on Facebook.

They want some privacy, but why do we assume they want to hide their activity online from us? As Dr Woolfson says, “If they were watching a TV soap, and you sat beside them, they wouldn’t feel their privacy had been invaded. Invite them to show you things. It’s a way of saying I’m interested in your world.”

This interest and involvement should begin from a young age — rather than pouncing on them in a panic when they’re 13.

Prepare them for online porn — they are probably going to see it

There is no escaping the fact that having a conversation specifically about porn with your 11-year old is, says Professor Phippen, “the 21st-century conversation about the birds and the bees. You do have to address what they’re going to see, and whether that’s normal.” It doesn’t require you to be graphic, and if you can’t bear to look your teen in the eyes, have the conversation in the car. Professor Phippen says, “I’ve had conversations about rude things you might see with my 9 and 10-year-old. You can say ‘there are some things on the internet that aren’t for children,’ that if they see something, to come and tell me, and they won’t be told off.” We have to banish embarrassment, because honest and brave communication and explanation is our best weapon; it helps steel our children who will, inevitably, see content that disturbs them. Indeed, as Professor Phippen says, “They get upset about seeing RSPCA adverts, it’s not just the sexual stuff.”

Who should they be friends with online?

Last week, an unknown name popped up on my e-mail, inviting my 11-year-old (via his e-mail address) to “a group conversation” on Google+. After four e-mails in as many minutes, I blocked him. Diamond says that if in doubt, block. “It’s not overreacting. At least then, no one can get into trouble.”

The approach was possibly less sinister than I supposed — Diamond suggests it was an automated e-mail sent by Google. (The more we over-share and collect “friends”, the more data networks can provide to advertisers.) Diamond says: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. When you sign up to Google and a notification pops up saying ‘Do you want to invite your friends?’ If you click ‘yes’ it ‘invites’ every contact in your address book. The person probably didn’t even realise the invitation had been sent.” But, he adds, “if you don’t already know this person through another form of communication, should you be connecting with them?”

Circles are a function of Google+ (a rival to Facebook) and are used to categorise contacts into groups. While most teens aren’t using Google+ as a social media site, many will have an account by default — thanks to pushy Google (to comment on a YouTube video you now need a G+ account.) A friend’s 12-year old was drawn into an undesirable circle, via Instagram. Alas, it can be as simple as someone contacting your teen on Instagram, saying “Great pic! Add us on Google+ and join our circle!” In her Google+ feed, she’ll then receive messages from that group.

Professor Phippen says: “This highlights that teens — and adults — often don’t realise what they are signing up to. When you get a Google login, this becomes your login to all Google services and unless you’re careful, you might end up signing up for Google+, without realising. Then you can be invited to join a circle, full of people you don’t know.”

This sort of predicament is becoming more common, partly as young people fragment their social media use (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, etc) and bounce between them. They may join services they don’t fully understand. Social media can trick us into sharing with people who aren’t our friends. Encourage your teens to confidently refuse — just as they wouldn’t go off with a stranger in the park.

Stranger danger is not the biggest issue

“Parents focus on strangers,” says Diamond, “but cyberbullying is more likely to come from their friends; sometimes, their best friends.” Because of the digital footprint, any cruelty or spat is publicised, amplified. Diamond says: “The best way to deal with it is for parents who know each other to talk face to face. There have been instances of parents turning to social media to lash out at the other parent or, worse, the child. It’s a digital version of road rage.”

Bullying or abuse contravenes user terms and conditions, so report it. The host is obliged to investigate. Speak to your child’s school — they need to know, and should have resources to challenge this. Diamond says, “Children are safer online than they ever have been as there are so many structures and mechanisms to help support, educate, and mitigate harm. The biggest problem is that lots of parents and students don’t know the mechanisms are there.”

Role-play is big on Instagram

Role-playing on Instagram is popular with teenagers, especially girls, pretending to be, say, their favourite character from Hunger Games or Percy Jackson. Despite the fact that Instagram is image-led, teenagers are using the comment boxes to tell short stories — and invite followers to role-play (“RP”) with them. Says Diamond, “It’s a way of showing your interest in a subject, meeting up with like-minded people.”

Recently, though, Ross Warner, CEO of ContentWatch (which provides software to help prevent objectionable content on the net) reported that predators were using Instagram role-play “as a tool” to begin inappropriate conversations with unsuspecting teenagers. Most children understand the importance of keeping their personal details — school, address — private but we need to equip our children, emotionally and mentally, to spot and deal with the everyday creep who might intrude in their world.

Says Diamond: “We need to imbue children with a bit of cynicism about being online. Children think they know everything, because they know how the technology works, but they don’t know how people work. We need to say, you will bump into unsavoury people online. But constantly reassure them, ‘if you see something that confuses or upsets you, come to me.’”

Diamond says to tell your teen: “Immediately drop communications with that person. Walk away. Close the laptop, or turn off the app. Just stop talking. If a stranger interlopes, reject them as a group, block them.”

Our teens are, says Diamond, better mannered than we give them credit for. “If someone shows authority, they’re conditioned to respect that.” Make it clear that no one has a right to make them feel bad. “If someone was pestering you in the street, you’d walk away — it’s the same online.” Manners may also lead a teen to engage in direct messaging on, say, Instagram. Once you’ve connected with someone on a public site, says Diamond, “the private connection is there by default”.

Your teen might be drawn into private messaging out of politeness, Diamond says. “To not reply is counter-intuitive. There’s also a spark of inquisitiveness.” Explain to your teen that in a public space, they can just leave — and if they’re approached privately by a stranger, to ignore it — no matter how rude or guilty they feel.

It’s our job as parents to guide and advise. We are all negotiating this new, confusing technology; trying to establish the etiquette, pitfalls, and advantages — teens are going to make mistakes.

Don’t panic and ban the internet: it’s mostly good

We’re so frantic about the dangers, we forget that the internet can be a fantastic educational, social and developmental tool. Dr Woolfson says: “Social media is wonderful. It’s such a positive force in children’s lives, it enables them to make and sustain friendships, maintain a connection with their peers. Not every child has been a victim of cyberbullying, or posted half-naked pictures of themselves on Instagram. Lots use the internet sensibly. But when they get too casual, and their parents don’t maintain a connection, through young peoples’ naivety, enthusiasm and trusting nature, it can go wrong.”

Don’t feel guilty about spying or spot-checking

We’d check our 12-year old’s homework, so how wrong is it to sneakily scroll through their every text or message? Perhaps the spot-check, rather than systematic combing, is more appropriate, especially as they get older. One mother found her 14-year old playing online chess late at night on the tablet, idly clicking on to porn while waiting for his opponent to make the next move.

But, try as you might, your stealth-monitoring won’t be comprehensive. Dr Woolfson says: “I advise less surveillance, more dialogue: What were you looking at today? Who were you talking to? If you try to manage their social media use by policing it, you’ll fail because you’ll see they’re on Keek or ooVoo, and you won’t know what that is. It’s far more effective to have good communication with your child. Cooperation rather than coercion is the way to go.”

I’m lucky! My child isn’t interested

Some parents are astonishingly confident that their little darling is higher minded than the rest of the hoi-polloi, and has no interest in social networking or typing in “how to have sex”. To these parents, Diamond says, “Have you got a device in your house that can connect to the internet? If so, it can connect your child to anyone else on the planet.” Even if your child is an angel, can you vouch for their friends? “At some point,” says Diamond, “your child is going to speak to someone they don’t know or encounter something unpleasant online. Are you confident they have the skills and knowledge to protect themselves? I don’t like to frighten parents — but some parents need frightening.”


The apps they love

Messaging apps
WeChat, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Touch are similar to texting; children can send “free” messages/media.

Kik
Kik is a cross-platform instant messenger and social media network. Clicking the Meet New Friends function takes you to a page of unknown profiles. Kik say users should be over 17, but Australian police found users on the site as young as 8 .

Snapchat
Photo-messaging site Snapchat enables people to send pictures that self-delete after several seconds.

Flickr and Instagram
Photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and Instagram are more conventional photo blogs (a bit like visual Twitter). Instagram has set up strict filters for sex/porn-related language.

Tumblr
Tumblr is a photo-led blogging facility and social network. It gets a huge chunk of its traffic from hosting extreme porn blogs.

OoVoo
OoVoo is the latest popular instant-messaging social network, where you can video chat with up to 12 friends.

Keek, Vine and Pheed
Video-sharing sites similar to YouTube, but with more of a teenage-only identity. Teens make 30-second video-diary posts on smartphone cameras.


Safety and privacy settings

Broadband providers such as TalkTalk offer a total filter to block porn (only protects when browsing, not in apps).

On Google and YouTube apps you can activate the “safe” setting to block adult content.

On your iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch you can switch on parental control for age-restricted access (young children can’t then access sites such as YouTube at all).

Here’s how to set up privacy on your apps

Facebook
In privacy settings tick “only friends” for “see my photos”, “see my interests” and “send me messages”. Under “search for me on Facebook” tick “friends of friends” or “friends and network” (otherwise your profile is visible to everyone).

Instagram
Where it says “posts are private”, set the switch to “on”.

Snapchat
Set “who can send me snaps” to “my friends” instead of “everyone”. To block a user, go to “my friends”, select the name, press “edit” then “block”.

WeChat
To stop strangers contacting you, in general phone location settings select WeChat: “off”. For photos, set “visibility” to “private”.

Kik
“Ignore new people” hides any messages from unknown senders.

Vine
In “your content” select “posts are protected” to hide them from public view.

Tumblr
Your blog is public, but you can “ignore” specific users to stop them from seeing or commenting on your posts.

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