A couple of years ago I was sitting with some educator friends at a pub in downtown Chicago when the issue of having an online presence came up in conversation. Most of these friends are teachers who have one social media platform they use: Facebook. None of them (save for me) write online and most of them work with tweens and teens in middle and high schools. Much of the discussion surrounded our fears that the world is moving too fast, technology-wise, and that cell phones app use has made our jobs harder in keeping up with what kids do. We agreed that there isn’t much to do to prevent it, but that common sense rules weren’t always being used for the problems it created, either. There are too many ways and means of manipulating relationships by using social media and, unfortunately, we’re talking about adolescents who are trying to figure out Real Life relationships but who are engaging in risky relationship building using their cell phones. The conversation dipped toward me (as an educator who uses a lot of social media for both personal and professional reasons) because I mentioned that I am “friends” with a lot of my current and former students on social media and that I get to get a sneak peek into their lives, even as limited as that is. Not only that, my students talk to me and are honest about what is really happening in the break-neck world of social media apps.
When I first became a user of Facebook, I assumed that it was a no-brainer not to be friends with students. First of all, I didn’t need them seeing into every detail of my life and sometimes I share things that are for an adult audience. I’m not a prude about things that deal with sex or alcohol use or things like that. I’m just careful about what I want to be in conversation with teenagers about. Yet, I’m not surprised to see my students writing lascivious postings and celebrating debauchery. Secondly, I had to draw some sort of boundary between my professional and personal life. That’s why I post snippets of my life in photos and limit what I share. Even so, I am fascinated with all the warnings we give students that clearly scream DON’T POST STUPID STUFF ONLINE and how they still invariably do things that make me cringe.
I work in a technology magnet school where every student has a MacBook and they learn how to use the applications and programs to learn. Most of what they do is research and it’s a fantastic tool for that, but nearly every one of the 300+ students has a computer of their own right in their pockets: their cell phones. I am amazed at the number of smart phone users even with nearly 40% poverty, but they’re no longer using the computers as much for social reasons. (They aren’t supposed to anyway, but now that they have their own devices, we see less of that.) Research tells us that 37% of all teens have smartphones and that’s where the danger of apps comes in for me.
So, when parents tell me that their child doesn’t have Facebook (the usual suspect/culprit) and they tell me that their child isn’t engaging in any sort of risky behavior I usually challenge them by asking if they know of the following apps on their child’s cell phone: Kik, Snapchat, ask.fm, Wanelo, ooVoo, Tumblr, Pheed, Vine or Instagram. I would estimate that about 75% of the parents know about Instagram, but none of the ones I spoke to use it for themselves nor do they realize what an underground following these apps seem to breed. If you’re in the marketing world, you know that these apps are meant to point kids to purchasing more apps or products. It’s naïve to assume that just because you don’t see them on Facebook on your home computer that they aren’t using a plethora of apps on which they’re being social. In fact, 58% of all teens between the ages of 12 and 17 have downloaded apps to their cell phones or tablets according to this study.
Over the past 6 months, I’ve noticed the change in language when I hear students tell one other to “Kik them” or “Ask me anything tonight!” when they’re leaving the school grounds to go home, but when they’re back in my office I hear horror stories of things that occur on those platforms. I am so grateful I never experienced some of the things teens are doing on Ask.fm because, have you seen that site? Teenagers are so insecure about so much in their lives and now it seems on display for everyone to see and that scares me.
Every one of these apps has the potential, naturally, to be a dangerous place for kids, but I’m disturbed by the number of parents who know absolutely nothing of these applications on the smart phones they bought for their kids. One 7th grade girl told me recently that even though her mom checks her phone on a regular basis, she just deletes the apps she doesn’t want her mother to see before the Check In. Armed with all this knowledge, I have three suggestions I tell parents they should put in place if they haven’t done so already:
1. Keep the phone with you at night. Lock it up if you have to, but kids are staying up way longer than necessary and getting up to use social media because most of them charge their phones right next to their beds. Most teens need 8-9 hours of sleep a night and, as an educator who sees them slog through a school day, I can tell you that many are not getting that much. The temptation of picking up the phone and the distractions it provides is dangerous. When you’re sleepy and a bit cranky, it is too easy to write someone a nasty comment or say something you regret. (I suspect most internet Trolls fall in this category, too. Go to sleep, trolls.)
2. Do periodic checks on their phone and go through their contacts. If they’re on Kik, they can change their names to whatever they want, but there’s also the capability to text with complete strangers, too. Remember, this is YOUR phone that YOU purchased. Treat it like you would a game console, computer, or television when you decide to limit those. One mom complained that her daughter always went over the limit of data each month by about $300, but couldn’t get her 18 year old to be responsible about it. Here’s the thing: when I got my first smartphone I saved up for it for months and only made the plunge whenI decided to eliminate other things to pay for the monthly service. We’re giving kids a computer when we give them a smartphone. What rules do you have in place for technology that doesn’t fit in their pocket? Apply those rules to the smartphone, too.
3. Stay informed. Things change quickly and as soon as one app is discovered to be potentially dangerous for online bullying and such, kids will hop onto the next one. I was surprised so many of my students liked Instagram until I realized they use it to chat, ask questions, and seek approval and popularity. They’re not out there taking wonderfully artistic photos most of the time like the people I follow. One place to stay informed is the research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Another site to bookmark is Youth & Media which researches and does advocacy work around teens and technology.
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