I finally joined Instagram, and then I fell down a rabbit hold of tween social media usage. Some of what I found was innocuous, some was not.
As soon as I joined, the app used my phone’s contact list to tell me who I might want to follow. Because many of my kids’ friends (and their parents) are in my contact list, Instagram had plenty of recommendations for me. The vast majority of both kids and adults that I found did not have their accounts set to private. By looking at the lists of who each kid was following, or was followed by, I was able to jump around pretty easily and see the photos of tons of kids I know, and kids I don’t know.
From Instagram, I fell down a rabbit hole of social media sites. The Instagram profiles link to ask.fm pages. The ask.fm pages link to Twitter. Twitter leads to Tumblr. It’s a baklava of social media out there, and the layers never stop accumulating.
By searching Instagram for my kids’ school, I found a group where kids submit their photos to be “matched up” with a boy or girl from their grade. It sounds horrible but it’s actually pretty innocent; the digital equivalent of notes I probably passed in middle school and high school. The difference is that when it turns sour, and a kid doesn’t like who he’s “matched up” with, someone’s humiliation is that much more public. That’s when things can slide easily from cyber fun to cyberbullying.
The endless parade of duck-faced selfies was to be expected, but I wasn’t expecting to see girls as young as 11 or 12 posing in shorty-shorts and cami tops, looking over their shoulders and popping out their booties. I wasn’t expecting boys their age to be responding with “dat ass” and other, much more explicit, comments.
I wasn’t expecting to find a 12-year-old girl’s description of getting high, or a public discussion of what kinds of sexual activities two young girls might be participating in together. (Note: the girls in question were participating in said discussion.)
But mostly what I wasn’t expecting was this: that kids I know full well to be smart kids with caring parents are doing every single thing they’ve been told not to do on the Internet: give out the name of the school they attend and the town that they live in. Give out their phone numbers. Give out their names. Many of the kids were using not just their real names, but their real first, middle, and last names as their user names.
I use social media every day, for both personal and professional reasons. There’s nothing inherently bad about social media. But it does need limits, it does need privacy protections in place, and it does need monitoring.
Case in point: Two girls in Florida have been arrested in connection with the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, who had been cyberbullied.
Police investigating the case say that after Rebecca’s death, a 14-year-old girl posted on Facebook, “Yes, I know I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself but I don’t give a f—.”
The police’s image of the Facebook post had more than 30 likes, more than 30 shares and over 200 comments, according to ABC News.
Of course, social media is more than just Facebook, and parents need to know what their kids are using, and how they’re using it. Parents should know that, like adults, kids are likely to be using more than one platform. Unlike adults, however kids are more likely to have multiple Facebook accounts, and multiple Instagram accounts; kids may have one page that’s “parent-friendly” and one where they post everything else. Or, they may just use the accounts for different things: one Instagram account might be for photos of friends, another might be for collecting and sharing My Little Pony images.
I researched, I joined, and I talked to teens and tweens to find out which platforms and apps are currently in use to put together a basic primer for parents. For more detailed information on any of these apps and platforms, I’ve provided links to the sites themselves, which all have FAQ pages. Another good resource for parents is Common Sense Media.
Which social media apps and platforms are tweens and teens using right now? 1 of 16
Click the arrows to scroll through.
ask.fm 2 of 16
Ask.fm is a site where users create a profile page, and then other users ask them questions--either anonymously or using a user name. I'm pretty sure the attraction here is that if people are asking you questions, you feel important and interesting. The downside, obviously, is that it's a place for tweens and teens to anonymous say the most horrible things imaginable to each other. There are a handful of celebrities on it, so maybe it's fun to ask celebrities things and have them (or possibly their secretaries) answer you. But generally speaking, there is nothing good happening on ask.fm. I can't emphasize enough how foul the language is, how mean it gets, and how quickly it devolves into an abyss of awfulness.
(Screen Grab: ask.fm/itsleightonmeester)
Facebook 3 of 16
Facebook, the largest social networking site, requires people to be 13 in order to join. However, it's pretty obvious that kids well under the age limit are joining. Parents should make sure their kids understand how privacy settings work, and that some things cannot be made private: profile photos and cover photos, for example, are always visible. Facebook also just changed the privacy settings available to teens, giving teens the option of making their posts more public, reports CNN.
"Parents need to know that teens must be diligent about setting privacy controls on Facebook," advises Common Sense Media. "Every time Facebook updates its features, users must check settings to confirm what information they're sharing and what they're keeping private."
(Screen Grab: Facebook.com/BabbleEditors)
Kik 4 of 16
Kik is an instant messaging service, which means it's like texting, except you don't have to give out your phone number. That seems like a good thing on the face of it: you're not using up minutes and you're keeping your phone number private. The thing is, it's pretty easy to monitor your kid's texting usage: a quick look at your cell phone bill tells you the numbers they're contacting, the numbers contacting them, and the time of day (math class?!?). It's impossible to monitor your kid's usage on kik. Besides the messaging capability, kik users can search for and share YouTube videos, reddit images, sketches, and more.
(Screen Grab: Kik)
WhatsApp 5 of 16
Pinterest 6 of 16
Pinterest is the "mom jeans" of social media sites, as evidenced by the fact that I not only have Pinterest account but happily utilize it. Pinterest is a virtual bulletin board, allowing you to save images and links on "boards." Tweens and teens that are using it are doing the same thing adults are: collecting craft ideas and Harry Potter memes. Common Sense Media calls Pinterest "semi-social" because there isn't really a lot of interaction between users. Your kids might come across some swear words on an image of a joke, but that's probably the worst of it.
(Screen Grab: Pinterest.com/starkravingmadM)
Wanelo 7 of 16
Wanelo (the name comes from WAnt, NEed, LOve) is an "online shopping community." It's somewhat similar to Pinterest, except that instead of collecting craft ideas you're collecting a wish list of stuff you want. With Wanelo, you can actually click to buy all the stuff you see. Aside from encouraging mass consumerism, it's probably harmless unless you give your kid your credit card.
(Screen Gab: ThinkGeek on Wanelo)
Twitter 8 of 16
Twitter lets users send out really short posts--there's a limit of 140 characters for each tweet. There are a number of privacy options available, and parents need to know that those options differ a little bit depending on whether you're tweeting from a mobile device or a computer. For example, one option for the mobile app allows your location (street and city) to appear under your tweet. The best choice for most teen users, whether they're tweeting from a home computer or their smart phone, is to keep their account set to private.
(Screen Grab: @MommylandRants on Twitter)
Vine 9 of 16
If Twitter is a "microblogging" site, think of Vine as a micro-YouTube site. Vine, a mobile app owned by Twitter, allows users to create and share looping 6-second videos. While some of what is on Vine is awesome (such as Bat Dad), there have been numerous complaints about pornography being allowed on Vine. In response to those complaints, Apple at one point pulled the app from its App Store, which basically forced Twitter to re-issue the app as only for those 17 and up. (It's worth noting that no confirmation of age is required, you just tap "ok" when it asks if you're 17 and older.) Vine was also updated with the ability to block and report users. Still, it's certainly not an app for kids.
"Many of the videos are harmless, but parents need to be aware that Vine is full of content that is inappropriate for children," says Common Sense Media. "With the most basic creative searching, kids can find nudity, sex, drug use, offensive language, hardcore sexuality, and more."
(Screen Grab: Vine/BatDadVine)
pheed 10 of 16
Pheed is a social media platform with multiple capabilities: users can share texts, photos, videos, audio tracks, voice-notes and live broadcasts. Users can also monetize their feeds, assuming they have something so interesting/fabulous to share that people are willing to pay for it. Pheed is the first company to introduce live stream pay-per-view functionality to mobile devices, according to Forbes. The app absolutely targets the young: Pheed told Mashable that 81 percent of its user base is between age 14 and 25. Although Pheed is only for users age 13 and up, users can moderate their content under ratings like G, PG, PG-13, and R. However, Pheed relies on its users to rate their own content.
(Screen Grab: pheed.com/MileyCyrus)
tumblr. 11 of 16
Tumblr is a microblogging site that allows users to share multimedia content. The short-form blogs are usually streams of images and GIFs, with short captions. Users can set tumblr blogs to private or leave them open to the public, in which case people can leave comments anonymously or using a user ID. Tumblr blogs are quicker and easier to set up and maintain than more traditional blogging platforms like WordPress and Blogger and have a younger demographic: according to Nielsen, about 13 percent of Tumblr visitors are under 18.
(Screen Grab: Eddie's Lunch)
Skype 12 of 16
I thought that Skype was just a thing you used to make video calls. I only realized it was more than that when a boy my daughters met at swim lessons asked if he could keep in touch with them via Skype. (Answer: nope.) Skype allows users to communicate by voice using a microphone, video by using a webcam, and instant messaging over the Internet. Services are "freemium"-- calls and messages to other users are free; calls or messages to landlines and mobile phones are premium, meaning you pay. Most teens are, obviously, only using the free services.
(Screen Grab: skype)
YouTube 13 of 16
YouTube allows users to share videos privately, or with the world. One common use by tween and teen girls in particular is posting videos that ask, "Am I Pretty or Ugly?" How common are they? A recent report by Slate magazine says there are over 500,000 of them. On the upside, kids can also use YouTube find help with math homework, words of wisdom from the It Gets Better campaign, or support from a fellow teen who knows what it feels like to be bullied.
(Screen Grab: YouTube/SmileLoveBeauty8)
ooVoo 14 of 16
Similar to Skype, ooVoo is a videochat platform that uses VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). You can chat with up to 12 friends at once, and also drag YouTube videos into the platform, so that groups of people can watch together. Like all the other platforms, there's nothing inherently wrong with ooVoo, although I'm not thrilled with their "Survive Family Time" ad that shows a teen using ooVoo at the dinner table. One potential problem is that ooVoo can also be used to "make new friends!" and "mingle," according to its own website. Another concern is that ooVoo's privacy capability is a little wonky--you can block people from contacting you, unless you're also Facebook friends, for example. The fact that ooVoo's privacy settings are connected to Facebook is a red flag to me.
(Screen Grab: ooVoo)
FaceTime 15 of 16
FaceTime is an app for Mac computers, iPhones, and iPads. It allows users to videochat either using cellular phone technology or VOIP. FaceTime is only for Apple products, and won't connect with other programs or devices.
(Screen Grab: Apple)
Google+ 16 of 16
Google+ is the second-largest social networking site in the world, passing Twitter last May, according to Business Insider. The thing about Google is that once you've logged into anything (YouTube, Google Chrome, Google Hangout, whatever), you're kind of logged into all of it, prompting some to call Google+ "tricked-out sign-in service for Google's products." The appeal of Google+ is that you can more easily find and join "circles" and other communities of people who are interested in the same things as you--whether that's Harry Potter or Rainbow Loom.
As with Facebook, you're supposed to be 13 to have any Google account, whether that's a gmail account or a Google+ membership.
(Screen Grab: Google+)
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