|Mary Beth Uberti speaks with Highlands Middle School parents about social media use and teens.|
"Learning to navigate social media can be as scary for adults not familiar with it as learning to swim is for a child," writes Anne Collier, executive director of The Net Safety Collaborative.
Her quote is shared on the website for Operation Parent, a Louisville-based nonprofit devoted to helping parents navigate difficult issues faced by school-aged children and teens.
About 40 parents packed the middle school’s cafeteria on Monday to hear what Uberti had to say and to discuss how best to approach their children on social media use.
Dive right in
When it comes to issues of cyberbullying, sexting, online predators and other scary social media topics, Uberti recommends the "dive right in" approach.
"I encourage you, no matter what, to have these conversations with [your kids]," said Uberti. "They want your information. They may not like it, but they want it. They know there are issues out there…They do look to you for guidance."
Avoidance is not an option, she adds. Thirty-nine percent of children have used social media by age 11, and 92 percent of teens report they go on these sites daily.
If you don’t know how an application works, don’t hesitate to ask your teen, Uberti said. Most teens are thrilled to find out they know about something that their parents do not, and they are eager to share their knowledge. Older siblings and even neighboring teens are often happy to help show how these apps work.
She also encouraged parents to check the age restrictions posted by the app company and to explore how to use and set privacy settings. Privacy settings must be on at all times, and parents should check periodically to make sure they are in place.
Apps: Keep 'em private
Uberti listed and discussed some of the more popular apps teens use. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook lead the list, but there are hundreds more.
Apps such as HouseParty and Oovoo allow group chats with up to 12 people, but without privacy settings in place, any stranger can get on if there is a slot open. Friend finding apps such as Yellow help users find people in specific geographic areas. Online predators have been known to conceal themselves as young teens and to quickly make offline connections using these apps.
She also warns against "anonymous apps" that allow users to comment without using their names or other identifying information. There are even apps that can be used to hide other apps within them. One called Calculator looks like a calculator app on a phone but hides a social sharing site within it.
For each app, Uberti spoke of the dangers of the public mode in which strangers can join conversations, share teens’ information, photos and videos, and even locate teens on a map. Parents should know how to locate, set and check privacy settings on teens’ social media presence at all times, she said. Parents also can lock the App Store so that children have to ask for the apps they want.
Create an open dialogue
Parents and teens must work together in an open dialogue about social media dangers, uses and rules. She provided a sample contract for parents to use with their teens that outlines expected behavior, rules for when and where social media can be used and consequences for when those rules are broken.
"If anything, this allows you to sit down and have the conversation," she said. "You may have to negotiate together but that’s a great skill for kids to have…. What you are trying to do is get them to understand that, yes, there are going to be limits. It’s not a free-for-all."
Uberti strongly encouraged parents to join and follow their teens on every app they are on, and to have all the passwords as part of the contract. Also parents should include that they have the right to check online usage. Parents should periodically sit down next to the teen when they are online to see to whom they are talking. Above all, she said, talk to your teen about any concerns.
Outline what is appropriate behavior online, she advised. Be very clear about what is allowed in photos and videos, and do not allow teens to have their devices in the bedroom or bathroom where you cannot see or hear what is being posted.
She added that respect goes both ways. Parents should refrain from participating in teens' conversations online unless they are invited.
It’s not all bad news
Not all the news about social media is bad, Uberti said. Social media can help some teens create supportive networks they might not otherwise have.
She used a story from her own family as an example. Her teen daughter was going through a lonely period when online she met and joined a community of girls from around the country who all liked and followed the same band. Her daughter is in college now, but she still keeps in touch with this close-knit group.
Uberti made sure she knew about the group and even accompanied her daughter to see the band and meet her online friends. She says that experience was a positive one for her relationship with her daughter and garnered her daughter lifelong friendships.
Uberti spoke with students earlier in the day on the subjects of cyber bullying and sexting. Principal Michael Howton, Assistant Principal Kathy Donelan and Guidance Counselor Lori Maines joined Uberti at the Parent Talk.
Howton said the school recognizes that parents are an important part of the school community, and staff wanted to provide a forum for parents to talk with each other as well as learn from experts.
"We don’t have all the answers, so we are hoping to broaden the conversation," he told those assembled. "We can have these forums and talk about some of the challenges we have and figure out together how best to approach this as a community…In Fort Thomas, we have a collective responsibility."
Donelan said the school plans two more Parent Talks this year and is gathering information on topics of interest. If talks are successful, the school will schedule more next year.
Uberti shared copies of a Parents Guide developed by her organization. The guide and a newsletter on parent and teen topics is available through the Operation Parent website.