WAKE COUNTY, N.C. (WNCN) – Social media is one of the main ways teens interact, but not everyone on the other side of the screen is someone they should friend or follow.
In the last month, affiliate WNCN in North Carolina reported on at least three sex crimes cases in which teens met adult strangers on social media and engaged in a sexual relationship with them. Most recently, a man was charged with sex crimes for having a relationship with a 15-year-old who he met through the app Whisper.
“Anonymous apps, or dating apps, those places they are not worth your time. They are not worth you being on that app as a 13-year-old,” said Laura Tierney.
Tierney is the founder and CEO of The Social Institute. She works with schools to educate students and parents on how to use social media positively.
The first step, Tierney said, is for parents to talk to their kids about social media before they open their first account.
“It’s the equivalent of giving a child keys to a car, but you never took them out on the road driving,” Tierney said.
According to Tierney, one of the most important lessons parents can teach their kids is about protecting their privacy.
“The same way that Beyonce doesn’t share certain information online, you can’t track down her location or where she’ll be on vacation two weeks from now, we challenge students to think about their actions the same way,” she said.
She says while Instagram and Snapchat are the apps teens use the most, anonymous apps like Whisper are growing in popularity because they allow the user’s identity to remain hidden. The danger of these apps, Tierney said, is that teens have no way of verifying who they are communicating with.
Tierney encourages parents and kids to follow a “Family Social Standards Agreement,” where they set up guidelines for who they should or should not accept follow requests from.
“Have you met the person before in-person? The second criteria is whether you know them well enough to introduce them to your parent and your best friend? And the third one, especially if you’re new to social media, can you sit down with your parent and does your parent OK that friend request?” Tierney said.
While Tierney doesn’t recommend snooping on children’s social media accounts, she does suggest parents use every app their child uses. She said parents should friend or follow their child, but make a promise not to “like” or comment on their teen’s posts.
“It’s like knowing who they are hanging out with at the friend’s sleepover. Knowing their world is so important. This is how they socialize now. Understanding that world is really important to understanding them,” she said.
Tierney said there are several tools parents can use if they want to monitor how much time their child is spending on social media, or what they are talking about online, such as the app “Bark.”
“Bark monitors messages on your child’s phone from Instagram to their text messages, but you only get a notification if there’s a message that has red flag word and you set those red flags,” she said.
She also recommends the “Our Pact” and “Circle with Disney,” apps which both allow parents to block apps on a child’s device, and limit their screen time.