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Snapchat, sexting and common sense: What parents need to know

www.snapchat.comA big challenge of parenting in a digital age is keeping up to date with the technologies our kids are using. Truth is, it’s time-consuming and constantly changing. Hard to fit that extra learning and guidance into schedules already crammed with carpools, swimming lessons, last-minute dinners and never-ending piles of laundry. And the reality for plenty of moms and dads is that they need their eight-year-old to figure out why the printer isn’t working or set up the PVR, never mind helping them wade through a gazillion levels of Facebook privacy controls.

In many families, kids way outmatch their parents when it comes to technology.

So when the New York Times or your local paper runs an article about teens getting into trouble with some new app or social media tool, parents tend to have one of four reactions:

  1. Denial. Oh god. My kid would NEVER get involved in anything like that. S/he’s way too smart.
  2. Panic. Oh god. My kid is going to get into SO much trouble with that. I have no idea how to even begin making sure s/he is safe. I feel totally overwhelmed by how dangerous our world is. 
  3. Procrastination. Oh god. One more thing to worry about. I should talk to him/ her and see if they know about this. But I’m so busy and they will just roll their eyes and groan, and I haven’t heard anyone I know mention it. I’ll do it soon and hope for the best in the meantime. 
  4. Cursory check-in. Oh god. I better ask them if they know anything about this. No? Really? Great. Nice talking to you. 

None of these are particularly helpful. Even worse, numbers one through three will actually interfere with your relationship with your teen. Number four makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something, but you are setting yourself up to be shut down. Few teens appreciate the lines of direct questioning that will inevitably lead to lectures or more rules. Totally ineffective, but lets you mentally check it off your List of Things to Talk About.

So what does work? Two things: education and communication.

Take Snapchat, for example. This picture-sharing app allows users to send images and control how long the viewer can see it, up to 10 seconds. After that, the picture supposedly disappears and can’t be seen again.

It’s possible to imagine a million fun, silly and totally benign uses of such an app. But it’s also possible to see how the temporary nature of the image would appeal to those who want to share sexually suggestive images (often called sexting). It gives the appearance of being a totally safe way to do it. After all, after a few seconds, there’s no trace of your wild side left to haunt you.

Right?

Maybe not. While the site is set up to notify you if a user tries to screen grab the image, it’s not clear if they can actually prevent someone from trying to do so. And even if they have put in that kind of control, I can practically guarantee there are computer whiz kids out there trying to hack their way through those controls as I type. Furthermore, as the New York Times blogger Nick Bilton notes, there is nothing to prevent a user from snapping a picture of the photo on the screen using a different camera.

How big a problem is sexting for our kids anyway? Hard to tell. Lots of anecdotal evidence but very little good quality research out there. Bilton cites a yet-to-be released  Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project that shows 6% of adult Americans admitting to having sent a sexually suggestive or nude picture of themselves, but only 3% of American teens. Another 15% of adults admitted they had been on the receiving end of that kind of image.

This seems to suggest sexting is not nearly as big a problem as the media make it out to be. However, I do a lot of work with high school principals and teachers who would swear that figure is vastly underreported. Some of them say they deal with sexting in their schools (and the related bullying and behavioural issue) on a regular basis.

I’m not going to wade into this one. It’s not my intention to fan any kind of moral panic or hysteria concerning the hypersexuality of teens. What I am interested in is helping parents keep kids safe and using technology in productive, creative and respectful ways. The guidelines I advise in this case are the same ones I’ve always proposed:

  • Talk to your kids. Often. About everything. In the car on the way to hockey practice. In the kitchen after dinner. Late at night when they are going to bed.
  • Listen when they talk to you. Don’t cut in. Don’t have an answer for everything. Don’t offer unsolicited opinions. 
  • Know all accounts and passwords for your pre-teens and young teens.
  • Make sure they understand that their freedom online (and with cellphones) is a privilege to be earned through consistent, responsible behaviour.
  • With pre-teens and young teens, periodically review their accounts and cellphone materials with them (not behind their backs).
  • Talk about things like sexting, even if it’s embarrassing and they’d rather die. They often don’t understand the many, many ways these images can be humiliating, hurtful and destructive.
  • Tell them never to write or post anything they don’t want their parents to see. 
  • Tell them they must always be respectful to others.

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