LETTER: Parenting in the Age of Texts, Tweets and Skype

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{This is the second in a series of three articles about the Watertown Lecture Series on children and technology.}

Welcome to the digital age! Teens and tweens have unprecedented access to Instagram Tumblr, SnapChat, Secret, Slingshot, Whisper, Ask.fm, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, Pinterest, Skype, FaceTime, Omegle and other new apps developed daily.Cell phone ownership among kids is widespread and on the rise. Across Massachusetts, in 2011, 20 percent of third graders, 25 percent of fourth graders, 40 percent of fifth graders and 85 percent of 6-12 graders reported having their own phone. Of these, more than 90 percent could use their phone to go online and text. As a result, the average teenager sends more than 3,000 texts per month or more than six texts per waking hour.

Kristin Noto, a Middlesex District Attorney from the Partnership for Youth spoke at the Watertown Speaker Series on Wednesday, April 1. Kristen described cybersecurity risks and unhealthy impacts as well as strategies to ensure that kids and youth can safely enjoy technology in the age of texting, sexting, sharing photos, and tweeting. Some of Kristen’s core messages and advice include the following:

1. Act now to ensure that your children are safe and technology is used to enhance their lives, not cause safety risks or emotional strife. Do not wait until something happens to create rules and agreements. Remember, if you are not having conversations about tech use, you are not teaching coping skills.

2. Develop a family tech plan

a. What is right for your family? What hours can devices be used? In what rooms? What media? What devices? Should you have a family account or separate accounts on your computer? Set limits. Develop consequences if limits are crossed. Have tech free hours. Review your plans and rules periodically.

3. Know what media and technology your children are using. Know their apps and websites and how they are used. What do they tweet? Know what photos your tween or teen is posting. Make rules about the types of photos that are acceptable to share.

a. Tweeters send an estimated 15,000 bullying tweets per day. Bullying affects mental health and physical safety and parents and teachers may know nothing about it. Does your child receive or send bullying tweets?

b. According to a recent study, 39 percent of teens admitted to sending sexually suggestive messages (sexting) and 20 percent of teens admitted to sharing sexual images. Once the image is shared, it can never be controlled. Photographs can be used for shaming and extortion and once a nude photo is shared, there is an 88 percent chance that it will eventually be put into a pornographic database and later used for sale.

4. Understand who kids are texting or talking to and connected with online. Who are they chatting with in chat rooms? Beware of connections to people who misrepresent themselves.

5. Have conversations about social media

a. Teach kids to be up-standers and never use technology to bully or shame anyone. Talk to kids about not saying online what you would not say face-to-face. Discuss how relationship struggles that once only happened at school can now follow kids home. Negative interactions are particularly harmful when kids are connected 24/7 and they cannot escape the shame or pain of the event when they go home.

b. If something happens among friends or in the media, commit to discussing it. Start with: “I heard this…Is that what you heard? How did you/would you react? What do you think? How did you/would you handle this?”

6. Make rules for chat rooms or connecting to strangers.

a. When and with who is video chatting appropriate? Video chatting should only be with people you know in real life. You may want to decide there is always a parent or adult in the room during video chats.

b. If playing video games and a camera shows your child, they should not wear clothing that identifies the town or school. They should be in rooms with plain walls that do not advertise their location.

c. You may agree there are some questions that your teen or tween will not answer online to protect their identity.

7. Protect privacy

a. Disable geolocators on cell phone devices so that the location stamp is not on shared photographs.

b. Agree on what names will be shared (full name, first name, nickname)? This may vary based on the age of the child and the site he/she is visiting.

c. Understand anonymity: Can a social connection identify your child’s name and location? Make sure that only known connections have access to identifying information. Beware of apps, video games, chat rooms where people can take advantage of a child not knowing who a connection is or where they are.

8. Passwords

a. Be password safe. Many tweens and teens share their passwords with friends and girl/boyfriends. Never share passwords with friends.

b. Parents and caregivers should have passwords.

9. Talk with other parents about what photos can be shared. Parents should not share photos of other people’s kids without approval. Do not tag photos of kids without talking to parents first. Set privacy settings when sharing.

Please join us—or stay with us—for the final event as we work together to identify solutions that work for your family to keep children safe and healthy. On April 8, Dr. David Bickham from the Harvard Center for Media and Child Health will discuss Technology and Child Development and lead us through family technology plans. Stacy Carruth will lead us through several technology-free mindfulness activities to calm the mind and reconnect us to our thoughts, feelings and our bodies. Even a few minutes of mindfulness can return a child or adult to a powerful feeling of wellbeing.

The final event starts at 7 p.m. at Watertown Middle School. Signup at Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/healthy-technology-use-for-students-families-tickets-15952770165. Childcare is available. Go to https://www.facebook.com/ParentSpeakerSeries to learn more and to find a library of resources.

The Healthy Technology Speaker Series was funded by a generous grant from The Watertown Community Foundation. The series is a collaborative effort between local parents, Watertown Public Schools, the Watertown Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC), the Watertown Boys and Girls Club, Wayside Youth and Family Services, the Watertown Youth Coalition, Live Well Watertown, the Watertown Education Foundation and Families for Depression Awareness.

Letter from: The Healthy Technology Speaker Series Committee

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