Obviously, as society is organized, technology is an unavoidable part of our everyday lives. Children born in the last fifteen years have access to digital devices and services from the earliest stages of childhood development. Their exposure starts with parents sharing those funny moments with friends and family on social media; it continues with their first toy devices and on into their schools' going digital. With every member of the family spending so much time online, protecting family members and balancing family life is a challenge for any family.
Online safety survey
At RSA 2018 several sessions discussed online engagement and safety for the family. At the CyberSmart Parents Education Seminar, Russell Schrader from StaySafeOnline.org presented the findings of the National Cyber Security Association (NCSA) second annual Parent/Teen Online Safety Survey published in October 2017. The survey conducted market research to better understand dynamics between parents and their teens, 13-17 years of age, especially with respect to their online behavior and experiences. The survey covers several topics and issues.
- Screen time: Both parents and teens agreed that everyone was spending too much time in front of a screen. However, parents and teens disagree about what should be an acceptable amount of screen time, which often leads to disagreements and tension among family members.
- Privacy and security of personal data: Teens indicate that they are very concerned that someone will access their accounts without permission, or that someone will share personal information, or private pictures and videos of them without permission. This was also a top concern for parents, but also one parents felt they were least prepared to help with.
- Fake news: Parents were concerned about their teens consuming and spreading fake news, where teens where concerned about accidentally, or unknowing;y, spreading fake news.
- Dealing with negative experiences online: Approximately one-in-three teens report that someone has been mean towards them online. When this occurs, teens are more likely to reach out to a friend for support and advice in dealing with the incident before addressing the issue with a parent.
- Who is responsible for online safety: 62% of teens believe online safety is mostly their responsibility, while 44% of parents think it's the grown-ups' responsibility.
- Who is most knowledgeable about privacy and security online: 34% of teens believe they are the most knowledgeable on the subject within the household, 24% of teens believe Dad is most knowledgeable, and 18% believe Mom is most knowledgeable. Surprising (or maybe not) was the gender gap between teen boys and girls where 42% of teen boys say they were more knowledgeable, compared to 27% if teen girls.
As Schrader concluded his overview of the survey he identified these key takeaways:
- Teach your kids how to help a friend address negativity directed towards them online, as they are most likely to be their friend's first line of support.
- Address the screen time issue, and come to a collective agreement between parent and teen regarding what is an appropriate amount of screen time.
- Rethink the household rules for effectiveness, be flexible when setting the rules, and be sure that parents set a positive example by following the rules themselves.
A teen's digital reputation
Also at the CyberSmart Parents Education Seminar, child psychologist Erica Pelavin, LCSW, PHD, co-founder of mydigitaltat2.org, discussed how My Digital TAT2 teaches kids positive online habits and behaviors. One area of focus is teaching kids about their digital reputation. My Digital TAT2 works with children of all ages to teach them how to treat and interact with others online in a positive way. Many of these techniques are similar to what adults learned when they were young regarding communicating with others in real life: treating others the way you would want to be treated, for example, or saying nothing at all if you don't have something nice to say. These values still apply, and not only in the real world, but in the virtual world as well. My Digital TAT2 also teaches children that what they say and upload online is there forever. Most children and teens don't realize that, even if they use services designed to expire messages and files after a short period of time, content has a way of persisting and resurfacing.
Pelavin describes how a teens real life and online life are one in the same. The moments, conversations, and conflicts teens experience every day in their real life often follow them into their virtual life. Teens will use social media to share their day's fun moments, continue a conversation with a friend, or vent frustration and anger at someone for something that happened earlier that day. We're finding that negativity and cruelty towards a teen on social media comes from someone they know. This can be a fellow student they don't get along with in school, a boy friend or girl friend they've broken up with, or a friend with whom they argued. Fallings out and breakups with close friends are most concerning because these friends, or frenemies, had access to the teens' "private" online life. They could (and sometimes do) retaliate by reposting private messages and pictures to a public audience.
Teens are online in multiple places with apps and social media platforms, and for any one of these they often have multiple accounts. Parents should not be as concerned about the number of platforms they are on, or the number of accounts they create on them. Each app or platform usually has a specific focus or utility, or represents a specific community. Teens will use different platforms to explore different communities and connect with other teens, and when doing so they use various aliases for anonymity and protection. When teens manage multiple accounts they often split them into the "public" and "private." They will usually create a primary public account that is intended for the world to see, and one or more public accounts for topics of interest to them, like humor, science, fashion, or gaming. Then there are the private accounts which serve a similar purpose, but to which access is limited to the teen's inner circle of friends. Teens use their different accounts as a privacy filter to control which message, image, and video gets posted, and who gets to see it. Included in these private accounts are the "accounts Mom and Dad do not know about." Pelavin advises parents not to be alarmed about such accounts, and draws an analogy between them and a private diary. Back when parents were themselves teens, they might have kept a diary containing their most inner secrets (locked shut and hidden behind the air duct vent) that not even Mom or Dad were allowed to read. Having multiple accounts on multiple platforms provides teens with flexibility and diversity, a means to explore new ideas, and connect with different communities. If you are still concerned about those private accounts, Palevin reminds parents that what can follow your teen into their online life can follow them out as well. If your teen seems stressed or depressed, but you're not aware of any issues in their real life, and if the social media accounts you follow all appear positive, then there is something else happening, probably in one of their private accounts, that you can ask them about.
So how can parents help and relate with their teens more? Pelavin suggest showing an interest in your kids' online activities. Converse with them on Instagram and Snapchat. Create a meme and share it with them. If they are a gamer play a few rounds of Fortnite, Minecraft, or whichever game they are into. And when their behavior online crosses that line into the inappropriate or the indecent, don't overreact. Pelavin advises not to take away their devices or access to the Internet. Since their online and offline lives are one and the same, cutting them off can be like cutting them off from oxygen. Address the behavior and talk to your children, and then take measures correct the behavior. She also advises parents to keep in mind that content, inappropriate or not, is pushed at kids. Anything can show up in a Google search. Much of this content is over their heads, and your child might not have any idea what they were clicking on, or what was presented to them after the page loaded.
Candid confessions of teenagers
One of the more insightful segments of the CyberSmarts Parents Education Seminar for parents in the audience occurred when two teenage girls representing hackerhighschool.org took the stage for a candid discussion of what their online life was like. They started their discussion by saying that their entire lives were online. Everything about them, including pictures of when they were young and their pediatric medical records, was online, and they really had no choice regarding that online publicity. Often children have little-to-no-choice regarding their online presence. They gave another example: the free online accounts used by their schools, often a Google account. Teens willing to read through the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policies for these accounts often would choose not to create the account, but they're required to do so by their school.
The girls admitted enjoying "people watching," which they also called "online stalking." They relate this to something adults might have done when they were young: and hanging out at the mall and watching people pass by. But now such people watching is done online. In most cases this is non-predatory observation, and teens see it more as a way to get to know someone better. It is also used to form a connection with people like a favorite celebrity or athlete. The two teenagers did admit to sometimes using aliases when watching others. And what goes around comes around: the girls are fully aware they're being watched by others as well. They shared the example of teachers in their school who would watch students, and not accept excuses for late assignments when they knew the student with the bogus excuse was out late partying the night before.
The girls spoke at length on their use of multiple accounts on social media platforms. They create public accounts for everyone to see, private accounts to share with their closest friends, accounts specifically for sharing with family members, and other accounts to express different aspects of their personalities. One of the girls claimed to have 10 or more accounts, but would only be active on a few of them any given day. They admitted to having accounts their parents neither know about nor had access to (which was funny because one of the girls' father was the next seminar's next speaker, and was present in the room, so he surely knows now). They also use the multiple accounts to manage their privacy, and claimed multiple accounts were necessary because apps didn't provide the features teens wanted when privacy settings were enabled. For example, they couldn't get feedback on the number of likes a post received if it was a private massage. The lack of this type of feedback is a deal-breaker for many teens, and the best workaround available to them is using multiple accounts to disseminate content through their own privacy lens. It was unclear what apps or platforms they were referring to, but it was clear that teens want fine-grained and absolute control over their social media posting. After all the effort to manage privacy through their account filters, they still are still greatly concerned with "privacy leaks" that occur when a message or image posted only to a private account is reposted to a public account without the original poster's consent.
The girls wrapped up their discussion with one final message: as so many teenagers do at some point they blame the parents of the world for their mess. It was the parents who created social media, and it was the parents who posted their baby pictures online.
As Generation App transitions through their teenage years into early adulthood, they're learning to cope with the world they're received from their parents. They're doing so in the same fundamental ways every previous generation has before them.