By Yvonne Sam
Social and Political Commentator
There are many who’ll disagree with my next statement, especially the child care experts, but I firmly believe that there is no such thing as privacy for children. Parents need to be aware of the secret, digital lives that many teens are leading, and the alarming array of consequences — including harassment and occasional suicides — that can ensue.
Today, kids are meeting strangers, some of them adults, via a variety of apps. They range from the seemingly inoffensive Musical.ly—which allows users to share lip-syncing videos to Whats App and, more currently, Houseparty, a group video chat service.
Teenagers are also accumulating lewd photographs in disguised vault apps, and then trade these photos, like baseball cards. In fact, some are one-upping their parent(s) and even have secret burner phones, to avoid parental monitoring; or they share passwords with friends, who can post on their accounts, when privileges have been denied or lost.
While the creativity of teens are to be applauded, it must be remembered that it has been enabled, through technology. It is somewhat difficult to say how many teens are pushing digital boundaries in this manner.
Social media accounts are easy to establish and discard, and distinct apps also rise and fall out of favor among teens, with lightning speed. Many teens, themselves, also affirm that it is surprisingly common for kids to live online-lives that are all but invisible to most parents — for better or worse. Clearly, parents are outmatched.
Exposed to tablets and smartphones at an increasingly early age, kids are, in like manner, savvier about using them, and easily share tips with friends. Parents, by contrast, are both overwhelmed and often naive about what kids can do with sophisticated devices.
Giving a child a mobile phone, and allowing them to have it anytime, including charging it in their rooms at night, is like handing over the keys to a new Mercedes and saying, “Son/daughter you can drive, wherever you want to go” — and kids are more than happy to oblige.
During a summer-school teaching session, I inquired which of the students had accounts on Facebook messenger, Viber, Twitter, Snapchat and other apps and games with social components. Most of the kids in attendance, many younger than 13, raised their hands. Throughout the day, kids said their parents either were unaware they are on social media or have little idea what they do with their accounts.
Kids act one way in person and totally different in the digital world. It is distressing and shocking, the language, threats and the mean things that are said.
In other instances, young people are buying drugs, via social media or encrypted websites. Or they can use prepaid “gift” cards for Amazon or eBay, to buy contraband, or order makeup, or vaping accessories, and have them delivered to friends’ houses.
The police have also indicated that the taking and sharing of vulgar “sexting” photos and videos, also has become a common, and even expected, component of dating life for many teens.
The suicidal death is reported of a 16-year-old, after police discovered that he had recorded himself being intimate with a classmate and then sharing the recording with his hockey teammates. During a search of his phone, photos of other partially nude girls were also found in a secret photo vault app, disguised as a calculator.
Nevertheless, some parents remain in perpetual denial, with what is termed “NMKS — not my kid syndrome.” Parents need to wake up and shake up.
A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that only about half of parents said they had ever checked their children’s phone calls and text messages, or even friended their kids on social media. They were even less likely to use tech-based tools to monitor their teens or block certain apps.
Android phones now offer some parental restriction options, including screen time limits and app-blocking — via a service called Google Family Link — though it’s designed, specifically, for kids younger than 13.
An update for the iPhone system software, allows for parental approval of app and music purchases, giving parents more control over screen time, app usage and web surfing on iPhones, iPads and iPods.
WebSafety is another app for parents to monitor the social media accounts that their teens and their younger kids use daily. The app is able to capture each photo that the child posts on his or her Facebook and/or Instagram profile. As soon as the teen creates a post, a mobile alert appears on the parent’s dashboard of the phone app.
Personally, I was almost to the point, where I felt that the world would benefit greatly from the absence of social media, but I am also a pragmatist. I prefer loosening of the strings or restrictions, as teens earn and prove capable of maintaining trust.
Instead of cutting kids off, from social media, parents should be encouraged to look for teachable parent-child moments. Shutting teens out of social media only tend to make them sneakier. No kid wants to be pulled over and told what not to do. No kid is happy with a parent going through their contacts.
Parents should attempt to figure out how to talk about it, in an open-minded way, bearing in mind that monitoring and blocks on apps are not foolproof. So parents you have a role to play. The phone is not the enemy but the user as you will see.
Monitoring your child’s digital safety, means also invading their privacy. Smart parents will check up to see what their kids are really doing. If the child is given a phone, then the desired manner of usage must be shown.
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.