The public square for young people has moved. It has migrated to that intangible world of social networking readily accessible to anyone able to punch in a few keystrokes. Downtown's Main Street is now the social media of such platforms as MySpace and Facebook. That is where you go to see and be seen. But these sites have risks. Many preteens and teens do not think of these hot spots as they would if they were sitting on a bench on the Plaza. These public forums seem so private and restricted, but they can be as public as a front page headline with no time for retraction.
Responsible adults need to explain to preteens and teenagers how to use their digital access with judgment and caution. And parents and grandparents need to "get online" themselves to monitor what is taking place in the public square.
Here are a few tips for parents to assure their children are using social media appropriately and not for "cyberbullying," "cyperstalking," or "sexting."
• Just as you would ask your child what he or she did today, who they saw, etc., ask what they are doing on social media venues - who are they talking to and about what?
• Just as a parent would monitor who their child is spending time with and where, a parent should inform their child, no matter the age, that they want to be a "friend" on their online platform. Such parental oversight will brake and balance online misbehaviors.
• Have your computer in a public space at home to easily track your children's online activities. Social media addiction can become a problem resulting in a drop in school work, social activities, even eating and sleeping.
• View your child's online profile, chat logs, emails and files. Privacy extends just so far when you are not an adult. The older the user, the more frequently a parent should review their information. Sporadic checks are probably more effective than predictable monitoring.
• Explain the unintended reach of the Internet or a cell phone. Few kids think about how their online information and photos can be shared without their knowledge. Fortunately, most platforms have tight privacy rules for those under eighteen years of age, but young users still need an adult's more mature judgment on safe use. Make sure you know the privacy features of sites being used.
• Emphasize the importance of not using the Internet for gossiping, rumor-mongering, bullying or innuendos. Say to them, "It's a public space; remember that ANYONE might be able to see what you put out there." Some parents collect cell phones before a party to reduce the peer pressure and temptation to misbehave at such events.
• "Sexting" - text messages with inappropriate, publicly unacceptable pictures - basically porn, carry significant legal weight, a fact most young users do not realize. Parents should inform their children before it becomes a problem. It is best done when they first allow their child to have their own phone.
• Preteens should be informed that pictures of naked people - adults or kids, or pictures of inappropriate physical touching, are not acceptable and need to be reported to a parent immediately. With older teens, be specific and make them aware that it is pornography, can involve the police, cause school suspension, or a college or employment barrier. Remember, some colleges and employers are now asking applicants if they are on a social media venue and are checking them out.
Social networking is the latest "cool thing." Let's try to make sure young people (and parents) don't get burned by it.