Parents—it’s time to admit that your older kids may be slowly out-smarting you when it comes to technology. And when it comes to social media in particular, they know how to use it all: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, ask.fm… the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, this also means that kids are more susceptible to different types of dangerous situations that take place online. But fear not! Tech journalist Amber Mac and Michael Bazzell, who spent 18 years working as a computer crimes investigator, have teamed up to create a super-detailed guide to understanding your kids’ internet activity. Outsmarting Your Kids Online: A Safety Handbook for Overwhelmed Parents takes a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of how, exactly, you can trace your child’s digital steps—even the stuff that they think they’ve deleted. It also acts as an educational tool for parents, offering explanations on technology and social media trends, the risks associated with certain apps and even includes how to report digital bullies. We spoke to Mac to find out why parents should care about their kids’ online activity and what they can do to be proactive about managing it.
Your co-author Michael Bazzell spent 18 years as a government computer crime investigator and did work for the FBI. Is the way things are going with kids and social media really that bad right now?
When we decided to write this book, we wanted to have a very balanced approach to technology. While my co-author, Michael, has experience dealing with extreme cases of internet harassment and other digital crimes, we both recognize that there are plenty of positive aspects to children using the internet (many of them educational, which we share in every chapter). However, as a 2013 MediaSmarts study indicated, 99 percent of Grade 4 through Grade 11 students have access to the web. An alarming 39 percent sleep with their cellphones and nearly one third never sit with a parent or adult when online. Three years since this study—today in 2016—we know usage is even higher and there’s a widening gap when it comes to what parents know about what their kids are doing online. Moreover, anonymous messaging apps such as Kik allow young kids to engage in conversations with strangers more easily than ever before. In short, there is the potential for situations to get out of hand with young children on social media, so we wanted to create the ultimate parenting handbook.
Why do you think a guide like this is necessary?
Social media is changing at a rapid pace, so oftentimes associations, governments and groups advising parents about the risks are a big step behind. With our book, we wanted to create a reference guide that accounts for today’s current trends. We are both avid technology users, so we’re well aware of how a younger generation is bouncing from app to app to keep up with their peer groups. For example, we know kids as young as eight are using Instagram. We share both the educational accounts these children should follow and inform parents about some of the risks these kids might encounter. Also, we have thorough glossaries for moms and dads to keep up with ever-changing social media lingo.
If parents suspect their kid is engaging in harmful activities online, do you think they should monitor or restrict access?
Every child is different. We cannot stress this enough. While there isn’t one solution for every kid, we interview many experts in the book who talk about how to deal with unique and challenging situations. We do recommend that parents closely monitor what very young kids are doing online. Even better, we suggest these parents engage in online activities with their kids. Let’s say, for example, that you have a six-year-old son who loves Minecraft. Instead of jumping to restrict his access to the game, we advise adults to learn about how the game works and play along. Understanding the different types of activities your child is doing in the digital space can better prepare you to decide if casually monitoring is acceptable, since it might be a low-risk activity, or perhaps restricting access is necessary, since it might be a high-risk activity. Knowledge is always power.
The book goes pretty in-depth on how parents can get into their kids’ accounts. Isn’t that a little stalker-ish?
We recommend a number of monitoring apps, such as VISR, which encourage parents to monitor social media accounts for dangerous situations, such as bullying or inappropriate language. What we like about this app is that you’re not stalking your kids online, but instead you’re alerted if there are potential issues. Listen, everyone wants to keep their kids safe. While children have a right to privacy, there are simply far too many stories about young boys and girls who are encountering trouble—and various types of attacks—online. As Michael and I have both seen, it’s the parents who are the least involved in their child’s online life who often discover their child is in danger, when it’s far too late.
When should parents be concerned about their kids’ online use?
Parenting expert Alyson Schafer is just one of the people we interviewed in the book. She explains that the number one red flag to note is when a child withdraws from an activity that she previously loved. Parents should be concerned when they witness this withdrawal. I’ve seen this with kids as young six and seven, so parents should be well aware that good digital habits start as soon as technology is introduced in the home. In short, just as parents educate kids about proper dinnertime etiquette, the same guidance should apply to proper internet etiquette. We dive into this throughout the Parent Patrol chapter, which explains how parents must set a good example for their kids online.
There’s a big focus on teens in the book, but at what age are kids starting to go online? I’ve heard that there are kids as young as six who are on social media.
We address pretty much all ages in the book, but there is an emphasis on the pre-teen and teen years. However, we can’t stress enough that kids as young as two are regularly using technology, so the potential for digital issues can start younger than most parents want to admit. Most young kids develop tech habits when they first start using smartphones and tablets, so parents need the knowledge to be able to point these little ones in the right direction. Technology isn’t a glorified babysitter, but a tool to learn, communicate and engage. The more parents know about the right places online to do just that, the more their kids will have positive experiences.
What are your tips for parents on talking to their young kids about social media usage?
We recommend establishing family social media rules. In fact, there are places online that will allow you to print these guidelines to share in a public place in the home (we mention these links in the book). If the rules are front and centre on a bulletin board in the kitchen, kids will understand that they are non-negotiable (these include rules such as no screens an hour before bedtime). These discussions must happen on a regular basis and we know that kids will appreciate this structure, especially if it’s introduced when they first have access to devices.
Outsmarting Your Kids Online: A Safety Handbook for Overwhelmed Parents is available for purchase on Amazon.