These days, the information superhighway resembles a virtual Wild West more than it does a highway. Problem is, the local sheriff is usually several steps behind the bad guys.
Often the targets—our kids—don’t think they need protecting. A 2012 study by McAfee indicated that almost 70% of teens hide their online activity. McAfee’s 2014 Teens and Screens study revealed that 59% of tweens and teens interact online with strangers and one in twelve will meet that stranger in real life.
The same study noted “53% close or minimize their web browsers when their parents walk into the room and 50% clear the history of their online activity.”
So how can you warn kids about dangerous online trends if you don’t know what they’re doing? Here are three trends you need to discuss with your children:
It wasn’t too long ago that our social media pages were filled with ice bucket challenges for charity. But kids today are confronted with much more dangerous challenges, including:
The Fire challenge
Teens apply accelerants such as rubbing alcohol or nail polish remover to their bodies and set themselves on fire. The fire is supposed to burn just long enough for someone to video the experience. But they’re not always able to douse it before serious injury or death occurs. The video is then uploaded to social media.
Planking is a helpful exercise that tightens core muscles. Kids are challenged to plank by lying face down, then post a photo. Sounds harmless, doesn’t it? It is…unless the surface they’re lying on is an escalator handrail, rooftop edge, or balcony railing. The more dangerous the location, the greater the accolades from their peers.
This surfing has nothing to do with catching a wave. Kids are challenged to “surf” on top of a car, train, or other fast-moving vehicle. Prestige increases with the speed of the vehicle. It’s even better if a friend can video the act for social media.
Another online trend is the proliferation of chat sites. The concept of online chats seems harmless enough. But anonymous sites—which are often not-so-anonymous—can be dangerous, as the following sites illustrate:
Parents might think a visit to Ask.fm could help with schoolwork, but this app isn’t about being helpful. It is about the destructive things people say concerning each other…comments that have driven some kids to suicide.
Users are randomly paired in video chats with strangers from around the world. Participants may continue with the chat or request another random pairing. While the lack of filters and security measures may not be an issue for adults, a false sense of security can cause tweens and teens to over-share. Of course, once the information is out on the Internet, it takes on a life of its own.
Chatroulette also has a reputation for notorious exhibitionist and pornographic displays. It has been called a “predator’s paradise.”
This instant messaging app with more than 150 million users does not claim anonymity. But unverified accounts make it easy for predators to encourage kids to share personal information, pictures, and videos.
Considered a primary sexting app, a message, photo, or video is supposed to disappear after the time limit set by the user. But with a simple screen shot, recipients can save the picture and share it whenever they choose.
Any presumption of privacy was also dashed during “The Snappening” in the fall of 2014 when hundreds of thousands of snaps were leaked by a third party app. Participants who expected their message to have a lifespan of ten seconds now live with the fear that compromising photos may resurface at any time…and in any place.
Users create anonymous messages known as yaks. Posts can only be seen by others within a ten-mile radius of their location. Participants are encouraged to share personal posts in hopes their yaks will be “voted up,” giving them a higher “Yakarma” score. But details, combined with the limited geographical boundaries, can easily compromise anonymity.
The expectation of anonymity within a local area also emboldens cyber-bullies and local predators. Believing they are safe from identification, users become comfortable making threats and engaging in other criminal activity.
Psst. Wanna hear a secret? Another online trend is a growing number of sites and apps offering users the opportunity to post confessions, secrets, and regrets.
The guise of anonymity makes sharing secrets and confessions with strangers easier than becoming vulnerable with those we know. As a result, online confessionals are now flourishing, including sites and apps such as:
Participants use postcards to mail their secrets anonymously. The website publishes ten new secrets each week. Secrets range from tender to obscene and users eagerly search the website to see if their secret was deemed worthy of publication.
Users share their secrets by posting messages superimposed on images. Participants are assured of anonymity, which the site claims eliminates the potential for cyber-bullying and ruined relationships.
But in order to participate, users must grant access to their smartphone’s camera as well as their contact list. And participants can communicate via GPS, which compromises anonymity.
These trends and sites do not compose a comprehensive list. No such list exists. As parents become aware of the existence of some trends, teens will gravitate to new and even more dangerous ones. The problem is an ever-evolving, moving target that requires diligence and vigilance on the part of parents and other adults who have the opportunity to influence kids today.
So what’s a parent to do?
It may not sound very practical, but the first thing we need to do is pray. Only when we realize this is a spiritual battle can we hope to protect our kids.
Educate yourself. Learn what’s out there. Know what is entering your home through your kids’ cell phones, tablets, and computers.
Don’t assume your children know the dangers, no matter how obvious they may seem to you. Talk to your kids…and keep educating them. But don’t just talk…
If you don’t listen to your children, someone else will. So don’t just talk to your kids, listen to them, too. What are they curious about? What concerns them? If they won’t talk to you, find a trusted adult they will open up to. Drama aside, it really could be a matter of life and death. Besides, they will probably learn about these and other questionable sites faster than you will!
Spend time with your kids. You’ll learn more about your child while sharing some fun than in trying to force a conversation they might not be ready to have. But choose something they want to do, even if it’s outside your comfort zone.
6. Don’t assume
You may think your child is safe because you’ve had these conversations and regularly check their devices.
However, the 2014 McAfee study noted that 80% of tweens and teens “have had a conversation with their parents on how to stay safe online” and 77% admitted that what they post online can’t be deleted. Yet most kids still share too much personal information. Fifty percent posted their email address, 30% posted their phone number, and 14% posted their home address. These numbers add up to trouble.
Some apps even disguise themselves. KYMS is an app that hides behind a calculator icon. The app touts the benefit of keeping photos and videos secret from prying eyes. But kids may use it to circumvent parental controls.
Stay informed and stay involved. The information superhighway is a valuable tool. Still, when it resembles the Wild West, kids need to be protected…especially from themselves.
Ava Pennington teaches a Bible Study Fellowship class. She is also the author of Daily Reflections on the Names of God: A Devotional, published by Revell Books and endorsed by Kay Arthur. Learn more at www.AvaWrites.com
Publication date: February 3, 2015