A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that using social media is among the most common activities for today's children and young adults.
There's no denying social media has become a huge part of human culture. But how are parents supposed to know if the social media horror stories they hear about young people are real or intended to inspire fear and concern in adults who weren't raised on the technology?
A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that using social media is among the most common activities for today's children and young adults, with 22 percent of teenagers logging onto their favorite social media sites more than 10 times a day. It defined social media as social networking websites such as Facebook, gaming sites such as Club Penguin, video sites such as YouTube, blogs and apps such as Snapchat.
The AAP study also found that social media use by tweens and teens had both positive and negative effects on their emotional and social growth.
Joseph Mazer, associate professor and associate chair of the department of studies at Clemson University, oversees the social media listening center at the college. He agrees there are serious dangers for young people who use social media, but that social media also isn't without merit.
'"I think social media, like anything in life, has positive and negative characteristics associated with it," Mazer said. "Yes, there are benefits to being on social media in terms of relationship building and fostering strong interpersonal connections with friends who are local, friends who are long distance, as well as family members who are long distance."
Rick Floyd, information security for Greenville County Schools and a former member of the Greenville City Police Department, said he doesn't want to seem like a scaremonger, but the dangers of social media are far-reaching for youth. It's up to parents to be the first-line of defense, he said.
"It's hard for a lot of parents today because they weren't raised on social media, so they don't understand how severe the danger is," he said. "Most parents are afraid to have that dialogue, but children in third-, fourth- and fifth-grade are starting to sext and to become victims of cyberbullying. It's in elementary schools now. It's a very important topic for parents these days."
So how do parents make sure their children are using social media in positive ways?
It starts with parents
Floyd often visits schools, churches and other organizations to discuss a serious topic with parents — how to keep children safe online.
During a recent session at Bethel Elementary School in Simpsonville, he showed videos to a small crowd of parents that demonstrated how quickly and easy it is to find information about young people online. One video illustrated how parents themselves are to blame for sharing too much information about their children by revealing personal details on mommy blogs and Facebook.
A former member of the police department who still specializes in crimes against children, Floyd explained to the parents gathered that he used to make arrests daily, capturing predators who used the Internet to target children.
"A lot of times when we make arrests, there's a lot of pictures on the suspect's computer that come from the Internet, that come from Facebook and other places, pictures that might look innocent to you when you post them, but they're using those pictures for sexual gratification," Floyd said.
One mother raised her hand. "Say that happens, and a picture is online and they take a child's picture and that person gets arrested, would the sheriff's office then notify the parents of the child in the picture?" she asked.
"You may never know," Floyd said. "If it's something to do with child pornography, yes, but there are times when the parents may never know."
After the hour-long session, many parents looked shell-shocked by the information they'd been exposed to, which included signs of cyberbullying, secret texting language used for sexting, and video testimonials from youth who had been victimized by Internet predators.
"Nothing really surprised me except for how much what's posted on social media affects kids in their private lives," said Lisa Helvey, a mother of three, including two in elementary school and one in middle school. "It's eye-opening how quickly it's changing, and it's hard to stay on top of, as a parent who hasn't grown up with technology."
Helvey said she already monitored her older son's text messages but planned to be more careful overseeing his social media usage in future.
"As he gets older, I'll definitely need to be more vigilant," she said. "It's scary."
Floyd said only a few years ago, the biggest threat to youth online came via Facebook.
"Young people aren't using Facebook anymore," he said. "Parents and grandparents and adults are on Facebook. Now we're seeing the dangers for children on apps like Twitter, YikYak, Snapchat and Instagram."
Floyd recommended parents install apps such as WebWatcher and Net Nanny on their children's phones to monitor their social media behavior.
"They can be installed and your children will never know they're there," he said. "They'll allow you to see everything and to be able to respond immediately if you see sexting or cyberbullying."
Floyd said studies show that 15 percent of youth surveyed admitted to sexting and 25 percent said they had received a sext.
"Don't say, 'My children would never do that' because good kids make mistakes," he said.
He said more and more colleges are monitoring social media when awarding scholarships and considering admissions.
"I've heard of kids whose future looked bright until they got rejected from the college they always wanted to attend because of a picture they posted on Facebook five years ago," Floyd said. "If you wouldn't post it on a billboard on Woodruff Road, you shouldn't post it online."
Mazer said although there are positive aspects to using social media, one of the biggest dangers he and his students observe is cyberbullying.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, cyberbullying is the deliberate use of digital media to communicate false, embarrassing or hostile information about another person. It is the most common online risk for all teens today.
"When you talk about cyberbullying, a lot of cyberbullying happens online because of the anonymity factor," Mazer said. "Research tells us people are more likely to do more aggressive things and act more aggressively online when they're able to remain anonymous than they are face to face. That has real implications for parents as they oversee their children's usage of social media."
Floyd said cyberbullying is dangerous because it spreads faster than bullying.
"Kids can't escape it," he said. "They go home, and it's still there."
Clemson University recently received a grant that is allowing Mazer and his colleagues to develop a tool for parents to help combat the problem of cyberbullying.
"We have a social media listening center where we're able to listen in on over 650 million sources of social media conversations as they happen across all mainstream social media outlets," he said. "We're looking across all social media to see how cyberbullying is occurring online and what those messages actually look like, and then using that information to develop the app with some researchers in computer science. We're trying to develop a baseline on how social media is used to carry out cyberbullying attacks and to use that to develop a mechanism to detect and intervene when it happens."
Parents wary of social media shouldn't dismiss the positive benefits, Mazer said. Staying connected with grandparents long distance has never been easier, and when a child's friend moves away, he can now stay in touch.
"I think we, as educators, need to do a good job of integrating social media into the courses we teach in schools, and teaching young people in elementary, junior high, high school, and college about the effective use of social media," he said.
He suggested parents get familiar with the apps and websites their children frequent.
"When we think about the counter arguments to parents educating their children on social media, what comes to mind very quickly is that some parents might not be very technologically savvy," he said. "If a child is being cyberbullied online and a parent is not very proficient in that technology, the likelihood of a parent being able to intervene and stop that kind of behavior and remove their child from that situation is unlikely. It all begins at the education level for everyone."
5 tips for monitoring your child's social media
Rick Floyd, information security for Greenville County Schools and a former member of the Greenville City Police Department, and Joseph Mazer, associate professor and associate chair of the department of studies at Clemson University, offered the following tips for keeping kids safe online.
- Don't allow kids younger than 13 on Facebook. Although the age limit is 13, Facebook has no way to enforce the rule. That's where parents come in.
- Check the privacy settings on your child's phone and apps. Disabling the location services on apps can keep predators from tracking their location.
- Use monitoring apps such as Net Nanny and WebWatcher to track your child's social media behavior.
- Have a discussion. Talk to your children about the positive and negative ways to use social media, and set ground rules.
- Stay educated. Floyd offers seminars year round to help educate parents on the latest apps and websites. Find the list of his seminars online at the website for Greenville County Schools. Under the menu labeled Students & Parents, click Internet Safety Information.
12 popular apps and what they do
These apps are popular among tweens and teens, and also represent opportunity for misuse, according to Rick Floyd, information security for Greenville County Schools.
- ooVoo — A free video chat and instant messaging app for any device. It allows users to make high-quality video calls.
- kik — A free instant messaging app for mobile devices. It allows no phone numbers, only usernames.
- Snapchat — Send text, photos and video to a friend, and unless that person takes a screenshot, the Snap disappears.
- Twitter — Users can tweet or retweet their thoughts or status in 140 characters or less, adding hashtags for more visibility.
- YouTube — A website and application that allows users to share videos with others.
- Periscope — Stream live video to others anywhere in the world using your mobile device.
- YikYak — This app allows users in the same region to post and view text anonymously in a bulletin-board format.
- Instagram — Take and post photos and videos and share them with other users.
- Skout — Find people online locally or globally for dating or friendship.
- 9GAG — Share user-generated humorous photos. It also contains inappropriate content.
- Tinder — Find people to hook up with or date using this app.
- Vine — Watch, create and share short videos that loop.
Sexting language parents should know
According to Rick Floyd, information security for Greenville County Schools, parents should be alarmed if they see the following texts on their children's phones.
- NIFOC — Naked in front of computer
- PIR — Parent in room
- CU46 — See you for sex
- 53X — Sex
- 9 — Parent watching
- 99 — Parent gone
- 1174 — Party meeting place
- THOT — That hoe over there
- CID — Acid, the drug.
- Broken — Hungover from alcohol
- 420 — Marijuana
- POS — Parent over shoulder
- SUGARPIC — Suggestive or erotic photo
- KOTL — Kiss on the lips
- (L)MIRL — Let's meet in real life
- PRON — Porn
- TDTM — Talk dirty to me
- 8 — Oral sex
- CD9 — Parents around
- IPN — I'm posting naked
- LH6 — Let's have sex
- WTTP — Want to trade pictures?
- DOC — Drug of choice
- TWD — Texting while driving
- GYPO — Get your pants off
- KPC — Keeping parents clueless