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With the average age of children having access to their own slice of technology getting younger every year, online safety should be a key component for each family.

Online bullying and harassment are on the rise. Across the board, studies have shown that 88 percent of tweens and teens have seen people act cruelly towards others on social media, according to Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank that conducts polls, research and analysis on a variety of subjects. Additionally, two-thirds of teens on the Internet say they know how to hide what they do online from their parents. That’s a scary statistic for any parent.

Many researchers now encourage parents to partner with their children to form a protection plan instead of parents taking on that role on their own. But, how can parents protect their children when using social media? And how can they work with their children to help kids protect themselves? Most of the protection apps available are geared towards parental usage, but new research shows that educating teens is a key factor in helping them stay safe online.

Pamela Wisniewski, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida, headed up a study that was presented earlier this year in Portland, Oregon. Wisniewski and her associates went through 74 Android mobile apps and found that 89 percent of app security features focused solely on parental controls that could block or monitor teen activity. Only 11 percent worked by supporting a teenager’s ability to regulate his or her own behavior.

“Most online safety software are heavily geared toward parental control through restriction and monitoring, treating teens like children instead of teaching them the skills needed to safely engage online as they transition into young adults,” she said.

The result is that parents and teens are not communicating about social media expectations, and parents are not instilling their children with the values they want them to maintain when it comes to social media.

One parent who is concerned as his children grow up in this social media age is South Carolina Congressman Jeff Duncan. According to Duncan, becoming the “friend” of his three boys was the reason he joined Facebook in the first place.

“Education about the dangers of the Internet and social media is important and it all starts with parents talking to their children and making them aware of the risks online,” Duncan said.

According to Wisniewski, studies show that parents think of their teens as risk takers, so when something risky shows up in their social media feed, parents immediately play the blame game. But Wisniewski claims teens are seeking positive and constructive social experiences online. She feels that if parents and their teenage children partner together to facilitate safer online practices, the overall experience is a positive one.

Parents simply can’t keep up with their own Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts as well as all those and more of their teenagers, especially if they have multiple teenagers with multiple accounts in their homes. Giving kids a certain amount of trust is necessary, which means they need to be equipped with the right tools to stay safe with social media, she said.

Wisniewski likens it to teaching a child to ride a bike. You wouldn’t pop a toddler on a two-wheeler and hope for the best. But you also know to expect bumps and bruises along the way as a child eases from tricycle to a bike with training wheels, and eventually riding completely unaided.

“Essentially, that is what we are doing with teens,” she said. “Often, we don’t provide a good transition period so that they can learn and gain their independence. From a developmental psychology perspective, adolescence is defined as a period where teens are supposed to be individuating themselves from their parents and become more autonomous. Taking off the training wheels is hard, but it is a necessary part of allowing teens to grow up.”

Our legislators are also concerned about Internet and social media safety. According to Duncan, a bill was introduced in June and is currently in the House Judiciary Committee for further review.

The bill, the Online Modernization Act of 2017, outlined what online behaviors would be considered offensive, such as sexting or posting private information online as an act of revenge.

“The goal of this legislation is to mitigate online harassment which disproportionally affects women, LGBTQ, and individuals of color,” he said. “It also creates a grant program to provide local and federal law enforcement with the resources and training necessary to deal with cybercrime.”

So how do we work with our teens to keep them safe on social media? Open and honest communication, researchers like Wisniewski say — plain and simple. That’s easier said than done, but teens need to know that they can come to their parents or a trusted adult without fear of shame, blame or at the very least a lecture. A non-judgmental, two-sided conversation is essential, and teens need to know they can come to their parents for help.

Wisniewski said parents tend to over-react when their teens see an inappropriate pop-up ad online. But they don’t realize that teens are seeing much worse things in their social media feeds — things such as pornography, self-harm and sexual deviance. If parents can’t handle the small things, how do teens think they will react with some of the darker sides of the Internet? she asked.

Most monitoring apps are still geared towards complete control by the parents. Finding apps that move away from that and toward both parents and teens working together are preferable.

Here are some suggestions offered by researchers:

Look for apps that aren’t overly invasive into a teen’s privacy. The goal is trust and respect, not a teen feeling like they’re being stalked by parents. Also check for a monitoring app that empowers your teenager and teaches them to problem solve and cope with adverse situations.

Three apps that would work well to foster parent-teen relations online are RAKKOON, ReThink, and Xooloo. These range from helping someone consider the impact of sending negative messages to others, to flagging inappropriate content that allows both the parent and the teen to see the flag.

Overall, when it comes to your maturing children and social media, the most important thing is to have open communication with them. Teach them what to look for in terms of online risks.

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