According to data released by the United States Attorney’s Office, 92 percent of teens are online at least one time every day, and 71 percent of them use more than one social media site.
Most teenagers have access to a cell phone, tablet and the Internet. United States Attorney William Ihlenfeld puts on informational programs for parents and students about the dangers of living in a digital world. “Mobile devices can be weapons of self destruction, if they’re not careful with them they can do a lot of damage,” he said.
No one knows that damage better than Sergeant Scott Adams, who works on the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force with the West Virginia State Police. Every month, he makes about four visits to schools or homes of teenagers he has to investigate. In many cases, the social media sites contact the police about inappropriate content.
“A lot of teenagers are very surprised that first of all things are monitored the way that they are,” Sgt. Adams said. In a lot of cases, the parents are very surprised that their children are involved in this type of activity. “Of course, most parents, me being one of them, think your children are great, and they very seldom do anything wrong. But if parents are not involved in their children’s social media accounts and what they’re looking at, then they tend to be very surprised as to what their children are doing online,” he said.
Ihlenfeld and Adams recently put on a presentation for parents at Woodsdale Elementary School for parents of kids an teenagers. “Some of the stories we hear, I talk to police officers every day, and some of the things school resource officers are hearing and seeing about what kids are doing in the fifth grade are shocking,” Ihlenfeld said.
Karri Thomas is the mother of two teenage girls. She said she checks their phones on a random basis. “To make sure on who they’re talking to, and what’s being said to them, and what they’re saying,” she said.
Karri said she also has a rule that she has to be friends with the girls on social media sites so she can monitor what they post. She also monitors which apps are downloaded onto their phones.
Many parents are aware of some of the bigger social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But, according to Ihlenfeld and Adams, there are far more dangerous and new apps that parents need to be aware about.
“We’ve had several investigations dealing with one of the sites, it’s called Whisper, and also Tango is another one that we spoke about,” Adams said. Whisper is an app where people can post “confessions” or whatever is on their mind at the time. Since it is anonymous, teens can have the freedom to share how they feel without any backlash or judgment from anyone. In a pamphlet put out by the West Virginia State Police, it notes that Whisper can be very sexual for some, and there is even a “meet up” section within the app.
Tango is an app that users can send video, voice and text messages for free. Users can also accept or decline calls using location settings. The app also has a section for group chats, games and music. Chatting can include as many as 300 conversations at one time.
Kik is another popular ‘texting’ app that allows users to send messages for free. It has no message limits, character limits or fees under use of the basic features. And since it is contained within an app, the messages and texts won’t show up on the phone’s messaging service, which makes it hard for parents to track.
Text Free is an app that a child can use if they have gone over the service bill and parents have shut off the phone. The app assigns a free texting number, allowing them to send free and unlimited texts to anyone they want.
More common apps like Skype and Facebook Messenger are also used to stay in communication, but are more easily tracked. Parents should make sure their kids are only contacting people they know when using them.
There are also blogging apps and sites, which include Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Vine. Each have settings that can be set to private, but it is up the individual user to do so.
Some of the more dangerous ‘secret’ apps that can be used inappropriately are Snapchat, Burn Note, Whisper and Yik Yak. Snapchat users can send pictures and messages, which are often times goofy or embarrassing because they ‘disappear’ after a certain amount of time. Users can send pictures or videos to a designated ‘friend’ or put them on their ‘story’ for all of their users to see. Contrary to popular belief, Snapchats do not go away forever. Someone on the receiving end can take a screen shot of the message or picture.
Burn Note is comparable to Whisper because users can share a secret, but it does differ in that only portions of the message appear at a time so a screen shot cannot be taken. Yik Yak allows users to post brief comments like Twitter, but it is often used to find out secrets, opinions or rumors within a 1.5 mile radius of the user.
There are also iPhone apps that can hide things, like one that looks like the “calculator” that comes installed on every phone. In the “calculator” app, which is a free download, users can enter a secret code to access a database of photos and videos that are not accessible in the phone’s default photo app.
There are hundreds of social media apps out there, and Adams says parents don’t have to know all of them and how to use them, but to have a vested interest in your child and what they are doing on the device is good parenting. He said with parent involvement, a mutual respect is developed, which helps parents lead open conversations with their kids and teenagers on the dangers social media and apps can present.
“I’m a parent of two teenagers and I have been that parent that you know has taken their phones and said ‘let me look at that’, as parents, we are not their best friend. We are their parents and it’s our job to protect them,” Adams said.
Karri said she also isn’t always popular when she asks her daughters to see their phones, but they understand why she does it. “I’m not their best friend. I’m their mom,” she said. She added that she has talked to her daughters about what they post remains out there forever. “And due to technology at this point, who knows what it’s going to be ten years from now? That someone, if you do a snap chat right now, it disappears, it’s still out there, and ten years from now they may be able to pull that out and there it is. Something you did.”
Ihlenfeld offered some tips for parents to be more involved in their children’s lives on social media:
1) Parents should always know the apps on the phone
2) Parents should control the password for the iTunes or Google Play store so they know what is being downloaded
3) The bedroom should be a technology-free zone to avoid use late at night
4) Parents should offer a contract to their children that both parties sign, which covers Internet, cell phone and social media usage
The West Virginia State Police and the United States Attorneys office both have resources for parents to help them learn about social media and the dangers behind apps. For more information, contact the West Virginia State Police Crimes Against Children Unit at 304-293-6400.