Family Online Safety Contracts

Father And Son Using Laptop At Home

Father And Son Using Laptop At Home

As my book, The New Age of Sex Education, how to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography, is nearing completion, I am researching resources for parents. One of these resources is the Family Online Safety Institute. This is a very helpful and informative site.

What I love most about the site are the online safety contracts I found there. These contracts not only provide boundaries and guidelines for the child, but also the parent. Here are a few tidbits from the parent contract:

      1. Parents will get to know the services and websites their child uses.

By doing this, the parent agrees to get informed and stay informed. This is critical to responsible digital parenting.

      1. I will not over react if my child tells me about something “bad” he or she finds or does on the Internet.

I LOVE THIS! If a parent can follow through on this part of the contract, they won’t shame their child. It is hard to not be reactive if your child comes to you saying he or she saw pornography or were solicited on a website they should not have been on. However, if you can be calm and talk about the issue, you will go a long way to create safety and not create an aura of shame around sexuality.

      1. I will frequently check to see where my kids have visited and talk to them about my concerns.

These are just a few of the 12 items on the parent contract. These rules facilitate calm and healthy communication between parents and their children.

The site also has Safety Cards specifically for: cell phone, smartphone, gaming systems, tablets and computers. These are designed for a parent to give to their child and discuss when they get a new device. A parent can write their own rules on the card based on their own beliefs and family values. There is also a parent’s promise section on these cards.

Parents promise not to overreact if their child views something inappropriate. The parent also agrees to learn new things and be part of their child’s digital world. Another parent promise is that they, themselves, promise to responsibly use technology. Parents need to model appropriate behaviors such as not texting while driving.

There are many sites that will provide you with resources and many are very good. I wanted to highlight this site because it does such a great job in showing us that parents need to be accountable too. Having rule sand boundaries for both parents and children creates a safe environment that fosters open and honest communication.

A Parent’s Report Card: The Pew Report on Parents, Teens and Digital Monitoring

Father And Son Using Laptop At Home

Father And Son Using Laptop At Home

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center published a report entitled “Parents, Teens and Digital Monitoring”. This survey assessed how parents are managing their parental roles around their child’s use of digital media. I prefer to call it a parental report card.

How do Parent’s Monitor Behavior?

The abundance of monitoring apps and filtering software might make you think that there are a lot of parents using these monitoring options. The survey determined that 39% of parents used some type of parental control to filter or monitor their teen’s online activity. A more hands on approach appears to be more common, with 69% of parents checking their teens’ social media profile. Parents of younger teens are more active in monitoring or policing their child’s behavior. This finding is consistent with other published research.

In total, 84% of parents are monitoring their teen’s behavior in some fashion. This leaves 16% of online teens using the web, social media and apps completely unmonitored.

Social Media

Social media use is an integral part of teen life. Parents know this. Even though 60% of parents do monitor their child’s social media use, considerably less are active social media participants with their children. Though the report tells us that 72% of parents use Facebook themselves, only 44% of those parents are friends with their teen. Only 9% of parents follow their child on twitter (other social media sites were not specifically quantified).

I find myself somewhat concerned about this finding. Several years ago I worked with an amazingly bright teenage girl whose level of anxiety and depression closely correlated with what was going on socially on twitter. Were people doing things without her? Where they bullying or mocking her? Was she followed or unfollowed? As this goes on in other social media forums (i.e. Instagram), parents need to be more aware and proactive.

Talking to Teens

As I am a staunch advocate for frequent discussions with children about sexuality and online content, I was very interested to see how many parents were talking to their teens about acceptable online content. I was a bit disappointed with the numbers.

The survey asked parents how frequently they talked to their teen about the following things: behavior in school, home or social lives; what to share online; content they should be viewing online; content to consume via TV, books, music, magazines or other media; and online behavior toward others. These discussions were categorized as never, rarely, occasionally, and frequently.

The good news is that upwards of 95% of parents have had the discussion about online content at least one time. However, once is not enough. Only 39% of parents frequently talked to their teen about online content and 40% frequently talked about what to share online. Parents appear to talk to teens 13-14 years old more frequently (49%) but that number drops dramatically (32%) for older teens.

COME ON PARENTS! You can do better than that!

The survey also indicated that moms do more of the talking than dads. Teens need these discussions with both parents together (if possible) or separately. There are some topics that a teen might be more comfortable discussing with a same (or different) gender parent. Let’s step up your game Dads.

Demographic variables appear to have some influence on how frequently a parent talks to a teen about online content. The parents who most frequently talk to their teens about the online world tend to be less affluent (making less than 30 thousand a year), and less educated (high school diploma or less). The highest educated and most affluent parents talk to their teen the least.

Digital Immigrant vs. Digital Native Parents

The survey clearly showed that younger parents (under 45) are more engaged in their child’s digital world. They monitor more, check websites more, talk more, have access to their children’s passwords and monitor their child’s social networking more. This result also coincides with newer research. As digital natives start to have families, they bring their level of tech savvy to their parenting.

In the end, parents are not doing a BAD job managing their child’s digital world. They are not doing a great job either. There is much room for improvement.

Webcam Trolling and Children

girl and web camera

little girl look to the web camera in her hand and smile

A study recently published online in the Telematics and Informatics journal brought to light the problems of webcam trolls and how they can victimize children on chat sites.

First, let’s talk about webcam trolls. Many people are likely familiar with the term troll that is often used for people who post disruptive, mean, or harmful communication on the websites or social media sites of others. It is not uncommon to see a comment in the news about some celebrity replying to a troll who posted something on their social media site that is perhaps fat shaming, sexist, racist, homophobic etc. While this is becoming a relatively common occurrence, webcam trolls are not as well known.

A webcam troll is someone who engages in trolling in online forums, like the site Chatroulette. They may show pre-recorded video loops instead of live time video. Webcam trolls also may phish for information on these sites.

How do webcam trolls go after children? The answer is through initiating contact, often under false pretenses, and requesting erotic video chatting. The troll is often using a fake identity and a video loop. Through the chat process, the child is convinced to expose themselves on the cam or engage in sex acts on the cam for the other person. The person on the other end of the chat will record the sessions and they can be used for blackmail at a later time. The children are often threatened with exposure to peers and parents. Adults who are webcam trolled are frequently extorted for money. Children are frequently blackmailed for more erotic content.

When this type of webcam trolling occurs, children do not usually go to their parents to tell them what has happened. The children are often scared and don’t want to face the shame of telling their parents what they have done online with a stranger.

We may think that these types of things only happen on chat sites that have a reputation for being sexual or nefarious. However, this study shares the case of an 11 year old child who was playing Minecraft online. Anyone who is aware in our world knows that Minecraft is a video game that is insanely popular with kids. Part of playing this game is the ability to chat with others. In this particular case, the online chat friendship included simulated sex acts. When the online friendship went bad, the other child posted these videos online for the public to see.

The moral of this particular case is to not assume that your child is not at risk because they are not on chat sites. If they are video gaming online, they are open to this practice.

While webcam trolling does not happen frequently, it does occur. The authors suggest that prevention measures be taken such as not sharing personal data online as well as technically safeguarding the computer. They also suggest that if a person is engaging in chat with someone, they ask them to write a particular message on a piece of paper and show it in the web cam. This practice will help distinguish video loops from real people. Our long term suggestion is that computers and devices with webcam ability should always be used in a public part of the house, not in a child’s bedroom

As always, discussion and awareness help prevention as well. Talk to your child about web cam trolling.

For more information on children and cybersex risk please see our page The New Age of Sex Education.

Kopecky, K. (2016) Misuse of web cameras to manipulate children within the so called webcam trolling. Telematics and Informatics, 33, 1-7

Empowering Kids to Cope with Online Risk

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Part of my goal to slow down this summer is to catch up on my reading. Recently, I was introduced to the work of several researchers at Penn State (Wisniewski, Jia, Carroll, Xu & Ronsen). This team of researchers from Penn State are in the College of Information Sciences and Technology and some of their work relates to teen safety online.

This spring, the team of Penn State researchers presented data at the Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing Conference. The paper: Preventative vs. Reactive. How Parental Mediation Influences Teens’ Social Media Privacy Behaviors won an award. Looking at parenting styles in relationship to teens’ computer use is critical. The majority of what the average person is exposed to on the topic of teen safety involves filters and blocks. This is counter to what the research says is the most effective way to handle adolescents online behavior. Blocking something doesn’t make it go away and often creates secrecy as teens will find a way to get around the blocks or use an unfiltered device.

I have previously written about parenting style and how it affects kids’ behavior online. Each researcher defines parenting style differently. In this situation, two parental mediation strategies were defined. The first, Direct Parental Intervention, involves parents intervening through the use of parental controls on a device, filtering software and/or setting up social media privacy settings for them. The second mediation strategy, Active Parental Mediation, involves talking to the teen about the information they post and reviewing the information that the teen posts with them. This is a more communication based strategy.

In discussing this research, we also have to look at what they determined to be risky online behavior. The majority of what I write about is risky online sexual behavior, but there are other things kids do online that are risky. For this study, risky online behavior was defined as sharing of information such as name, birth date and relationship status, sharing of sensitive information such as videos, phone numbers and partaking in risky interactions which could be talking to strangers online or sharing location. They also looked at whether or not teens engaged in risk-coping behaviors which were defined as talking to others about the situation or taking corrected measures to counter the risk (blocking, deleting posts, closing an account.)

While both parenting styles are effective, they are so in different ways. Parents who directly intervene do have children who are more cautious online. These teens sought advice as to how to manage online privacy and didn’t really need to take any corrective actions. Therefore, this parenting style helped teens avoid risk.

Though avoidance of risk may feel like it is a good thing, this avoidance has some side effects. Direct intervention and avoidance may prevent teens from experiencing some of the benefits of the internet. It also does not teach kids how to cope with risk and learn from their mistakes. Children whose parents were active mediators did have more autonomy online. They did make more risky disclosures but were afforded the ability to learn how to deal with the online world. The authors suggest that “Parental active mediation allows teens to be more experiential and reflective because their parents are not attempting to directly control their social media privacy behaviors.” This research suggests, like the work of Carol Dweck and others, that we need to make mistakes in order to learn how to cope and be effective.

The idea of allowing their child to take some online risks and engage in some risky online behaviors in terms of privacy might feel uncomfortable to many parents. Most parents fear that if their child is not monitored they will be more at risk for contact with strangers online. This is not necessarily so. The research indicated that teens connecting with strangers or being contacted by others in an uncomfortable manner is something teens worry about too. This risk taking behavior by teens was not associated with either parenting style, meaning that being more restrictive did not make this less likely to happen.

As I continue to advocate, the research indicates that parents have to have open conversations with their children about these issues. You can’t just block and not discuss! The authors also suggested the need for parental monitoring software that can be used to facilitate conversations with parents and children. An app such as Pocket Guardian is a great solution as it does not block the device but alerts the parent when certain types of messages are received or sent.

We cannot prevent our children’s exposure to sex, risk and cyberbullying. This exposure happens even with the most stringent blocking software in place. We need to educate ourselves and our children. We need to have these difficult conversations. We need to teach children how to cope with risk in a healthy way.

To quote Dr. Wisniewski, “You don’t want to parent strictly based on fear, you want to parent based on empowerment.

After School App adds with new safety features

I sometimes wonder whether or not app developers read the news stories about apps that are like their own? Did After School not think that its app would suffer the same fate as Yik Yak or others before it?

As a refresher, After School is an app that provides an anonymous site for high school age teens to post their thoughts and feelings on life with fellow high schoolers. The app, like others, quickly was used for cyberbullying and other inappropriate content posted by teens. After School did not close down the app after negative publicity but did work to retool its features. The goal was to stick to their mission and increase safety. The app now has a zero tolerance policy for hateful content.

The app also has created multiple layers to ensure safe posting by users. The first change is that now every single post on the app is reviewed by a human for approval before it is posted. This “Human layer” ensures that truly harmful posts will not even make it to the public forum. Another layer of safety included now involves potential self harm. If a user posts a message that may indicate they want to harm themselves, the app will ask the user if they want to actually talk to someone.

On the user end, other safety measures were added. After School now allows parents to restrict the app via passwords and to restrict the content of the app. Users are not allowed to use profanity unless they are at least 17 years old and the app can verify that by being shown a picture of the users ID.

I am pleased to see that these types of anonymous apps are taking safety precautions now but I wonder why these things are not in place from the time they launch the app. We know that some teens will use these apps to bully others and send mean messages. Why does it take bad press before an app creator takes safety precautions?

Learn more about what kids are doing online at www.thenewsageofsexeducation.com

How to keep kids safe online and build trust

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Over the weekend, an article came out in the Daily Mail  from the UK discussing children as young as ten who are fighting pornography addiction. While this might have been news for the general public, this is something that is common knowledge in the field of sexual addiction treatment. The age of those addicted to pornography continues to get younger and younger.

Many parents, when faced with the either the media buzz or the reality of what their child is doing online, look for resources to help. The most common resource in this arena is filtering software. Traditional filtering software blocks access to certain websites or types of content. Depending on the software, a parent can block content via a pre-determined age delineation, block specific web pages, block app downloads, block social media usage and get a report of what sites their child is visiting on their phone, tablet and computer. Another option for parents are “spying” apps. These apps make the parent privy to every single thing that happens on the device. Parents can read emails, text messages, instant messaging, etc.

While these apps can be helpful in some cases and are created to help increase safe digital use, they are not fail safe and may not be the best option for a child depending on their age. The major flaw in any type of monitoring app is that a teen is likely to figure out a way around it. The digital native generation is often more tech savvy than their parents. As soon as an app comes out for a device, there are youtube videos published that will teach the child how to get around it. A monitoring app only stops a child from watching pornography on their own device. If they don’t get around it on their phone, for example, they can still get access to inappropriate content on a friend’s device. As the Daily Mail article explains, one child accessed the neighbor’s wifi when his parents took away his device.

I think that blocking or filter software can be very helpful in some cases. Often, a parent will install the software and think that all is well. They then do not talk to their child about content online, digital sexuality or cyberbullying. There is the thought that “if I put on the app, my child will be safe and I don’t have to deal with it.” This is very faulty thinking. Even if the app decreases your child’s access to digital sexuality, it should NEVER be used as a replacement for discussion about the topic. Filtering or blocking software is something that I would employ for younger children when you want to prevent inadvertent access to adult content online. This method is great for what Dr. Laurence Steinberg calls the starting the engine phase of adolescent brain development. In this phase, when puberty first arrives, the young teenage brain lacks a braking system and self control.

However, as a teenager gets older and his or her brain continues to develop, they begin to learn and work to master self control. This is the time to start to develop trust. If you, as a parent, filter your child’s content until she or he is 18 and never talk about it or give them a chance at self mastery, you can potentially set them up to have problems when they are on their own, in college or generally without strong adult supervision. Continuing to completely filter technology does nothing to foster the growth of trust in the relationship between parent and child. Instead of using blocking software or spying on a teen, a parent could institute a transparency policy. Perhaps there is no filter but the parent has open access to all content on the phone if they wish to see it. This technique, when used in concert with open and frequent communication can be effective and works to build a trusting relationship between parent and child.

If a parent wishes to continue to monitor the content of their child, an app such as PocketGuardian might be a better option. This app provides parents with an alert that there is content on the child’s phone that is potentially sexual or bullying without giving the parent the actual content. This app allows the parent to have a discussion with the child about digital use while maintaining some level of privacy for the child.

Ultimately, the decision to filter, block or monitor your child’s phone, tablet and/or computer is a very personal one. The monitoring industry will tell you that it is a wise decision and will protect your child. This is likely true for some children. What we do know from both clinical work and the research is that, where there is a will there is a way, and monitoring is not terribly effective for protecting children online. The research also tells us that open and honest communication with parents and a good parental relationship is a protective factor against high risk sexual behavior.

PocketGuardian: New App to Help Parents Detect Sexting and Cyberbullying

As a clinician who is very interested in prevention, I always have my eye out for new strategies or ways to help parents be aware of what their children are doing online and on their smartphones. We all see enough news stories to know that, though not all children are sexting, a large enough number of kids are sexting, bullying and being bullied that we all need to be aware.

This morning I heard about a new app developed by two dads from Maryland who both happen to be software developers. According to an interview on CBS DC, the dad’s were inspired to create this app after hearing about and discussing a news story about a student who committed suicide. The teens suicide was due to cyberbullying and the fall out of a nude photo being passed around. The dads developed a new app called PocketGuardian.

Like myself, these two dads came to understand that most parents do not know what their children are doing and find out too late if they are sexting. The app they have developed is different from traditional monitoring apps or software. Traditional monitoring or filtering block a user from accessing inappropriate apps or websites. Some apps allow the parent to be privy to every single text the users sends and receives. PocketGuardian is different. The app states that is NOT for spying.

PocketGuardian sends an alert to the parent if the app detects sexually explicit messages, nude photographs or text messages that could be seen as bullying. The app does not send the parent the full content of the message. This way, the parent can be alerted to what the child is doing but the child can maintain some sense of privacy. The parent can then initiate a discussion with their child about their behavior. I really like this model of monitoring. By the parents not seeing the exact message and being alerted only to the fact that there is an inappropriate message, the shame of being caught in this act might be lessened for the child. Also, the parent’s embarrassment might also be lessened, as they don’t know exactly what was said. Lessening the embarrassment of the parent increases the chances of them having a difficult discussion as we know from research that one of the main things that keeps parents from talking to their children about sex is embarrassment.

PocketGuardian has not yet launched but will be available for iOS and Android platforms. You can sign up on the website for information about the launch dates.

This is smart technology for smart and informed parents.

Burnbook: Latest Anonymous App for teens

Friends Using Smart Phone While Leaning Against Wall

Anyone who has seen the movie Mean Girls instantly knows what this new app is all about. It is the latest in a series of apps that are designed for teens or young adults and offers a platform for anonymous posting.

This app is new, published only about two months ago. It is specifically targeted at high schoolers and allows them to engage in anonymous posting that is organized by their school. As with any of the app’s predecessors, there are already issues with its use among teens. The only rules seem to be these three: 1. a user is responsible for their content. 2. no nudity or violence and 3. don’t harass other people.

There have already been issues in schools in Oregon, Texas and California with issues of cyberbullying to bomb threats. Already, petitions have been created to remove the app from availability. The owner and creator of the app, Jonathan Lucas has had an interesting response. News sources have reported that the creator is turning the blame around. The app has a 17+ rating. He questions why children under 17 are using the app. Lucas stated that if a parent sets restrictions on the phone of their child, the child won’t be able to use it

In theory, these types of apps are great. Give teens a place to share thoughts and secrets anonymously. It is kind of like “dear diary” but with no worries about your sibling or mom or dad finding the diary and reading it. The problem is that the reality of these apps does not match their theoretical purpose. Perhaps it is human nature or at least adolescent nature to use these apps to share nasty comments, to bully, threaten or exclude others.

Though I am not a fan of these types of apps, I do feel that the founder, Mr. Lucas, has a very valid point. Is it not the duty of the parents to know what their children are doing on their phones? Wouldn’t it be better if parents understood what their children were doing online and paid closer attention? We live in a capitalist-driven technological world. Though a petition may shut down one app, another is sure to pop up in it’s stead.

The common denominator with all of these apps is: parents need to be more involved with their children’s digital lives. They need to know what is going on and to talk to their children about the apps they use and how they use them.

For more information on tech savvy parenting see our new book:  The New Age of Sex Education: How to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography.  

SnapChat Safety Center

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(Image from Snapchat website)

News across the tech blogs yesterday informed us that Snap Chat has partnered with three non-profit safety organizations to help raise awareness of the safe use of its app. They also launched a safety center (www.snapchat.com/safety) which has sections for users as well as parents.

The page is a great resource for adult users. I imagine that the teens are not going to go to the safety site to check things out. There are separate resource pages for community rules, safety and for parents and teachers.

The safety section is limited. It does provide a link for setting up privacy settings and a link to report cyberbullying. The section does link to ConnectSafely.org’s page for cyberbullying. Connect Safely’s page on Cyberbullying is quite a wonderful resource. It provides information for kids on how to deal with bullies and it also clearly tells them it is not their fault. There is also a very nice section for parents that provides help and advice on how to deal with situations in which their child may be the recipient of cyberbullying.

The section for parents and children sends them to the ConnectSafely’s Parent’s Guide to Snapchat (http://www.connectsafely.org/wp-content/uploads/snapchat_parents_guide.pdf). As wonderful a job as ConnectSafely does in their guide for bullying, they drop the ball when it comes to sexting. The comments in the guide about sexting fall short. The guide states that news coverage calls Snapchat the sexting app (which is true) but most teens don’t share racy pictures on Snapchat. “But most people – including most teens — don’t use Snapchat that way. They use it because it’s fun.” In a later section on sexting the document repeats the statement that sexting is not as common as the media reports suggest. They do refer users to yet another page about sexting.

The advice on this page, Tips for Dealing with Sexting, tells parents to delete the pictures so they don’t risk having child pornography on their phone. Then parents are directed to have a conversation with the child about the pictures as well as the possible psychological and legal impacts. The rest of the advice is about whether or not to involve the school or call the police.

.Their advice on sexting falls woefully short of adequate. Parents should talk to their children about more than the legal aspects of possibly being charged with possessing child pornography. Shouldn’t parents also then talk to their children about sexting itself? Why do some teens engage in the practice? What does it mean in their social circle? What role does it play in their adolescent culture? What is the child’s own beliefs on sexuality and the practice?

I might sound nit picky, because Snapchat is at least doing something. This is definitely a step in the right direction. ConnectSafely is doing great work and trying to get the message out there. I simply wish that even among organizations that talk about sexting and sexuality on the internet, there was more of a discussion of actual sexuality and sex education as opposed to legal consequences.

UPDATE: After School App

Friends Using Smart Phone While Leaning Against Wall

According to the Techcrunch blog (http://techcrunch.com/2014/12/11/after-school-app-again-pulled-by-apple-after-more-school-shooting-threats/) the controversial app, After School was taken off of the app store sometime yesterday. It is unknown at this time if the app will return to the marketplace.

This second removal comes after yet another round of issues including several youth using the app to make anonymous threats of violence and shooting. Earlier this week it was reported that a student was arrested in Detroit based on threats.

What is becoming more clear is that teens (as well as adults) love an anonymous site. These sites can be used in the way they were intended, to post anonymous thoughts or feelings. However, with enough frequency to cause problems, they are used to bully or tease other teens on the app. They are also being used to threaten violence. It is unclear as if any of the teens arrested for violent threats had the intent or means to go through with the threats, but the posts are taken very seriously.

Though the apps are “anonymous” perhaps the teens are unaware that nothing on the internet is truly anonymous. There is always a way to locate the origin of a post. Additionally, these latest developments further the cause of parental involvement.

Parents, I continue to urge that you talk to your children about their technology. Are they on this app? Do they know friends who use it? Have they ever seen any bullying on the apps they use (this or others like it). Teach your children how to report bullying and violence on the apps they use and encourage them to talk to you about things they see that make them uncomfortable. Encourage your children to use such apps in a way that reflects well upon them. As Connectsafely.org says, “share thoughtfully.”