In what is likely no real surprise to savvy Web watchers, but may have been a rude wake up call to parents with kids who are all over social media, it turns out nothing is really ephemeral on the web.
Evidence came recently as The New York Times reported that Snapchat, the popular mobile messaging service, agreed to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission that messages sent through the company's app did not disappear as easily as promised and that it may have misled users about how their information is stored and shared, even if unintentionally.
This development has likely wiped away the last traces of the "what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet" thinking.
But with younger and younger kids getting online (because even toddlers see their parents use all kinds of devices) what does this mean for parents concerned about their kids roaming the social web?
How do parents talk to their kids about being smart on social media, what they share there and who they share it with? Some ideas:
Kids under 10: A 2013 study found more than half of children use social media by the age of 10. The good news? Two thirds (67 per cent) turn to their parents when they experience difficulties online, the poll found.
How can you help kids at this age?
- Be there: Help kids understand they can ask you anything about online and you'll answer without judging. This encourages them to come to you first.
- Show them: Sometimes kids at this age are too accepting of what's in front of them. Find gentle ways to tell them that some people share inappropriate things just to get attention and, worse, some have bad intentions. Repeat this message regularly because at this age repetition is what makes a message stick.
- Don't wait: It's especially important to take any opportunity (a TV show, a conversation about one of their friends) to talk openly about the good and the bad on the web in general and social media in particular. Again, let them know they can come to you with any questions.
- Be patient: Small doses of information, repeated as needed (not nagging) will eventually get the message there.
- Guide them: Suggest that sharing anything online with anyone other than a family member or a friend their parents know may be dangerous.
Kids 11-13: Legally these kids are still too young to be allowed a Facebook page, for example. But the reality is that more than half of them are on Facebook and other social networks.
In addition to the steps above how can you specifically help kids at this age?
- Understand: At this stage kids might be unrealistically confident about their ability to handle themselves online. Gently ask questions that show them situations they might not know how to handle.
- Set limits: Now is the optimal age to get agreement (in writing if you must be sure it's clear) about how much time on social networks and at what time of day is OK. Modeling good online habits can also make this easier. Start with no more than an hour per day (perhaps broken up into 30 minutes after school and 30 minutes after dinner).
- Co-opt a sibling: If there is an older sibling in the house ask them to help their younger brother or sister navigate the online world. This will depend on the age and maturity of the older child, but it can also be a way for the younger child to hear of scary experiences and learn from the other's experiences.
- Discuss bullying: This is the age that online bullying can become an issue. Talk about this with kids and encourage them to speak up when they see it.
- Offer empathy: At this age they will hate the limits. It's their job to test limits and yours to set them based on your values.
Kids 14-18: Probably the most-dangerous ages for teens online. They're doing what teenagers have always done - trying to figure out where they fit it, how to be cool and how to push the limits - except now they are doing these things online in places that might keep public records of that activity forever.
They're also old enough to know their way around the social networks and, mostly, nowhere near mature enough to understand the consequences of everything they do online.
In addition to the steps in the age groups above how can you specifically help kids at this age?
- Listen: Keep track of the big things the kids talk about and the little things. Listen for anything that suggests social media is causing stress in their lives. Ask about that stress. If kids at this age are using social media to relax and communicate, that's normal. If they are using it and its causing them to get upset, there's a problem.
- Ask: Come up with non-threatening, non-judgmental ways to ask your kids what they really like about a social media platform they are on. Reassure them that you're just curious. Ask them to show you how a social network works (because it's highly likely they're on some platforms you aren't). And, again be hyper aware for any signs that social media is causing distress and offer to be a set of ears.
Kids, 18 and Older: Yeah, they're not really kids anymore, but online they are likely still acting like kids.
Despite the talk about how future employers, voters and even future spouses etc. will become increasingly tolerant of youthful online indiscretions, it is far more likely that things you do at 18 or older could and will haunt you in the future.
At this age what can you do to make them realize that the "web is forever"?
- Show: Ask if you can show them something about yourself that was posted online many years ago that no longer represents who you are or how you'd like people to think about you. Now ask them to imagine a scenario when that posting involved something that an employer might find objectionable. Use this as a springboard to discuss such ideas as "think twice, send once" and "How would grandma (or someone else important in their life) feel if they saw this?" All the while being non-judgmental and expressing that their future happiness is your primary concern.
- Reassure: Try to take the discussion to the next level by asking about things that your child sees or hears online that make them uncomfortable and how they handle that. Tell them that they likely have a good "internal compass" and if something makes them uncomfortable they don't have to be part of it and you're always available to answer questions.
So, what do you think? Are there other things parents can do to help their kids navigate and stay safe online and in social media?