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Parents need to monitor teens' networking and respect their privacy

May 2, 2011
Kristy MacKaben

By Kristy MacKaben

Mirror Moms

The buzz of a text. The ping of a status update. Social media, it's so darn addicting, especially to teenagers, the most social creatures among us.

Article Photos

Mirror Moms photo by J.D. Cavrich
The Morgan family of Altoona works on laptops and cellphones in their kitchen. From left are Michael, 21, Kathy, and Marissa, 15. At left is Matthew, 17. Kathy Morgan monitors her children’s Facebook sites and promotes time away from technology and face-to-face time with friends.

A 2010 Pew Research study found 73 percent of wired teenagers used social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and three-quarters of all teens in the U.S. owned cellphones.

So, what does all this access mean?

It's safe to say parents of teens didn't own cell phones or use the Internet when they were teens themselves, so navigating the world of social media can be daunting.

Parents might find themselves in a quandary about giving their teens' privacy, setting limits and determining whether there is a problem.

Should I "friend" my kid?

Most teenagers pride themselves on the number of friends they have acquired on Facebook, MySpace or other social sites. But, they'd probably rather not add their parents to their friends' list.

Though it might seem as if you're spying, monitoring activity on social sites is important to keep children safe and holding them accountable, said Christine Zernick, special services coordinator and student assistance program mental health liaison for Altoona Regional Health System.

"It's important to know what their kids are doing. If a parent decided not to be a friend on Facebook, I would hope they would have a credible source to keep an eye on what they're doing," Zernick said.

Kathy Morgan of Altoona is one of the parents who opted not to "friend" her children, Marissa, 15, Matt, 17 and Michael, 21, on Facebook.

Morgan, who is a seventh-grade reading teacher at Altoona Area Junior High School, makes sure to monitor her children's usage of the Internet.

"I'm not friends with them on Facebook, but I do monitor. If they can't show me something, then, to me, something is wrong. I monitor the pictures they put up there. They've been very good about that," Morgan said. "I can understand 'I don't want mom on Facebook.'"

Cheryl Luciano of Altoona is friends with her 15-year-old daughter, Jaylyn, on Facebook and she wouldn't have it any other way.

"It makes me nervous about Facebook and who she's talking to," Luciano said.

Jaylyn, a ninth-grader at Altoona Area Junior High School, said she doesn't mind that her mom is her friend on Facebook. "It's not like I have anything to hide," Jaylyn said.

Can my kids

escape the drama?

Maybe, but it will be hard.

While Luciano said her daughter's involvement with Facebook is innocent, Jaylyn and her friend, Brianna Geist, 15, of Altoona say a lot of their classmates post inappropriate comments or pictures.

There's less accountability when you're conversing online, so social media sites are breeding grounds for drama, hurtful comments and of course cyber bullying.

"I see threats. I have kids who have been threatened, just the terrible things people say to them," said Anne Seno, guidance counselor at Penn Cambria High School, Cresson. "It's pretty harsh some of the things I've read."

Sometimes students will seek help from administrators or guidance counselors if the harassment is bad enough.

If the comments are threatening, police could become involved. If the messages are hurtful or involve rumors, but aren't threatening, Seno often involves parents, and sets up meetings for the students to talk.

Morgan's youngest children both experienced issues with Facebook friends.

"They have found that you can get burnt on Facebook, and there's miscommunication because you're not talking to that person face to face," Morgan said. "They get caught up on what people are sending to each other and talking about."

"There can be drama," Marissa agreed. "With me, it's not a problem, but for other people, you can see people arguing. When it comes to Facebook, some people just become a different person."

Zernick, who works in local schools, said she constantly sees teenagers having issues with social media. Name-calling and harassment are common.

"Some of these kids, they'll be on Facebook and say 'Hey! She's a fat slob. I hate her.' Some don't realize what they said and how hurtful it was," she said.

Morgan notices something's up with her kids when they instantly change moods. Sometimes Marissa or Matt will be happy, and then they receive a text and completely change moods.

She said it's easy to misinterpret something posted on Facebook or sent in a text.

"I think it's more difficult on Facebook or text because there's no inhibitions," Morgan said.

Social media often makes people feel removed from the situation. While it can be empowering and liberating to express feelings or emotions you might not express face to face, it also takes away accountability. Another problem Zernick encounters is students hack into each other's accounts. Too trusting, teenagers often share their passwords or let friends access their accounts.

A few months ago a student hacked into another boy's Facebook page and posted fake pictures of him with cuts on his arm.

"His friend was really concerned about the cuts on his arm," Zernick said. So, administrators, and eventually Zernick got involved. But, when they pulled up the boy's sleeves, he didn't have a scratch.

"Someone had hacked into his account," Zernick said.

Kids need to understand the seriousness of their actions when it comes to social media; parents and educators need to pay attention to what is really happening with teens.

How much is too much?

When Morgan discovered her son, Matt, using the computer in the middle of the night, she knew his Internet usage was getting out of hand. The computer was moved to a central location in the house.

Morgan also has a policy that the kids don't go to bed with their phones, and she has insisted no texting during dinner or family time.

Texting is a big issue for all three kids, who Morgan said don't call friends. It's just texting, emailing or Facebook.

"If you're seeing they're going to bed with their phone, and you think they've gone to bed, but they're still texting at midnight, 1 in the morning, I would say that's a problem," Morgan said. "They've got to let their minds unwind. Those technology devices are a privilege."

Luciano makes sure her daughter, Jaylyn, charges her cellphone in the bathroom, not in her room, where it's too tempting to text in the middle of the night.

Texting and social media can be time-consuming, and it might be a problem if it interferes with school work, family time or other activities, Morgan said.

As a reading teacher, Morgan has noticed a lot of students unable to write properly because of texting. They use abbreviations or shorten their writing inappropriately.

"They're writing 'u' instead of 'you' and sometimes they don't even realize it until you point it out," Morgan said.

Cellphone usage is prohibited in school, but some kids use them anyway. Seno remembers a couple of incidents when a student's cell phone rang in the middle of class because their parents were calling them.

"They shouldn't be on during school at all. I would've never considered calling my kid at school," Seno said. "It's our job as teachers and guidance counselors to monitor."

Face time

Texting is the main means of communication for most teens, who rarely receive a phone call. Brianna and Jaylyn estimate they send about 200 texts a day. Talking on the phone is rare, and a little awkward.

"When someone calls me, I know they really want to talk to me," Brianna said.

Real interaction between teens might be a lot less frequent than it was 10 years ago. Seno, who has been a guidance counselor for 24 years, said teenage interaction normally isn't face-to-face.

Morgan said with more free time in the summer, it's especially important for parents to monitor their kids, and encourage activities.

"We have a pool, so I tell them get out there and swim. Have friends over," Morgan said. "They've got to have their face-to-face interactions. "

To keep kids busy in the summer, Zernick advised signing kids up for camps, vacation bible schools, youth groups or volunteering activities. Summer is often a time teenagers are left unsupervised for longer periods of time, so kids might become even more obsessed with social media.

"It's important for parents to know what their kids are doing," Zernick said.

Spending time together as a family is important to enhance relationships, and parents need to lead by example. Adults, who aren't immune to the draw of social media, also text, blog and use websites like Facebook.

"It's always so important to role model. Not only should they make their child shut off their phone, but the parent should shut off their phone, too," Zernick said. "They should spend time together.



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