Keeping your kids safe online
Tuesday, February 16, 2016: If you listened to this morning’s edition of CBC’s The Current, you probably can’t wait for your teen to get home so you can go through their social media apps and contacts, delete their social profiles, and submerge the smartphone in a tub of boiling water — not necessarily what we recommend when it comes to keeping your kids safe online. The segment in question highlighted the connection between anonymous chat app Kik and the murder of a 13-year-old girl in Virginia.
Murdered 13-year-old communicated with killer on anonymous chat app
13-year-old Nicole Lovell disappeared from her home in Blacksburg, Virginia on the night of January 27, 2016. Her body was later found in a wooded area in North Carolina. Charged with her kidnapping and murder is Virginia Tech student David Eisenhauer, 18. His friend and fellow student Natalie Keepers, 19, is charged with accessory to murder before and after the fact. It is alleged that the two college students plotted Nicole’s murder in advance.
Nicole allegedly had an inappropriate relationship with Eisenhauer; she had talked to friends about running away to be with him. Her parents had confiscated her smartphone before Christmas because of inappropriate behaviour online, but had since returned it. According to a friend, Nicole had met Eisenhauer on Facebook, and they had continued their correspondence on Kik, a social messaging app that makes texting fun and accessible. Unlike regular SMS messaging, a Kik account isn’t connected to a phone number. This makes it a popular option for kids who want to message on WiFi-enabled devices like iPods and tablets.
Anonymous chat apps: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Before Kik, Yik Yak and Snapchat, there was IRC, ICQ, MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger – all apps where users could remain somewhat anonymous. Nobody had to know your real name, and you didn’t have to prove who you were or how old you were. But these apps were likely on the family computer, and not in your teen’s pocket.
Consider this: in 2014, an estimated 58.5% of Canadian kids between 12 and 17 used smartphones. By 2018, this is expected to rise to 80.7%. (eMarketer, December 2014). This means your kids probably have unprecedented 24/7 access to family, friends and (unfortunately) strangers. Most social media apps have a minimum age requirement of 13 (easy enough to get around), and have controls meant to keep private information private. But it’s really up to you to teach your kids how to use all social media responsibly.
Teaching your kids how to be safe online
As with interaction in the real world, it is important to teach your kids how to be safe online. Consider sitting down together and agreeing on some ground rules. These might include:
- restricting access hours on their devices;
- setting ground rules around who to accept friend requests and chat requests from;
- reviewing your teen’s social media profiles together from time to time; and
- having a continuing open, honest conversation with your teen about what they’re doing online.
While we want to allow our kids their privacy and autonomy, we also need to provide guidance to help them make good decisions. This should begin with deciding together what information must remain private and why. Make sure they know the potential outcomes of cultivating relationships with strangers. Make sure they know the dangers of making private information public.
What happened to Nicole Lovell shouldn’t have happened to her, and shouldn’t happen to anyone. But we can’t place the blame on the technology, or on the parents, who reportedly did their best to monitor her behaviour and set boundaries.
Remember that an app or social platform can’t be good or evil in and of itself. Just as there will always be predators, there will always be those who abuse technology.
Your first lines of defence are education and communication.
At Innovate By Day, we work with youth and young adults who are required to be online for their work in the film & television industry. Consequently, we have developed a training module for young people who must be online (and their parents). Some of us are parents who are also navigating these issues daily.
Part of our service is offering training to schools and parent groups. Learn more about Innovate By Day’s CyberSmarts training here.
MediaSmarts.ca is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to youth media literacy in Canada.