Experts say parents need to be online, too

Your kid's on Twitter, and you're not. Your kid's on Instagram, and you're not.

That's a mistake, experts say.

While it may be impossible to keep up with every text, tweet or post, social media experts say parents need to make a concerted effort to keep an eye on their kids online - just like they do in real life.

"Any account your child has, you should have an account, too," said Stacey O'Neal Irwin, an associate professor of communication at Millersville University. "Parents need to understand the experience, and the only way to understand it is to do it.

"Even if it's just you and three friends tweeting each other, who cares?"

Only by learning how their kids are communicating can parents learn what they're communicating - and step in, when necessary.

Parents are the first and often the only line of defense against kids' bad online behavior. School officials say that unless lewd messages or cyberbullying takes place on school time, with school property, they're virtually powerless to do anything about sites like the "crush" Twitter feeds established by students at several area high schools.

 

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"If it happens at school we can do something about it," said Brenda Becker, superintendent of the Hempfield School District. But if it's done on a student's own time, officials can only act if they can substantiate that it has caused a disturbance in school.

"Otherwise, we can do nothing," Becker said.

But schools can help, experts say, by emphasizing digital literacy for both kids and their parents.

"Really, our (parent-teacher organizations) should be having meetings where they talk about these things," Irwin said. "It should be an educational experience for parents. It's hard for parents to keep up on (the proliferation of social media) with their busy lives."

Added Jennie G. Noll, director of research and education at Penn State University's Network on Child Protection and Well-Being: "The technology generation gap is pretty big. Parents don't know what their kids have on their phone, the apps they're bringing home, and (school) administrators don't know the dangers in what's happening. It's a difficult thing to get your hands around and even talk about - and it changes every day."

Schools try to teach online etiquette through assemblies and guest speakers, Hempfield's Becker said. But she acknowledges it's not enough.

"Frankly, we really struggle with it, because there's so much we do not control," Becker said. "For kids who get involved in this kind of thing, they're so used to posting on pages where they feel they can say anything they want and hide behind that veil of anonymity, and if you call them on it they say, 'We were just being funny. It was just a joke.' But for the person being targeted, it's anything but funny."

Indeed, Penn State's Noll worries about the psychological impact of being singled out online for abuse or tawdry "praise." Today's teens are "the first generation to really experience the proliferation of social media, and we really don't understand the implications on their development - it's never happened before," Noll said.

And while kids have always whispered insults or crushes, social media "gives it a bit more of a dangerous twist - sexual bullying, in particular, can have long-term damage, especially to girls."

Citing the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case - in which a high school girl incapacitated by alcohol was sexually assaulted by fellow students, some of whom documented their acts on Facebook, Twitter and in texts - Noll noted that teens can be tech savvy but woefully ignorant of how misusing social media can damage their lives and the lives of others.

"But that's the definition of being an adolescent - having no grasp of the long-term permanent ramifications of your actions," Noll said.

Added Irwin, "When a student's work is posted on the walls (outside a classroom), the students are taken aback, but then they say things on Twitter they might never say in person. To them, it's not a bodily experience; it's just words.

"When they go out on social media, the boundaries are absolutely blurred. That's why parents need to be central to that experience."