A new app makes headlines every week as teens migrate to the next new thing, and in the way of teens, do things that horrify their parents. These are teen rituals, all the posturing, flirting and experimenting. We all did it. We just didn’t have SnapChat, YikYak, ooVoo or StreetChat to embarrass our parents and take those often ill-conceived steps toward independence and adulthood. The solution is not, however, to blame the tools that allow users to take and send images and videos. The solution is to start training kids in what my friend Diana Graber at Cyberwise calls CyberCivics.
YikYak, an anonymous geographically-based message board, came under fire when bomb threats caused a few school lock-downs. (While students were waiting in the auditorium, many downloaded YikYak to see what all the excitement was about.) Now Streetchat (formerly known as Gaggle), an another geo-specific anonymous chat and image message board, is in the headlines because Wisconsin high school teens were circulating nude pictures of fellow female students in what has been described as a new version of baseball cards, or ‘Pornkemon.’ The posting has stopped on Streetchat, but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped. Social apps and teens are like Whack-A-Mole. As soon as one goes away, another pops up. Teens use these tools to connect with one another, however inappropriately.
The apps all work slightly differently. Some post to a select group of friends. Some post based on location. SnapChat messages self-destruct within a matter of seconds and senders can decide how long the message will live on the receiver’s device. Others live on anonymously on a scrolling feed. Whatever the intention of impermanence and privacy, there are ways to capture any of these images, from screenshots to more devious hacks.
These apps are designed to engage and capture the massive exodus of teens from sites like Facebook, now overtaken by their parents, to some place their parents can’t find. Most teen communications are meant for immediate consumption, all the passing moments that aren’t worth storing in a camera roll but are fun, silly, outrageous or interesting nevertheless: A group of friends, a fashion moment, a funny face or who knows what.
Social apps & teens are like Whack-A-Mole; one goes away, another pops up
Teens like these apps because they are fast and visual. Some, like SnapChat feels more private because they are set to self-destruct within minutes of being opened and senders can choose who sees the photos; a typical SnapChat is a selfie with a message written on it. Some, like YikYak and Streetchat, offer the false security of anonymity. They are chat feeds based on geography—sharing local ‘news.’ Adults are sufficiently stymied by all this that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) got into the act by charging the folks at SnapChat, with misrepresenting the privacy and security of it’s application to customers. SnapChat founder Evan Spiegel will be the first to tell you that you shouldn’t rely on SnapChat’s privacy. Anonymity doesn’t hide IP addresses at the vendor level.
The Internet unleashed an avalanche of powerful new tools. Technology has given us powerful new tools before, such as the printing press, the automobile, and the telephone. But never before have the tools been so easily and inexpensively accessible and so embedded in daily life. Parents are right to worry about things like sexting and cyberbullying, since images meant to be temporary can become permanent and circulated, causing serious psychological distress. We make our kids take driver’s training and learn the rules of the road, but we hand them a smartphone and, for the most part, don’t give them much guidance at all. The truth is, it’s all so new, most parents, caretakers and teachers don’t know what advice they should be giving. In fact, most of the time, we’re relying on the kids to teach us how to use the technology and we never get to the more fundamental issues of digital citizenship. That’s the only way we can prepare kids for whatever new app makes the rounds.
Basic Media Literacy Rules for for Teens
Rule Number 1
There is no such thing as private or temporary on the Internet. Every user of text messaging and apps like SnapChat should understand that from the start. Screenshots and third party apps can turn any ‘temporary’ image into permanent, sharable and searchable ones.
Rule Number 2
Always make sure you know who you’re sending information to and who you’re getting it from. With the range of digital access, it is the user’s responsibility to understand the risks of open communication and confirm their connections and privacy settings. We don’t expect the lock manufacturers like Master or Schlage to show up and lock our doors every night. It’s up to us to lock up our information.
Rule Number 3
There is no difference between on and offline these days. For most people, and especially young people, life flows easily from one to the other. We all have to learn about relationships and it’s hard. Setting interpersonal boundaries, trust and navigating friendships and romance is tough going for all of us. Teens are bad at projecting into the future because the executive center of the brain isn’t fully formed until the mid-twenties. What is obvious to you, such as the impermanence of a high school crush, may not be to your teen. Don’t insult their relationship status, but do discuss the implications of sharing things that might go public. Have them imagine they are an admissions counselor at a college or an HR person at their first job looking at their Facebook page or Instagram account.
Rule Number 4
Teach and practice Cyber Karma. What goes around has a lot of reach these days. Happiness spreads, however humor at the expense of others can come back and bite you in any number of ways that a teen can’t even anticipate. Use examples in the media to talk with (not lecture) teens about the potential pitfalls of social media. Ask them to find examples and come up with solutions. Ask them what they would do if the roles were reversed and they were the parent.
Rule Number 5
Empowerment works better than victimization. Problem solve potential solutions to problems with your kids before problems happen. Help the kids come up with up with a list of solutions. Kids are unlikely to come to parents with a cyber problem because they fear that a parent’s solution will be technology-based—and they will take away the phone or computer access. Since these are the main sources of social connection for teens, they would rather suffer in silence than lose their connection to their social life. Most parents, caretakers and school officials desperately want to protect their kids. Their first reaction is to say “if you have a problem with bullying (or any other thing), come to me and I’ll take care of it.” While the intention may be to show support, the message in this approach is that the kids can’t handle the situation themselves. While this may be true, this message undermines a kid’s sense of agency and self-competence. This is why it’s important to be proactive in problem-solving and to be available to work with the child to solve problems and not overreact with anger and frustration.
The reason we teach our kids manners, self-control and empathy is so they can navigate the world successfully. We recognize that we are preparing them for all the things they undertake when we can’t be there, from the moment we first send them toddling out the door to preschool or kindergarten. We spend hours on sharing, please and thank you, and helping others. We give them cues for stranger danger and why it’s important to follow rules. It’s time we recognize that a big part of their social world happens across technology and that it demands an equal amount of attention so they can be successful 21st century citizens. Even if we could keep up with every new applications that comes available, that wouldn’t help them any more than following them to school to make sure they share the ball at recess.