If you have a middle school aged child, chances are you have seen Instagram and Ask fm, two popular social media sites. I have many friends that use Instagram to post creatively doctored pictures of pets, children, and favorite items #cute.
It can be a fun way to express yourself. If you’re in middle school, it can also be a way to demean, degrade and otherwise humiliate each other. The crazy world of junior high is full of drama, turmoil, and hormones. The fragile ego of this age group leaves them susceptible to the fickle nature of friends who one day think they're the best and the next want nothing to do with them.
Enter Social Media.
In junior high years ago, we weren't alerted to every event that we weren't invited to and sent pictures of what we were missing. Yes, it was still hurtful to be excluded, but we could feel safe in our bedrooms where we were miserable without anyone knowing. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram among others, bring it right into the privacy of our homes and our teens are bombarded with it.
How about Ask fm? Ever heard of it? An "Ask me" page can be linked to another social media profile where it encourages others to anonymously ask questions. It’s harmless enough when the questions are “Which Disney princess is your favorite?” but in this era of “shock value” the questions can be quite disturbing, very racist, and even pornographic. There are no privacy settings and all comments can be kept anonymous. That often facilitates young people saying things that they might not say face to face or if their names were being shared. Inhibitions disappear and that can lead to dangerous consequences.
In the UK, three teen suicides have been linked to comments posted on Ask fm., just in the last few months. Schools across Europe and the US have sent letters home, urging parents to disable the site and stop its use with their children. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, there is no way to report offensive and disturbing comments, or to uncover those behind the anonymous posts.
It is agreed across cyber safety websites that ALL social networking sites are not doing enough to protect children. Kids as young as eight have created Instagram accounts and may harmlessly post pictures of their school, bedroom, or favorite spots in town. It makes it too easy for child predators to find and stalk them. As parents, how can we protect them from the evil that lurks just a few clicks away?
First, become digitally savvy. Research new social media sites that have been created. Find out what their privacy policies are. Educate your children about being safe and smart when using these sites. Encourage them to be kind. A sweet friend from my son's Bible study group had some vile things posted on her Ask fm page. In response, they had a week long “fast” from Instagram and took down their Ask fm links. They vowed to only post encouraging things and to stay off Ask fm for good. Many of their peers are following suit.
The moral of this story? Get connected! Learn about the sites that your children are visiting, or will visit, and do anything necessary to protect them. You are the first and most important step in protecting your kids in this cyber social media jungle.