WASHINGTON, March 19 (By Sasha Horne for RIA Novosti) - It is getting increasingly difficult for parents in the United States to keep tabs on what their children are up to on their mobile devices as kids discover newer and cooler photo, video and messaging apps that let them stay one step ahead of their folks.
While mom and dad might still be using Facebook to monitor the little ones, kids are sharing photos and posting videos with mobile apps like Kik and Keek, sites their parents probably have never even heard of.
“The lightning-fast transition to mobile technology has left me—and I’m sure a lot of other moms—on our heels,” said Monica Vila, co-founder of The Online Mom, a safety and mobile technology website for parents.
“It’s a very critical moment in a parent-child relationship to give your child a smartphone,” Vila told RIA Novosti. “It’s a very powerful tool that is not just a communication device, so it’s important to ensure children are prepared.”
Ninety-five percent of children between the ages of 12 to 17 use the Internet, according to a Pew Research study released earlier this month. A large majority of those surveyed –74 percent—said they go online using smartphones, tablets, or other mobile devices.
“The nature of teens’ Internet use has transformed dramatically — from stationary connections tied to shared desktops in the home to always-on connections that move with them throughout the day,” Mary Madden, senior researcher for the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and study co-author, said in the report.
That constant connectivity coupled with mobile application stores filled with hundreds of thousands of apps makes it extremely challenging for parents to keep up, Vila said.
“The online world is not unlike a swimming pool,” Vila said. “When the kids are little, we build a fence around the swimming pool, but as they get older the safest child is the one who knows how to swim.”
And with countless reports of teens cyberbullying one another and sharing racy photos and videos, Vila said it is important for parents to educate children on what is considered appropriate and inappropriate online behavior, as well as teaching them how to safely navigate the online world.
Jessica Johnson, a mother and avid social media user who lives in Dallas, Texas has already started introducing her 4-year-old daughter Layla to technology.
“We travel frequently, so I bought her a Nook so she has some entertainment while we are waiting in the airport or flying,” Johnson told RIA Novosti. “She is ridiculously savvy when it comes to iPhones, tablets and computers, but I don’t allow her to access the Internet.”
Johnson, who is also a caregiver for her 11-year-old nephew has active accounts on several popular social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
But as Johnson recently found out, even those who are in the know about the latest apps and trends have had situations where inappropriate content has slipped through the cracks.
Johnson’s nephew used a mobile device to search for videos of the popular video game character Mario. Rather than the traditional cartoon, a pornographic animation appeared instead.
“He just searched ‘Mario Brothers,’” Johnson said. “There are not really even any settings we could use to filter that out. But afterward, I talked with him and explained if he ever accidentally came across something like again to immediately get an adult.”
Johnson said she has friends who use online tools to monitor their children’s activities, but she has a different approach.
“I will stay up on what’s new and current, but I think traditional parenting is more effective,” she said. “Sit down and have an actual conversation with not just your child but also other parents,” Johnson said.
While experts say there is no “correct age” to purchase a smartphone or tablet for a child, Vila who regularly blogs about parenting in the Internet age told RIA Novosti, regardless of the child’s age when giving them a new device, it is important to establish rules, discuss how to handle contact with strangers, and remind them that even items privately posted online or shared within apps have the potential of becoming public.
Take the self-destructing photo-sharing app Snapchat as an example. Deemed a “sexting” app by some, it allows users to share photos and videos that can only be viewed for a few seconds before they are automatically erased.
Not long after its launch, privacy became a concern as users found ways to out-smart the app and retrieve items by plugging the phone into a computer to search for the files.
“My daughter is on Snapchat all the time,” Vila told RIA Novosti. “She uses it religiously as a way to send funny or silly messages to just her friends that wouldn’t make sense to share on Facebook for example.”
“It’s not about the app itself,” Vila explained, “It’s about the behavior and the conversations you have with your children.”
Vila suggests asking your children to tell you about and show you how to use their favorite apps.
“The child that makes the best decisions is going to be the one who feels trusted and respected. If you are spying on your child that bond is lost,” Vila said.
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