Jennifer's son met a new friend while playing a video game on Xbox Live. I'm using the word met loosely because they didn't meet face to face but in a virtual world, like millions of young people do each day, dialoguing with one another through game-speak.
The problem? Kids often don't know who they're really talking to. Such was the case with this young teen. But the two kept gaming together, and when this "friend" said, "I'd like to send you some money so you can upgrade your game system — what is your address?" the young teen didn't think twice about giving it.
Jennifer asked me, "What should we do?"
"Call the police," I said without hesitation. "And lock your doors."
Their police department had a special unit for these situations. Within 24 hours, they figured out that the "friend" wasn't a fellow teenager and was in fact contacting their son from a location where a convicted pedophile lived.
Do you know who your kids are talking to? Sadly, many parents don't because they don't really know what their kids are doing on their mobile and gaming devices. Yes, it's hard to keep up. But that doesn't give anyone the license to give up.
You don't have to become a media expert or put software on your kids' phones to track their every move. But one thing you should do is the one thing every researcher and pediatrician agrees on: Talk about the issue with your children.
Here are four critical conversations about technology that are important to have with your kids:
Pictures they're posting
It happens all too often. Boy pressures girl to send a sexy picture. Girl sends picture. Boy and girl eventually break up. Boy sends picture to everyone he knows, along with a derogatory comment. Girl is devastated.
Young people are often unaware of the permanence of their texts, posts and chats. Perhaps they use an app that brags, "The pictures disappear," and they interpret that as "no consequences." It doesn't take long for them to discover that a simple screenshot by anyone who views their picture transforms "temporary" into "permanent with consequences."
Parents need to help their kids understand: Nothing you post is temporary. So don't post or send anything you don't want your principal, grandma or future employer seeing.
Their privacy settings
Whenever I'm addressing young people, I ask them, "Do you really know who is looking at your posts?"
Most young people don't spend a lot of time considering their privacy settings — who sees their pictures, posts and locations. They just quickly click agree 27 times so they can begin exchanging pictures. And some creepy, naked guy staring at a glowing screen loves that these kids didn't pay attention to those details, because now he can look at the pictures your daughter just posted of last Friday's slumber party with her friends.
And if you don't like the fact that I just mentioned he was naked — good! I hope that makes you uncomfortable — because this guy is a reality. Creeps like him get caught following minors all the time because too many young people make it easy for them.
Help your kids take a few minutes to peek at their privacy settings so they know who is peeking at them.
Comments they're making
Whoever first said, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me" was lying. Words are powerful.
Many young people today have learned how much words can hurt. But sadly, they don't often take the time to think about how their own words will affect others once they hit send.
Teach your kids to pause before they post. Encourage them to ask, "How would I feel reading these words?" Teach them the principles of Ephesians 4:29: "Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear."
To help your kids determine whether a post would be appropriate, you might recommend they ask a few questions: Would my parents and grandparents approve of this post? Would someone find something here to hold against me? Does this put me or anyone else in danger? Is it escalating a bad situation, instead of offering grace and mercy? Would this post give a future employer a reason not to hire me?
As your kids ask these questions, they are learning empathy and how to be safe online.
Affirmation they're seeking
It's fun to be liked. Actually, it's addicting.
Recent research reveals that ongoing interaction on social media often elevates the production of oxytocin and dopamine — powerful neurochemicals in our brain. This same release of dopamine takes place when people eat, are sexually aroused or do drugs. And like many of those activities, it's addictive.
That's one reason why young people become so devastated when no one "likes" the picture they posted of their cat Mittens actually wearing mittens. As fun as it is to be liked, it's even less fun not to be liked — for kids and adults. A recent study showed that among 19- to 32-year-olds, those who checked social media most often were more than twice as likely to show signs of depression than those who checked social media in more moderate amounts. Social media has a tendency to make us feel inadequate about ourselves.
In November 2015, Australian teenager Essena O'Neill, with more than a half million followers on Instagram, quit the platform because she said it required "contrived perfection made to get attention." O'Neill confessed how she would frequently revisit her posts to see how many people liked them. She was always hungry for social media validation. After growing tired of this pressure to always appear pretty and witty, she quit social media to "focus on real-life projects."
Help your kids understand that "likes" and "followers" don't determine their worth. "Man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). Affirm who they are on the inside — character, goals and dreams — not only how they appear on the outside.
Whenever I talk with parents whose child has posted inappropriate pictures or engaged in a questionable online conversation, they can't comprehend how their child could have done such a thing. Parents never think this will happen, so they don't engage their kids in the necessary conversations.
Have you had these conversations with your children? Remember that our kids won't learn digital responsibility if we don't teach them. And there is no better time to start than today.Jonathan McKee is an international speaker and the author of more than 20 books, including The Teen's Guide to Social Media and Mobile Devices.
Protect Their Privacy
For your teens' safety, it's a good idea to make sure their social media posts aren't available for the whole world to see. Help your teens adjust the privacy settings on their phone and in each app they use:
- Use the strictest privacy settings allowed by each app.
- Be cautious when allowing apps to access information from other apps.
- Don't use the same password on multiple platforms or apps.
- Use complete sentences as passwords, which are harder to crack.
- Set social media platforms to share personal photos only with family or close friends.
- Don't let apps access your contacts or other information on your phone.