Kids and teens growing up today have the whole world at their fingertips thanks to technology like smartphones, tablets and Wi-Fi. It’s a lot harder to monitor your kids’ safety online than it is at the playground or the shopping mall – where you can clearly see exactly what’s going on and who they’re talking to at all times. You want your kids to be able to take advantage of the many opportunities and resources available online, but you want them to stay safe.Children are faced with potential online dangers such as unwanted exposure to pornography, cyberbullying, peer pressure to participate in sexting or send and receive nude photos, and even sexual predators. The statistics are difficult to read: 79 percent of unwanted exposure to internet pornography occurs in the home. Twenty percent of teens have sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves, and 16 percent of teens have considered meeting someone in person whom they’ve only ever spoken to online. And unfortunately, many kids and teens hide their online activities from their parents.
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Research from 2005 by the Henry J. Keiser Family Foundation showed that nearly one-third (31 percent) of 7th through 12th graders have faked their birthdates in order to gain access to a website. Even the social networking sites that you think are safe because you screen every friend request your child receives or sends could be exposing them to harmful images, such as photos of friends or other kids passed out, using drugs or drinking alcohol. Research shows that 40 percent of teens have seen pictures containing these types of images.
Keeping Your Kids Safe in Online Communities: Where to Start
You know that you need to take more proactive measures to keep your tweens and teens safe in their online communities, but where do you start? First, you have to know exactly what you’re up against. Knowledge is the best defense – when you understand what dangers exist online and where they’re likely to occur, you can steer your kids in the direction of more positive resources.
Blocking your kids’ access to the internet entirely isn’t the answer. Why? They’ll find a way – kids are far more resourceful than most adults give them credit for. The digital world isn’t all predators and exploitation. There are plenty of excellent, educational and appropriate communities online suitable for children and teens of any age.
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Arm yourself with information and education, develop a system for monitoring and evaluating the online communities your children participate in, and encourage open and honest communication to detect potential problems before they turn into devastating consequences.
What Dangers Exist for Kids in Online Communities?
First, let’s take a look at the many dangers that do exist in online communities.
Cyberbullying – Cyberbullying is the use of harassment, intimidation, ridicule, spreading rumors, isolation and other offensive tactics to humiliate or embarrass the target, conducted using technology devices such as smartphones or computers. Most kids don’t even think about the ramifications of their actions before they post comments online, yet the end result of cyberbullying can be as devastating as suicide.
In less severe cases, cyberbullying still leads to missed school, low self-esteem, poor grades and even drug and alcohol abuse. According to data from the 2011 School Crime Supplement (SCS) of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), nine percent of students between grade 6 and grade 12 reported being cyber-bullied in the 2010-2011 school year. This represents an increase of three percent from the previous study results, which indicated that six percent of students meeting the same demographic criteria experienced cyberbullying during the 2008-2009 school year.
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StopBullying.gov points out, “Research on cyberbullying is growing. However, because kids’ technology use changes rapidly, it is difficult to design surveys that accurately capture trends.” This indicates that despite growing numbers of cyberbullying reports, it’s possible that there are even more kids experiencing cyberbullying than studies show.
A Covenant Eyes e-book on “Parenting the Internet Generation” serves to illustrate this point. According to research reported in this resource:
- 20 percent of teens say their friends and classmates “are mostly unkind” to each other on social networking sites.
- 88 percent of teens say they’ve actually witnessed someone acting cruelly toward another person on a social network.
- Around one-fourth of teens have experienced some type of negative communication online, such as someone posting something untrue about them online (26 percent), someone posted something online about them that was mean (24 percent), or someone has used technology (email, chat, or text messaging) to spread untrue rumors about them (21 percent).
- 16 percent of teens have had embarrassing pictures or videos posted of them online without consent.
- 9 percent have been blackmailed with threats of spreading personal information about them online, whether true or untrue.
Clearly, the potential for cyberbullying is not one that you can ignore.
Image via Cyberbullying.us
Gaming – Online gaming is an activity enjoyed by many tweens and teens, both boys and girls. While boys are more likely to participate in games involving violence or other inappropriate content, it’s important to carefully screen games regardless of your child’s gender. Modern games are sophisticated and realistic, with many online games containing inappropriate content such as:
- Sexual content
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The nature of modern gaming also lends itself to some potential problems. For instance, kids can connect with other players virtually and compete against them. Often, gamers connect with other enthusiasts that they haven’t meet offline. Predators, knowing that children and teens are readily available in the online gaming world, are taking advantage of the opportunity to engage kids virtually and develop a relationship – eventually, encouraging an offline meeting where the situation quickly becomes more dangerous.
Predators take advantage of the child’s game history to obtain useful facts to start building trust. This same disclosure of information is precisely what makes gaming a privacy risk. You should evaluate every game your child wants to play and assist in setting it up. Make sure your child uses a false screen name to obscure her identity as well as a strong password. In addition, evaluate the game’s privacy policies to learn what information about the player – if any – is permitted to be shared and with whom. If the game lacks solid privacy controls, find an alternative.
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Online Predators – Predators intentionally hang out in online communities that attract children and teens. For the sexual predator, an online, teen or tween-oriented community is like a playground, with easy access to many potential targets. This gives the predator a better opportunity to find a target vulnerable enough to be persuaded and influenced. Both boys and girls may be targeted by an online predator.
Online predators also aren’t easily detectable offline, because they don’t fit a standard or specific set of criteria. They come in all ages and from all backgrounds, education levels, and even from prestigious positions in the community. NetSmartz.org points out that online predators are not the same as child predators. A child predator intentionally targets pre-pubescent children, while an online predator typically targets “adolescents who engage in risky online behavior.”
Image via Sprint.comCovenant Eyes reveals some helpful statistics related to online predators:
- 76 percent of victims are between the ages of 13 and 15 years old.
- 75 percent of victims of online predators are girls.
- 76 percent of the first encounters between online predators and victims occur in chat rooms.
- 99 percent of online predators are males.
- 76 percent of online predators are 26 years of age or older.
- 83 percent of victims who eventually meet the predator offline willingly go somewhere with the offender.
There are a few things you can do to prevent your tween or teen from becoming the victim of an online predator. First, be careful about what they post online, including text-based updates, images, and videos. The information your child posts online is what an online predator will use to engage in conversation and build rapport. The less risky the content your child posts, the less ideal she will appear to a predator. Predators seek easy targets – don’t let your daughter become one.
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It’s also extremely important to educate your child never to meet anyone she meets online in an offline setting without first discussing it with you and without your presence. Teach your child never to discuss sex or other inappropriate content in any online community – this is the type of behavior that makes her an easy target.
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Online Communities: How Much is Too Much Social Networking?
So you’ve decided to allow your tween or teen to use online communities to engage with friends and peers outside of school hours. Suddenly, your daughter is spending every waking moment locked in her bedroom, chatting online. How much is too much social networking?
According to Covenant Eyes, a “hyper-networker” is a tween or teen who spends at least three hours per day using social networking sites. The latest research indicates that about 11.5 percent of teens fall into this category. But there are some risk factors. Researchers at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, led by Scott Frank, MD, MS, evaluated high school students in an urban area to determine if teens’ excessive use of technology – specifically, texting and social networking – is associated with a higher risk of behaviors such as sex, smoking, drugs and alcohol.
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The 11.5 percent of students surveyed who qualified as “hyper-networkers” were found to be:
- 62 percent more likely to have tried smoking cigarettes.
- 79 percent more likely to have tried drinking alcohol.
- 69 percent more likely to qualify as “binge drinkers.”
- 84 percent more likely to have used illicit drugs.
- 94 percent more likely to have been in at least one physical fight.
- 69 percent more likely to have had sex at least once.
- 60 percent more likely to report having had at least four sexual partners.
This same group of teens in the study – more than one in 10 – also had higher odds of experiencing a number of other detrimental factors, such as stress, depression, suicide, poor sleep, poor academics, significant time spent watching television and parental permissiveness.
Tween Girls Between 8 and 12 Risk Social Development Impacts
Researchers at Stanford University took a particular look at tween girls between the ages of 8 and 12 in a 2010 survey, conducted online. The 3,461 participants were all subscribers to the Discovery Girls digital magazine. While this study did not include follow-up from researchers to identify or evaluate any concrete effects from overuse of social networking platforms, the findings are interesting as they tap into the emotional impacts excessive social networking may have on girls in this age demographic.
The girls who participated in this online survey were asked to outline their specific use of various types of media and specific platforms, such as texting, reading, completing homework, video chatting, posting to Facebook, emailing, watching videos either on television or YouTube, talking on the phone or instant messaging, in addition to their time spent in face-to-face communication with others.
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Multi-tasking, or participating in two or more of the above-mentioned activities simultaneously, as well as spending excessive time participating in online communication and watching videos (described as “many hours,” although the study abstract and related reports do not indicate a specific number of hours used as a variable cutoff), carried a statistically significant correlation to multiple negative effects. Girls who reported significant use of online communications and watching of videos were more likely to report:
- Feeling less social success.
- Feelings of not being “normal”.
- Having more friends their parents feel are bad influences.
- Getting less sleep.
Researchers also identified a correlation between the use of certain types of media and “diminished social and emotional skills,” although the study was not adequate for determining causality. The study’s abstract states, “Regression analyses indicated that negative social well-being was positively associated with levels of uses of media that are centrally about interpersonal interaction (e.g., phone, online communication) as well as uses of media that are not (e.g., video, music, and reading).”
Stanford Professor Clifford Nass, lead researcher in the study, notes that the purpose behind the research was to identify the potential impacts of reduced face-to-face human interaction, resulting from increased time spent on digital communications. “Conversely, face-to-face communication was strongly associated with positive social well-being. Cell phone ownership and having a television or computer in one’s room had little direct association with children’s socioemotional well-being,” according to the study abstract.
Researchers conclude that further research is necessary to prove causality and identify the potential implications of excessive media use on the social and emotional well-being of adolescent girls.
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Social Media Impacts Self-Esteem for Adolescent Girls
Other similar studies have been conducted, even with participants outside of the U.S., and have similar findings. Australia-based New Flinders University researchers interviewed more than 1,000 high school girls – but over a period of several years in effort to more accurately assess the real impacts of significant media consumption. First interviewed at age 8 or 9, participants were asked to report their use of social networking sites and self-esteem.
At age 10 or 11, 90 percent of participants had a Facebook account, they had an average of 475 friends and were already uploading photos of themselves publicly to their profiles. From their initial reports of one hour and 45 minutes spent using social networking on the first interview, participants were spending an average of 2.5 hours each day on social networking activities.
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Also at this reporting stage, 80 percent of the girls participating reported that they would be classified as within the normal weight range based on their age and height. Yet 46 percent reported that they were unhappy with their current weight. At this stage in the study researchers were able to identify a correlation between the amount of time spent on social networking and:
- Lower self-esteem.
- Poor body image.
- Lower sense of identity.
- Higher depression.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that online communities are often very image-focused and much of the social interaction that occurs there is centered on physical appearance. On Facebook, for instance, teens feel pressure to post “selfies,” or photos of themselves taken by themselves using a mirror and/or a smartphone. These selfies, of course, result in a flurry of commentary on how good – or not good – the photo is.
The Selfie Effect: Tween Girls Seek External Validation from Peers
Jill P. Weber, Ph.D., comments on the implications of selfies on young women at Psychology Today, noting that the selfie is initially a means of self-expression for young girls who are forming their own identities. “Social comparison and social feedback are two healthy ways that teenagers come to develop their identity,” Weber notes. At first, the positive feedback is a means of gaining self-worth. But over time, young girls tend to develop a dependence on those external affirmations – and their self-esteem becomes dependent on receiving continued public praise.
“Over the long run it becomes disempowering because, for younger girls in particular, self-worth may come to rest entirely on what others feel about them and not enough on how they feel about themselves,” explains Weber. And in some cases, young girls can develop an addiction to posting these self-portraits or feel social pressure to continue doing so. If a young girl is having a bad day or feeling low in the self-esteem department, posting a selfie and getting positive feedback can be a welcome encouragement.
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But what happens if there is no feedback, or the feedback is negative? This, which Weber notes is inevitable at some point, results in self-worth sinking. And eventually, these girls may become entirely dependent on external feedback to determine their on self-worth and may fail to develop their own self-validation methods. Later in life, this can have an impact on the type of relationships forged, such as those with others who don’t adequately respect their feelings, values and desires. Girls may consent to engaging in sex before they actually feel ready, because they’re used to ignoring their internal beliefs and seeking validation from others.
Based on her experience, Weber believes that girls who engage in frequently posting selfies are struggling with low self-esteem and recommends that parents remain attentive to pick up on clues such as a girl who is constantly striving to achieve the perfect pose, the perfect look or the perfect shot.
The COPPA Rule: Protecting Children’s Privacy
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was originally passed by Congress in 1998 and went into effect in April 2000. Under the Federal Trade Commission, COPPA is designed to regulate websites that collect personal information from users under the age of 13. COPPA applies to any website or online service (including e-commerce websites) that collects information from users such as:
- First and last name.
- Home or physical address information.
- E-mail addresses.
- Telephone numbers.
- Social Security numbers.
- Geolocation information.
- Photos, audio or video containing images of the child’s likeness or voice.
- Screen names or user names that can be used for direct contact.
- Consistent identifiers that can be used to link a child across multiple networks or services.
- Any information that the FTC determines could be used to contact the user either online or offline.
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The COPPA Rule has new provisions that went into effect on July 1, 2013, which expand the definitions of the types of websites and services covered to include:
- Websites or online services targeted to children under age 13 that collect personal information from these users.
- Websites or online services targeted to children under age 13 that allow third parties to collect personal information from these users.
- Websites or online services directed to broad audiences that are aware that they collect information from users under age 13.
- Third-party applications, plugins and advertising networks that are aware that they collect information from users under age 13.
The COPPA Rule requires that parents are notified and provide verifiable consent before a child’s personal information is collected, used or disclosed. The covered websites must also maintain strict security to protect this information and are not permitted to require further personal information before allowing the user access to different areas of the website. The COPPA Rule, essentially, attempts to regulate children’s privacy without restricting their access to rich, interactive content and online activities that could be beneficial.
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The Federal Trade Commission outlines a six-step plan for companies to evaluate whether they must remain COPPA-compliant:
- Determine if the business collects personal information from any user under age 13.
- Notify parents directly before collecting any information from a user under age 13.
- Obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting, using or disclosing any information from a user under age 13.
- Honor parents’ rights in regard to collecting, using or disclosing their children’s information.
- Implement reasonable measures to ensure the security and privacy of information collected from children under age 13.
Parents should have the opportunity to review the information the website or online service has obtained from or related to their child, opt to have the information deleted, and prevent the further use or disclosure of the child’s information at their request. Websites and online services are only permitted to maintain the information as long as necessary, and no longer than needed to fulfill the purpose for which it was obtained.
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For more details and answers to frequently asked questions about COPPA, visit the FTC’s Complying with COPPA: Guide for Business and Parents and Small Entity Compliance Guide.
Evaluating Online Communities: Appropriateness, Safety and COPPA Compliance
The question most parents are asking themselves as they read this guide is how to know if a website or online service is COPPA-compliant. Unfortunately, there’s no central directory that indexes websites and services labeling them as either compliant or non-compliant. That means parents have to do a little legwork.
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Another way to determine COPPA compliance is that these websites typically send parents a notification or email to let them know their child has signed up, what information is being asked for and how that information will be used.
There are other steps you should take to evaluate the safety of a website or service in addition to COPPA compliance. NetSmartz Tip Sheet on Evaluating Internet Sources offers sound advice for determining appropriateness and safety:
- Evaluate the website domain.
- .edu – an educational resource (school, college or university)
- .gov – a government agency
- .com – a commercial business
- .net – a network
- .org – an advocacy group
- Look for sites that are easy to navigate – this makes it easy to find information and less likely that inappropriate content is hidden in less-obvious locations.
- Check for spelling and grammatical errors – this indicates that a site is less likely to be trustworthy.
- Evaluate the website’s author or the online service’s creator.
- Is the author, owner or creator listed?
- Is this person an expert in the field?
- Has the author published other reputable materials?
- Evaluate the website’s information.
- Is the content up-to-date and appropriately referenced?
- Does the information appear on other reputable online sources (e.g. libraries, reference websites, etc.)?
- Is the content fact or opinion?
A parent’s best defense against inappropriate or dangerous online communities is their intuition. If something doesn’t feel right or seems suspicious, follow your instincts until you can verify the safety and trustworthiness of any online community, website, or online service.
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Safe Online Communities for Tweens and Teens
How is it possible to protect your young daughter from the potentially lifelong impacts of spending so much time in online communities? The good news is that not all online communities are focused on posting self-portraits multiple times each day to obtain feedback from your peers.
However, after the new COPPA provisions were implemented in mid-2013, many sites that used to permit access to the tween demographic have now shut down or restricted access to kids under age 13. There are still plenty of online communities that are closely monitored for inappropriate content and provide a safe, healthy platform for tweens to interact with one another, participate in educational activities and fun games, and even communicate in carefully monitored and filtered discussion forums.
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COPPA-Compliant Sites and Online Communities
- Kidzworld – Kidzworld.com has been around since 2001, and its sole purpose is to provide a safe, positive social network for kids and teens. Yes, there are ads, but they’re carefully targeted to the audience and never inappropriate. Kids can play games, chat with other users in the forum, check out the latest in movies and music, take quizzes, enter contests and get advice. Kidzworld uses advanced moderation and behavioral analysis technology to pinpoint potential inappropriate interactions and bullying in the early developing stages – halting these actions before they can cause damage. Forums and chat rooms are moderated by experienced professionals 24/7. With content deemed appropriate for kids between the ages of 9 and 14, Kidzworld encourages users to demonstrate their creativity by submitting art, poetry and other creative work that may be published on the site. Privacy policies and COPPA compliance are clearly spelled out, and measures are taken to ensure your child’s anonymity.
- Discovery Girls – A digital and print magazine for girls between the ages of 8 and 12, Discovery Girls is fully COPPA-compliant with strict safeguards in place and ample parent options to ask questions, review information that has been obtained or request to have their daughter’s personal information deleted. Your daughter can access tons of age-appropriate content and even apply to contribute to a future issue of Discovery Girls. There’s no time like the present to start pursuing her dreams of becoming a magazine editor!
- Sweety High – This closed social network for young girls requires solid parent verification or faxed signatures before obtaining information from girls under 13 or allowing them access to the closed areas of the site. After your review and approval, Sweety High is a safe, fully-moderated and empowering site that encourages girls to express their creativity.
- New Moon Girls – Designed just for girls ages 8 and up, New Moon Girls is a COPPA-compliant community that aims to obtain as little personal information from members as possible, instead using a parent-approval process and substituting parent details where possible – with clear notifications every step of the way. Your daughter can safely enjoy a secure, moderated chat room, lots of fun contests, stories and videos. There are opportunities to submit art, talk about her favorite books and television shows, play games and get access to educational resources all with a positive spin encouraging wellness and a healthy self-image.
- Girls Life – The digital home of a print magazine, Girls Life is a COPPA-compliant community that doesn’t ask for any personal information when you register and offers tips on how to keep your identity well-hidden. Girls can access quizzes, video, entertainment news, and information on health and wellness, among other topics of interest, as well as join and create clubs and interact with others.
- Girl Scouts for Girls – A website run by the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, Girl Scouts for Girls is a fun, interactive online community for tween girls. The site never intentionally or knowingly collects information from anyone under the age of 13, and there’s plenty of information for parents on the site’s precautions and safeguards. Your daughter can access books, play positive games, map her projects around the world and more. Be sure to check out the Girl Scouts’ sister sites in the page footer for access to more positive online resources for your tween girl.
- Everloop – A game portal with clear COPPA compliance, Everloop provides safe, appropriate alternative for girls who want to play interactive games. It’s also a social network where kids can connect with others who share their interests, with constant filtering and screening of inappropriate activity. In addition, parents exert complete and total control over what content their kids have access to – and Everloop requires parent monitoring as an added measure.
- Neopets – A popular interactive activity for kids online, Nickelodeon’s Neopets features games, community options, shopping and more – all with strict safety safeguards in place and COPPA-complaint privacy practices and policies.
- Club Penguin – Owned and operated by Disney Canada, LLC, Club Penguin is fully compliant with COPPA. With a blog, fun activities for kids – including recipes, coloring pages, outdoor activities and more – and a comprehensive parent section offering information on the specific educational value of Club Penguin’s resources, this is a great online destination for tweens.
- Girl Games – Girl Games is an online destination for girls who like to play games but prefer those more specifically targeted to their interests. From cooking games to fashion and beauty games, tween girls can choose from a variety of appropriate activities at this fully COPPA-complaint website.
- Oink (formerly My Virtual Piggy) – An innovative site that lets kids and teens shop for products that interest them and learn to manage money with parent-set limits, Oink remains COPPA-compliant by not collecting personal information from children under the age of 13. If a child registers for the site, a birthdate indicating an age of less than 13 triggers a different form that asks for parent information. Parents are then notified and, if they choose, may set up an account for a child. The process is designed carefully to allow children under 13 to use the service while avoiding collecting personal information and maintain adequate online safety.
- giantHello – This social network designed just for kids between the ages of 7 and 13 and aims to provide the same Facebook-like gaming and social experience to the tween demographic with the idea that this age group is too old for “kiddie” sites but too young to sign up for Facebook and other social networks. giantHello allows children 13 years of age and older to sign up on their own, or kids under 13 years old with parent permission. Kids under 13 who haven’t yet obtained parent verifiable permission will not have full access to the site’s content or networking features in order to maintain COPPA-compliant privacy.
- Fanlala – A great online community for girls, Fanlala is fully COPPA-compliant and offers tween girls the chance to hang out with friends online, discuss their favorite music, movies, and celebrities with others who share their interests. Girls can participate in polls, news, quizzes, games, upload videos, photos and create their own polls and quizzes, all while maintaining their safety and privacy.
- Kidzvuz – Targeted to kids between the ages of 7 and 12, Kidzvuz is another online community ideal for the tween demographic. With clear COPPA-compliant procedures and guidelines, Kidzvuz is a safe online community for tweens interested in the latest toys, music, movies, games, books, shows and just about anything else targeted to their age group.
- Fantage – Fantage offers games, chat and instant messaging features, the ability to connect with friends and more. This is an especially appealing online community for the tween girl demographic, as users are able to select distinctive hairstyles and fashion accessories for their personal avatars. Kids under 13 are required to supply a parent’s or guardian’s email address during registration (instead of their own) and Fantage conducts proper notification and obtains verifiable parent consent to allow tweens to access the features of the community. With parent controls, educational content, active monitoring and filtering, and fun activities like virtual fashion shows, this is an online community your tween girl will love.
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Other Appropriate Sites for Girls – with Limitations
There are other websites geared to girls that at first glance seem appropriate. However, on closer look it becomes obvious that there may be some content you don’t want your daughter reading about – such as using condoms or having sex. Sure, it’s a topic that must be addressed at some point, but it’s a conversation you want to have control over. In some cases, tweens reading conversations between older teen girls online can lead them to think that things like having sex are okay – and that’s something you want to avoid.
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The sites listed here aren’t bad, but there are some restrictions for girls under 13, and those restrictions are in place for a reason. The following communities can be used with caution:
- BeingGirl – Created by Tampax, this online website is just for girls and addresses a variety of topics relevant to adolescent girls. Girls under 13 cannot register or participate in community areas.
- Meez – A virtual world where users can dress up their avatars, play games, chat in forums, and earn and spend virtual currency, Meez isn’t necessarily harmful – but they do request that kids under 13 not use their site.
There are a lot of online communities out there similar to those listed here, but this short list is a good representation of the types of sites that should be used carefully. Notice that these communities, at first glance, appear to be perfectly appropriate for tween girls yet there is restricted access or they should be used with supervision. This points to the importance of evaluating each and every online community before your daughter registers – and making the decision that’s right for your daughter.
Use Extreme Caution: Online Communities to Avoid
There are also many online communities you should avoid or at least use extreme caution if you allow your daughter to participate. If your child wants to join or use any of the services listed in this section, read the section that follows – “When Your Tween Starts Participating in Online Communities: How to Be Proactive” for best practices and tips for educating your tween and monitoring her use to avoid potentially dangerous or emotionally damaging situations.
These websites aren’t inherently bad, and they weren’t created with malicious intent. The problem lies in the fact that they’re not intended for tweens – because there’s no way to control the content that other users upload, and therefore no real effective way to make sure younger kids aren’t exposed to it. Most have age limits that restrict users under 13 from signing up, but kids can lie their way around it. That means it’s up to you – the parent, the guardian – to make sure your daughter is safe online and not participating in communities that could contain inappropriate content.
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- Facebook – Your daughter will eventually want to join Facebook – that much is inevitable. And Facebook isn’t necessarily a must-avoid site, rather one to use with caution. Because there are so many users spanning every demographic, it’s difficult to protect kids from inappropriate content. Facebook does not permit users under age 13 to register for the site, but that doesn’t stop many from lying about their ages and joining anyway.
- Twitter – Twitter does not have a minimum age requirement, and does not actively monitor content. That means it’s difficult to control what types of content your tween could be exposed to on the social network. However, Twitter does offer a useful age-screening tool to help advertisers avoid showing their content to users below a certain age. But that’s no guarantee every advertiser will use it.
- YouTube – As innocent as it seems, YouTube is actually potentially damaging. There aren’t really any safeguards in place that would prevent tweens from viewing inappropriate content – in fact, there really aren’t many ways to identify whether content is appropriate or not without watching it first.
- Instagram – Instagram has both photo and video content, and, like YouTube, basically thrives on user-generated content that’s not closely monitored. There are guidelines about what is prohibited, but even some of the permissible stuff isn’t stuff you want your 9-year-old daughter to see.
- MySpace – MySpace was the most popular social network before Facebook came along and knocked it off its horse. MySpace now, however, attracts a younger demographic – so it’s possible that your daughter could be inclined to join this site. The minimum age to sign up is 13, but again, that doesn’t stop kids from lying.
There are other sites similar to those listed here that should be avoided, but these are a few of the most popular online communities among older teens today. Most of these sites do take action to delete accounts that are found to be violating the rules, including those created by underage users. But with millions of users, identifying fraudsters is no simple task.
Emerging Social Networks and Apps to Avoid
Keeping a keen eye on the mainstream social networks listed above is a necessity, but it goes far beyond that. Kids have smartphones at increasingly younger ages. And with more than one million apps available in both Google Play and the App Store, it doesn’t matter what type of device she’s using – apps are readily available.
The problem with this is that young girls are quickly adopting new applications, often those that you, as a parent, never knew existed. “We’re seeing the tween/teen girl market move away from mainstream social sites that have been adopted by their parents or even older siblings in favor of more niche options (Kik, Snapchat, Pheed) that they’ve discovered on their own, usually through their mobile devices,” says Jeanne Connon, Chief Marketing Officer for FashionPlaytes.com, a fashion, style and social destination for tween girls.
“The reality is, they don’t view their options as ‘site specific’ and are more likely to use apps so the mobile component is key,” Connon explains. “Video is also playing a much larger role with this generation in terms of how they interact on social platforms with sites like Vine and Instagram. However parental concern is limiting access to sites – (e.g., Ask.fm, Qooh.me) where posts and feedback are allowed to be anonymous.”
Data & Chart from Statista
A few emerging apps that girls are beginning to talk about include:
- Vine – Vine is a micro-video app. Users create short video clips, often using a smartphone, which run in a looping fashion and are shared with other users. There are some good safety attempts, such as the ability to block users from viewing your profile, settings to indicate whether the material is appropriate for certain ages, and private video uploads. But it’s not enough to prevent your child from being exposed to inappropriate content or inadvertently exposing private information or videos to the world.
- Snapchat – An app emphasizing visual communication, Snapchat users share photo or video messages. The good thing about Snapchat is all the content that’s shared on the platform self-destructs – either immediately after the recipient views it or within 24 hours. It’s also much more private in nature than other social networks. Users between the ages of 13 and 17 require parent permission, and users under 13 may only use a special version called SnapKidz (where they’re directed on signup after entering their birth dates). Using SnapKidz, users can create and caption messages but are not able to send them to friends or contacts. There’s some concern that Snapchat is sometimes used to share inappropriate content or for sexting. While the general consensus is that it’s not a predominant use of the service, the potential does exist and may be more likely due to the idea that messages self-destruct. But as Forbes points out, there are always ways to retrieve deleted data.
- Kik – More than 90 million users have already adopted Kik, a simple and free text messaging service for smartphones. It’s meant for users 17 and older, but that doesn’t stop younger kids from using it. The big problem? While the purpose is to send innocent messages to friends and family for free, many users are using it to find potential dates, solicit and send nude pictures, and for sexting. BeWebSmart.com downloaded the app to see what the fuss was about, finding thousands of comments soliciting nude photos and other inappropriate content. While your daughter probably has good intentions, other users may not.
The three apps above are just a few isolated apps in a sea of others like them. Here’s a look at a few lesser-known apps that could pose some of the same potential problems:
- Qooh.me – This anonymous question-and-answer platform has some dangerous potential. Users post questions anonymously, although the questions and answers are displayed on the profiles of users who provide responses. It’s not difficult to see how this could become inappropriate in the wrong hands, but one of the more prominent issues is that this type of application is being increasingly used by cyberbullies to harass, intimidate and embarrass their victims. Qooh.me is intended for users 13 years of age and older.
- Ask.fm – Another Q&A app, Ask.fm has clear guidelines about proper usage of the platform, prohibiting uses such as collecting personal information from other users, sharing or soliciting vulgar, and transmitting illicit or objectionable material. That said, there’s also a disclaimer stating that content is not moderated and users may encounter content they view as objectionable, obscene or in poor taste. Clearly, there’s a lot of potential for kids to be exposed to content you wouldn’t want them to see, in addition to the same cyberbullying risks posed by Qooh.me and any similar Q&A application.
- Seenive – Seenive is a Vine web viewer, although it’s not directly affiliated with Vine. The major red flag is the disclaimer at the bottom of every page: “Content is not moderated.” There’s also a clear warning for users that videos and content posted on Vine are automatically publicly disseminated to sites like Seenive, so users should think carefully about the content they publish online. A major issue is that registration isn’t required to view content – anyone can visit the Seenive.com website and browse content by topics, tag, people, and other filters. That means your child could be exposed to inappropriate content even if she’s not a registered Vine user.
There are thousands of other apps that are attractive to the younger audience, yet fly under the parent radar. This serves to illustrate the point that parents must be extremely cautious when it comes to their kids’ online and mobile activities. New apps are introduced every day, and it’s impossible to predict which apps will catch on with the younger crowd and how they could be used inappropriately. There are a few risks to keep in mind:
- Apps that enable messaging, especially with photo and video options, can inadvertently expose your kids to pornography or be used inappropriately for things like sexting.
- Question-and-answer apps pose a host of potential problems, such as encouraging a young girl to share personal information or answering inappropriate questions. These apps are sometimes used by cyberbullies to intimidate victims.
- Once this information is displayed publicly, even deleting a profile is no guarantee it’s really gone.
The sections below provide valuable advice for preventing these problems from arising and keeping your kids safe in the vast world of digital communications.
When Your Tween Starts Participating in Online Communities: How to Be Proactive
There’s no way around it. When your tween daughter starts participating in online communities, you have to take action. And the best way to do so is to arm yourself with education, find positive outlets for your daughter, and find valuable educational resources that engage girls at this age while still driving home the important lessons you need her to know.
It all starts with a conversation. Set clear ground rules, monitor, and let her have some degree of freedom while she continues to communicate with you honestly. With open lines of communication and trust, your tween will be more likely to follow the rules and alert you immediately if something appears suspicious or makes her uncomfortable.
Image via Internet-Safety.yoursphere.com
There are resources that can help you start these important conversations and assist you in effectively communicating what’s right and what’s wrong online. PBS Kids – It’s My Life is an excellent resource for information written in an engaging way that tweens can understand about important topics like drugs and alcohol, body image, smoking and more. NetSmartz Teens is another go-to resource to educate tweens and teens. This site offers activities, videos and games for tweens to help them understand the dangers lurking online and how to take advantage of online communities while staying safe.
If you do allow your tween to join a community, OnGuardOnline.gov recommends a few steps:
- Educate your kids on what is and is not appropriate to share online, as well as the fact that anything posted online can never really be deleted.
- Make sure your child understands what information should never be shared online, including any information that could be used to personally identify her or locate her offline.
- Set the site’s privacy settings carefully, using the maximum privacy levels possible.
- Help your child create a safe screen name.
- Monitor her friends list regularly.
- Encourage open communication. If your child is comfortable sharing her activities online, you’ll be more likely to hear about potential problems before they turn serious.
- Use parental control programs to monitor your child’s smartphone activities, such as NQ Mobile’s Family Guardian application. This tool allows you to monitor your kids’ online activities, block access to dangerous sites and even detect where your child is using GPS. There are other applications that allow you to monitor kids’ online activity and block inappropriate websites on PCs and laptops as well.
Image via PewInternet.org
How to Find Safe Websites In Line with Your Kids’ Interests
Some parents may want to create a pre-approved list of websites for their children. Providing a clear list of permissible sites, especially if they’re targeted to your child’s specific interests, is an effective way to avoid your child wandering off to some other corner of the web to find something that engages her interest. Here are a few ways to find safe websites that will interest your kids:
Image via CommonSenseMedia.org
- Use online rating tools. Common Sense Media is an outside organization that reviews and rates websites, apps and all types of media for kids’ appropriateness and safety. If you’re ever in doubt about a site your tween wants to join, Common Sense Media is a good place to start evaluating. There are also search options and filters that allow you to narrow down the possibilities based on age, category and other variables.
- Ask other parents. You probably have friends with children around the same age, or even friends with daughters a few years older. Ask them what online communities they found most appropriate and empowering for their girls.
- Conduct your own search-and-evaluation. Google is a wonderful thing, and by adding additional keywords to your search you can easily find websites that are safe and educational for your kids. Try searching for “COPPA-compliant websites for girls,” or “positive education online communities for kids.” If you use this option, be sure to follow the steps in the “Evaluating Online Communities” section of this guide to make sure it meets your safety criteria.
- Look to experts for recommendations. Don’t be afraid to ask your daughter’s teacher or school guidance counselor. They get new educational resources all the time, and some may include information on the newest online communities designed to create a positive experience for tweens. You can also seek expert recommendations online, by checking out educational resources that recommend specific online communities as safe. This guide from the Connections Academy Blog is a good example. Other lists like this one from EdInformatics.com can also be helpful for finding online communities around specific interests. But again, the legwork and verification is up to you.
- Look for partners and sponsors. If your daughter has a favorite offline organization or an online community you’ve already deemed safe and appropriate, look for the website’s “Sponsors” or “Partners” area. Often, these websites list like-minded organizations and other resources with similar values.
Remember, nothing replaces your open communication and due diligence to evaluate the online communities your daughter frequents.
Useful Resources for Parents
Want more information about online safety for kids? Here are a few more excellent resources with tips, statistics and information you may find helpful.