Sunday, April 14, 2024

Parents: Start 2024 With a Digital Use Check-In

Go over basic internet rules for your child regularly. Credit C. Tamulonis with images from Adobe Stock, 12/2023.

The New Year is upon us, and for many parents, that means they have bought yet another digital device for their child over the holidays or have come through with the promise of the latest cell phone.

The RIDGE VIEW ECHO reached out to Dr. Anthony Aquino, director of A Center for Counseling and Psychotherapy Services in Hackettstown, and Detective Joseph Beach of the Blairstown Police Department, for advice on good digital citizen practices — and what to watch out for if you suspect that your child is being bullied or exploited online.

Nearly half of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 (46%) report ever experiencing at least one of six cyberbullying behaviors asked about in a Pew Research Center survey. Credit Pew Research Center.

While television screen time has decreased since the advent of online media, screen time in general has gone up. A Gallup Poll released its Familial and Adolescent Health Survey in 2023 that showed that teens were spending an average of 4.8 hours a day on social media. The most popular being platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter). 

There are benefits of digital media, such as access to information, promotion of community participation and civic engagement, but misuse and overuse cause mental health risks for children and teens. The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that a personalized plan is best when monitoring your child’s digital use.

“Each child is different,” said Aquino. “Some may need to put their device away during homework time or other important times. If they need their device for homework, they should be reminded beforehand to stay off the pages they are vulnerable for distraction.” 

Aquino also advised that a collaborative plan (one both the child and parent agree to) be put into place ahead of time.

“I think [limits on media use] varies from child to child based on age, maturity and other factors. It also depends on the activity and its purpose,” said Aquino. “There can be clear benefits to digital media, and it is a regular part of the teenage social world. Some basic limits should be established. Less or no time during the school week is appropriate.”

Giving a child a device with internet access also raises safety concerns and parents should know how to keep their child protected. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported an 82% increase in online enticement (a category of online sexual exploitation of children) in 2022 alone — and the Pew Research Center reported that nearly half of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 have experienced at least one of six cyberbullying behaviors.

In order to facilitate a healthy relationship with digital devices, Aquino recommends that parents start educating their children way before they are of age to use them, much like the way you would talk to your child about driving before they were 16 years old. 

“Digital devices are now part of our everyday lives. Anything that requires a level of responsibility should be discussed long before the child will be significantly engaging in the activity that requires the responsibility,” said Aquino. “They can be taught they are not toys, how to respect them, and age appropriate ways to respect personal information and privacy.” 

Beach advises that parents educate themselves on apps that they let their children use including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp and TikTok. And regularly review their child’s social media account and check what is being posted.

“Make sure you’re using privacy settings to restrict who can access your children’s profiles,” said Beach. “Talk to your children about what is appropriate to share and say on these social media platforms.” 

Beach also recommends explaining that cyber harassment is a crime, even if your child considers a post to be a joke or harmless fun. In New Jersey, cyber harassment is a crime of the fourth degree and can incur court ordered training classes for minors as well as fines for the parent.

A good rule of thumb is to remind your child that once they post something, even if they delete it later, someone could have downloaded it. Meaning it can potentially be out there forever.

Aquino said that social psychology research shows that increased levels of anonymity online have been linked to increased abusive behavior towards others.

“Unlike bullying that occurs in school, cyberbullying can occur anyplace, anytime, under poor to no supervision, and to a potentially larger audience,” said Aquino.

Going by some basic rules is an effective way to teach children to protect themselves online.

“These include not giving out personal information, being educated on the sites/apps being used and not engaging online with someone who is reacting hostile or aggressive,” Aquino said.

“For parents, open communication about the threats of cyberbullying and online exploitation ahead of time is essential,” said Aquino. “Parents should have open conversations about steps to take if cyberbullying were to occur. Parents could also role-play various scenarios and inquire how their children would handle various situations.”

Beach warns that children are also vulnerable to adult predators on these apps.

“They [adults] can potentially attempt to forge a relationship with your child and attempt to meet them in person,” said Beach. “These criminals can also attempt to coerce a child into producing sexually explicit images or videos, which is referred to as ‘sextortion.’ Sextortion cases are on the rise all over the United States. These photos of the young victim can be kept by the criminal or potentially used to blackmail the child for additional pictures, videos or money.”

Beach recommends to inform your child to be extremely cautious when talking to anyone online they’ve never met in person.

“Criminals can make fake profiles and pretend to be a young child in an attempt to build a relationship with a young victim,” he said. “Explain to your child that these fake profiles do exist and if they are requested to produce sexually explicit images, they should inform their parents.”

Beach said that criminals may use threats, gifts, money, lies or various other methods in an attempt to get young victims to produce these images.

“This crime can have a devastating impact on your child, and it is best to remind them that if they have become a victim, they should tell a parent or trusted adult. It is important for the parent to monitor their child’s social media actions to potentially intercept and stop these actions before they occur.” 

Aquino said some general warnings signs that a child has been targeted online may include:

  • Increased isolation/withdrawing from family
  • Increased anxiety, anger/irritability
  • Increased emotions during or immediately after screen time
  • Increased protectiveness regarding one’s devices

If your child is exposed to a shocking image or video online, Aquino advises treating it head on.

“They [parents] should not hesitate to have an open and honest conversation about it,” he said. “Parents may want to share some of their own feelings in an age-appropriate manner. They should attempt to ask open-ended questions. If the child does not talk much, tell them that is ok, but they can come and discuss this event or their feelings around it at any time.”

“If you believe your child has been targeted and became a victim of sextortion, cyber harassment or is having an inappropriate relationship with an adult, please contact your local police department,” said Beach. “Also, do not delete the conversations including images, videos and messages your child sent or received as it is important evidence for investigating the case. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Missingkids.org, also has a CyberTipline and additional information.”

Aquino points to early and open communication with your child as the key to keeping them safe online.

“Attempt to make it a healthy discussion during times when media is not being used rather a power struggle while it is being used,” he said. “Ask your child about their thoughts regarding the responsibility and risks inherent in digital media. Ask them if they can share anything they have learned at school about it or any stories that they have heard regarding friends or friends’ families.”

Taking a non-judgmental and calm approach when talking with your child about their digital media use can help them open up to you more.

“It has always been better to be proactive in protecting and educating our children about healthy relationships and behavior rather than reactive,” said Aquino.

To find out how to use built-in parental controls on Instagram, TikTok and more please visit: https://www.popsci.com/diy/social-media-parent-guide/.

For more information on sextortion please visit: https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/stop-sextortion-youth-face-risk-online-090319.

For safe online surfing information that your child can learn from please visit: https://sos.fbi.gov/en/.

Cybele Tamulonis
Cybele Tamulonis, Contributing Writer

Cybele is a writer and editor with more than 16 years in the publishing industry. An avid reader, you can usually find her with the latest new book release from the local library. She currently resides on a farm in Hardwick with her husband and four children. In her spare time, she writes historical fiction specific to New Jersey.