How Tech Experts Monitor Their Teens on Social Media

The Wall Street Journal

How can parents keep up with smartphones? Tech executives take various approaches to managing their children’s social-media use

While investor protests about smartphones’ harmful social effects began making headlines only recently, Silicon Valley parents have struggled with the issue for a long time.

Tech executives with children share many of the same concerns other parents have about tweens’ and teens’ social-media use—that it will disrupt sleep, homework or face-to-face socializing, or expose their children to bullies or predators.

Those who are experts on the internet and information security also wonder: What hidden security threats lurk in the latest social-media app? Which of many possible paths might hackers take to invade their children’s privacy?

The routes tech-savvy executives choose to protect their tweens and teens online vary, from close monitoring to guiding them in managing the hazards themselves.

Teaching Decision-Making

Steven Aldrich foresees his 16-year-old son Jackson constantly surrounded by apps and devices designed to grab his attention.

Mr. Aldrich, chief product officer at GoDaddy Inc., a Scottsdale, Ariz., provider of internet domains and websites to businesses, and his wife, Allison, shun the parental-control apps and filters with which some parents control their children’s internet and social-media use. “No amount of monitoring is going to teach responsibility or judgment,” Mr. Aldrich says. “The kids have to learn to live in a world where that’s the reality.” Instead, he and his wife “focus on, how do we create an environment where Jackson has the chance to learn judgment, by participating in setting limits and creating boundaries for himself.”

Steven Aldrich, GoDaddy's chief product officer, says ‘No amount of monitoring is going to teach responsibility or judgment.’
Steven Aldrich, GoDaddy’s chief product officer, says ‘No amount of monitoring is going to teach responsibility or judgment.’ PHOTO: GODADDY

They started early, letting Jackson decide as a child, with parental coaching, how much candy to eat from the pantry. This has evolved to teaching him to finish a homework assignment before checking social media. Mrs. Aldrich sometimes asks Jackson to let her know when he takes breaks from homework, Jackson says, making him aware of whether he’s diverting his attention too often.

They’re helping him learn time management, such as scheduling homework, sports practice, dinner and sleep in advance so that social media doesn’t crowd them out. “We’ve seen it start to pay off in how he prepares for tests or projects,” Mr. Aldrich says.

He and his wife also encourage Jackson to think about everything he posts as part of his permanent personal brand, Mr. Aldrich says, asking him: “Think about what you might have chosen if you’d gotten a tattoo when you were 3? What if you got a Barney tattoo, and now you’re in middle school? Would you want to be walking around with a Barney tattoo?’”

They’ve used examples from Snapchat of mistakes other teens made in oversharing, and asked Jackson to imagine how the sender felt afterward.

Jackson, who uses Snapchat and Instagram and also has a YouTube channel of his own about videogames and soccer, says he has learned to ask himself before posting anything to consider how it might affect his image. “Would I want the principal, a future employer, my teachers to see this?” he says. “Once you post something, it will be out there forever.”

Keeping a Watchful Eye

The powerful allure social media holds for teens has led Michelle Dennedy to take a hands-on approach to monitoring its use by her two daughters, 11 and 16. “Once you hand that phone to your child, that is the beginning of a million micro-decisions for you as a parent, and for the child,” says Ms. Dennedy, chief privacy officer at Cisco Systems Inc., the San Jose, Calif., networking company.

 

She checks privacy settings every six months on all the apps she and her daughters use on their smartphones. If social media distracts them from homework, “the Wi-Fi goes off and the books come out,” Ms. Dennedy says.

She teaches them how marketers use free apps to get personal information. “Do you know the difference between free and paid music?” she recently asked her younger daughter. “What do you think an advertiser would want to know about 11-year-old kids?”

She refrains from making judgments about teens’ social-media habits. “Apparently if you don’t respond with a selfie fast enough, people get upset. I respect their culture. I can’t just say, ‘That’s dumb, these people are ridiculous,’ and walk away,” Ms. Dennedy says. Instead, she asks, “What is this doing to your self-esteem?’ And I have to be quiet and listen. It’s an ongoing struggle.”

She also requires her daughters to get permission before downloading apps. “Sometimes they’ll send me an app that is just ridiculous. My older daughter asked for a celebrity app, with a lot of pictures of body parts,” Ms. Dennedy says. “ I asked her, ‘Write me a memo about what this will do to improve your life, and then we’ll have a conversation.’ She wrote the memo, tongue-in-cheek, with a lot of eye-rolling, saying, ‘I like the Kardashians because they annoy my mom.’ She still didn’t get the app.”

Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer at Cisco Systems, checks privacy settings every six months on the apps she and her daughters use on their smartphones.
Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer at Cisco Systems, checks privacy settings every six months on the apps she and her daughters use on their smartphones. PHOTO: CISCO

She steps in when social media ignites too much teen drama. “One problem for my older daughter a couple of years ago was when friends were using FaceTime while doing homework,” she says. “Walking into her room, I’d see another student talking about how stressed out she was, how hopeless it was, how awful parents were to force them to get good grades.

“I had a long conversation with my daughter later: I know you want to help your friends, but some of these students may need professional help. And I ask her, is this helping you get the grades you could get and want to get?”

She encouraged her daughter to talk with her friend and tell her: “I’m worried that this conversation isn’t productive. What can we do about this?” Or, “My weirdo mother is going to call your weirdo mother. Maybe we should stop.” Ms. Dennedy does sometimes call other parents in such situations. “That can be an awkward conversation, but it’s one you have to try to have.”

Monitoring Closely

Eight-year-old Jack Arkin’s online activity so far is limited to watching children’s videos on YouTube and sending email. But his father, Brad, who is chief security officer for Adobe, the San Jose, Calif., cloud-software company, has already begun shaping his attitude toward social media.

Adobe’s chief security officer Brad Arkin says, ‘I try to teach my kids to understand the tech concepts behind what they’re doing.’
Adobe’s chief security officer Brad Arkin says, ‘I try to teach my kids to understand the tech concepts behind what they’re doing.’ PHOTO:ADOBE

Mr. Arkin and his wife, Carolyn, closely monitor everything Jack does online. They restrict screen time for Jack to 30 to 60 minutes on most days. They read Jack’s emails over his shoulder and stream his children’s videos on the family TV, setting YouTube on restricted mode and keeping an eye on content. “He gets zero privacy and zero expectations of privacy,” Mr. Arkin says.

Jack will probably get his first phone next year, but it will be an old-fashioned flip phone, so he and his parents can call or send texts while he’s walking to and from school.

Mr. Arkin doesn’t plan to rely on parental controls when Jack, and his two younger brothers, ages 6 and 3, eventually get smartphones. “At my day job as a security guy, I know that software controls can be circumvented by determined adversaries,” he says. Instead, “I try to teach my kids to understand the tech concepts behind what they’re doing.”

That includes the hidden hazards of social media: “If you post a photo, people can figure out where the picture was taken, and at what time,” Mr. Arkin tells his son. “When you think about posting something, the questions are, ‘What do you hope to achieve by publishing it? Why does this need to be viewable to the world?’”

“I’m doing my best,” Mr. Arkin says, “to make my kids savvy but not over-fearful.”

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

Apps to Help Keep Track of What Your Kids Are Doing Online

Though open communication is best, these tools can help parents who want a little extra control.

Christine Elgersma Senior Editor, Apps| Mom of one 

Senior Editor, Apps| Mom of one
Apps to Help Keep Track of What Your Kids Are Doing Online

As kids become more independent, we want to foster their sense of responsibility and give them room to prove themselves. But it can be difficult to navigate this natural separation, especially when kids are doing who-knows-what on their devices. There are constant questions: Where are they? Who’s contacting them? What are they doing online? Since tweens and teens are often tight-lipped about their lives, it can be tricky to get clear answers.

Though direct communication is always best, and the conversations around online safety and digital citizenship should start long before a kid becomes a teen, there are occasions when parents feel it’s necessary to monitor what kids are doing on their devices. Maybe they’ve broken your trust or you’re worried about their safety. Whatever the case, there are tools to track what your kid is up to. Be aware that spying on your kid can backfire and that kids can find a way around just about any type of tracking. But if you’re at the end of your rope or just need extra help managing your kid’s digital life, then one of these tools might work for you. To get more information, check out our advice about cell phone issues, including basic parental controls, and less invasive (and expensive) ways to limit access to content.

Bark: Similar to VISR (see below), kids and parents need to work together to hook up accounts to the service. It also analyzes all device activity and alerts parents when a problem is found. If they get an alert, parents will see the content in question and get suggestions on how to handle it ($9/month).

Circle Home and Go: This app manages the Circle with Disney device, which pairs with your home Wi-Fi and controls all Wi-Fi-enabled devices. Can create time limits on specific apps, filter content, set bedtimes, and restrict internet access for the whole house or for individuals. Circle Go will let parents filter, limit, and track on networks outside the home Wi-Fi (the Circle device is $99, the Circle Home app is free, and the Circle Go service will be $9.95/month).

Limitly: If screen time and specific app use is your concern, this system might work for you. It lets you track your kid’s app use and limit time using the device or certain apps (free, Android-only).

Pocket Guardian: Parents get alerts when sexting, bullying, or explicit images are detected on your kid’s device, though you won’t see the actual content or who it’s from. Instead, the alert can prompt a conversation, and the app offers resources to help ($9.99–$12.99/month).

Trackidz: With this program, you don’t see specific content from your kid’s device, but you can track app installations and use, block browsers and apps, manage time in apps and on the device, block out device-free time, grant bonus time, track location, get an alert when your kid’s phone is turned off, and see your kid’s contacts. It also claims to detect cyberbullying by tracking when your kid’s device use drops dramatically, which can indicate avoidance. Setting up a geo-fence lets parents track a kid’s location and alerts them when a kid has gone outside the boundaries, and a kid can tap the power button to send an emergency message to parents (currently free, but will be $6.99).

VISR: For this one to work, a parent needs the kid’s usernames and passwords, so be aware that it’s easy for kids to set up dummy accounts. Once enabled, the tool analyzes posts and emails for bullying, profanity, nudity, violence, drugs, and late-night use and sends parents alerts when anything iffy is detected (currently free, but will be $5/month).

A New Kind of Social Anxiety in the Classroom

The Atlantic

Kids who constantly use phones and computers tend to be more nervous in face-to-face conversations. What can teachers do to help?

Giuseppe Milo/Flickr

Stress about a meeting that is still a week away, handwringing before talking to the cashier in the grocery line, worrying about seeing an acquaintance on the street—for people with social anxiety disorder, even the simplest task can prove challenging. The symptoms of social anxiety often set in around adolescence, when people place a new emphasis on social interactions and their place in their peer groups. But some academics fear that greater access to technology could exacerbate social anxiety among teens, particularly as smartphones, tablets, and computers become omnipresent in and out of the classroom. And even though teachers are increasingly exploiting the devices as learning tools, they also play an integral role in stemming the tide of social anxiety.

“If we are glued to technology 24/7, it’s going to have an effect on social skills—it’s just natural,” said Tamyra Pierce, a journalism professor at California State University, Fresno. The clear link between technology and social behavior makes it all the more important that teachers who embrace these devices need to keep students’ social skills in mind.

An estimated 15 million Americans have social anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and symptoms usually start around age 13. More than just shyness, social anxiety causes people to fear the judgment and scrutiny of those around them. People with social anxiety often have concurrent disorders like depression. The disorder can affect every aspect of a person’s life, from academic performance to self esteem; in severe cases, social anxiety can be debilitating, keeping sufferers in bed and out of public places to avoid confrontation. But almost everyone suffers from at least a little social anxiety, says Thomas Rodebaugh, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “We’d be worried about someone who never experiences any social anxiety,” he said.

Social anxiety differs between individuals, so it makes sense that the relationship between technology and social anxiety is murky and is often varies case to case. For some sufferers, technology can increase social interaction. One 2012 studyfound that people with low self-esteem who may be reluctant to talk about themselves with peers face-to-face feel more comfortable sharing personal information on Facebook. Researchers who conducted another 2006 studyconcluded that social media can “strengthen community engagement and attachment” in some people. Pierce recalls teens with disabilities that, in spite of their apprehension about talking with the opposite sex, were able to approach their crushes through technology. “Once they felt like they were doing okay [online], then they could continue the conversation face-to-face in a more comfortable state,” Pierce said. “The anxiety was lessened by using technology, but that’s more the exception than the rule.”

Pierce says it’s the exception because she has personally seen an increase in social anxiety among her plugged-in students over the years she has been teaching. “Now young people can’t look you in the eye, they get antsy talking to you in person,” she said.

So, in 2009, Pierce conducted a study to test the relationship between technology and social anxiety. She asked teenagers how often they use “socially interactive technologies,” like instant messages and texts, and then assessed how comfortable they felt talking to people face-to-face. Pierce found that the more the students spent using online communication methods, the more likely they were to show symptoms of anxiety about communicating face-to-face. What’s more, teenage girls showed much more anxiety than did their male peers.

These conclusions left Pierce with a chicken-and-egg problem: “Was it the use of technology that has created a heightened sense of anxiety about talking to someone face to face, or did it start with social anxiety that led to increased use of social media?” Either way, though, she hypothesizes that teens are using social media as a crutch, a replacement for the in-person interactions that help them develop socially. “It’s going to take a lot more research because, as I’ve seen in my other research about social media, due to excessive use of cell phones, teens and young people alike are not talking face to face. It’s hampering their social skills,” she said.

But Rodebaugh, the psychologist, is skeptical that technology is to blame for social anxiety among teens. “What we’ve seen from some of my students’ studies is, if you’re the sort of person who is going on Facebook to interact with people you expect to see sometime in the future, you’re going to interact with them in the real world,” he said. There’s no evidence that using technology that way has a negative effect, he added. But he agrees that adolescence is a pivotal time in a person’s social development and, as future studies probe the relationship between social anxiety and technology, “[adolescence] is a good place to look for it.”

In the years since Pierce’s study, digital communication has become even more common. Between 2011 and 2013, the percentage of teens who had smartphonesincreased from 23 percent to 37 percent. In 2012, 81 percent of teens used some form of social media.

Anecdotally, both Pierce and Rodebaugh have seen more laptops and cell phones in the classroom. Constant pings of texts and Facebook notifications can sometimes distract students, pulling them away from their face-to-face interactions and into the virtual world of digital communication. One 2013 studyfound that the average person unlocked his or her cell phone more than 100 times per day. “It’s much easier to look at a phone than to look someone in the eye,” said parenting blogger Vanessa Van Petten in a 2013 Washington Postarticle.

Technology is increasingly a primary means for socializing among teens. But it’s not clear whether this has had an effect on the number of people with social anxiety. “We don’t have data that is that intensive [about social anxiety] over the past five years,” Rodebaugh said. Even though social anxiety is one of the most common anxiety disorders (about12 percent of adults will have it at some point in their lives), researchers aren’t yet able to determine how its prevalence has changed over time; there’s still little consensus on the causes of the disorder. So there’s no proof that an increased use of technology over the past five years has led to a greater prevalence of social anxiety. Pierce plans to conduct an updated version of her 2009 study in the near future, which may shed some light on the issue.

Regardless, even if the link between technology and social anxiety were clearer, banning it in the classroom seems increasingly unlikely. Teachers from kindergarten onward are embracing laptops, iPads, and video games as educational tools, using them to help students visualize complex topics in a whole new way, despite the distraction caused by texts and social media. “Unless there were some sort of attempt to ban technology from the classroom, [that technology] will be there when most people want it to,” Rodebaugh said. “I haven’t yet made a particular policy [restricting the use of technology in the classroom]. But I’ve considered it, and I assume at some point I’ll have to.”

Pierce doesn’t think that’s the solution, though. “It’s not a matter of use or no use, it’s what kind of use,” she said. “When we take away all face-to-face communication and our young people stay in their rooms and stare at their screens, we do them a disservice.” A good comparison, she says, is how people view tests—some prefer multiple-choice while others want only open-ended questions. Using technology in the right way means giving students a balance and options with their devices, both academically and socially. “We can’t lose the social skills, we can’t lose the technology—we have to have both. We have to go back to that balance,” Pierce said.

For teens that feel socially anxious, Pierce suggests that they use technology less at home (especially for those who let it disrupt their sleep). Rodebaugh added that there are a number of treatments for social anxiety, which involve medication or therapy. “People don’t have to continue to suffer if they don’t want to,” he said.

Sleeping Near A Smartphone Can Disturb A Child’s Rest

NPR

Most of the children in this study said they slept with a smartphone or iPod.

Most of the children in this study said they slept with a smartphone or iPod.

David Young-Wolff/Getty Images

The last thing my 11-year-old does before she goes to sleep is put her iPod on the nightstand. And that could mean less sleep for her, researchers say.

There’s plenty of evidence that children who have televisions in their rooms get less sleep. This is one of the first studies to look at whether having a small screen like an iPod or smartphone in the room also affects rest.

The study, which was published Monday in Pediatrics, looked at 2,048 racially diverse fourth-graders and seventh-graders who were participating in a study on childhood obesity in Massachusetts. Lack of sleep is considered a risk factor for obesity, so the children were asked how long they slept and if they felt they needed more sleep.

They also were asked how often they slept with an iPod, smartphone or cellphone in their bed or next to the bed. More than half of the children, 57 percent, said they slept near a small screen.

Those children reported getting 20.6 fewer minutes of sleep on weekdays, compared to children who didn’t have the devices in the bedroom. Those children were also more likely to say they felt like they hadn’t gotten enough sleep.

The study also looked at TVs in the bedroom and found that children who slept in a room with a TV reported 18 fewer minutes of sleep than those without a TV, on par with other studies. And the big screens were even more common than the small screens — three-quarters of the children said they had a TV in their room. But they were less likely to feel like they missed out on sleep than the kids with small screens.

With both the TVs and the small screens, children went to sleep later, the researchers say. The small-screen sleepers hit the hay 37 minutes later than their screenless peers, and TV-watchers went to bed 31 minutes later. All the children were getting up at the same time because they had to get off to school.

And here’s one more wrinkle: Children who said they played video games or watched DVDs during the day also said they felt less rested. But the negative impact was much smaller than for small screens or TVs in the bedroom.

This study wasn’t designed in a way that could figure out what was causing the sleep loss and tiredness — whether the kids were actually using the devices thus exposing themselves to light and stimulating content, say, or whether getting calls or alerts during the night interrupted sleep.

My guess is that it’s all of the above. And though I don’t think my sixth-grader is texting at midnight, I’ve been worried enough about the disruptive potential of the bedside device that this Christmas she got an old-school bit of technology — a clock radio. That iPod is outta there.

Parents’ Guide to Kids and Cell Phones

Parents’ Guide to Kids and Cell Phones

Everything You Need to Know Before You Buy Your Kid a Cell Phone.
 

These tips can help you:

  • Decide whether your kid is ready for a cell phone
  • Teach basic cell-phone safety
  • Explain responsible cell phone rules
  • Set limits

Advice & Answers

 

At some point, most of us decide that our kids are ready for a phone — so they can call when they get off the bus, need a ride, or just check in. That’s when you discover that it’s nearly impossible to find a phone with only the features you need — namely, the ability to receive and make phone calls.

Most phones — even basic models — are tiny handheld computers, with features that put a lot of power in little hands. Kids can take photos, text, access the Internet, watch YouTube, play games, download music … and even make calls.

Cell phones give kids access to the world in ways that you can’t predict. A little advanced preparation, including rules, guidance, and expectations, can go a long way toward protecting your kids.

What’s the right age to get my kid a cell phone?

Age isn’t as important as responsibility and maturity. If your kid can demonstrate both — by checking in with you at appointed times, following your rules, adhering to school guidelines, and handling the phone sensibly — then he or she may be ready. Here are a few questions to help you decide:

  • Do your children need to be in touch for safety reasons?
  • Would having easy access to friends benefit them for social reasons?
  • Can they adhere to limits you set for minutes talked and apps downloaded?
  • Will they use the text, photo, and video functions responsibly and not to embarrass or harass others?

Can I “just say no” to cell phones?

It’s not a tragedy to be the only kid at school without a phone. But there are very few public phones anymore. If there’s an emergency and you need to reach your kid, you’ll be kicking yourself for not having gotten him one. Maybe you just don’t want to buy into a tech-obsessed, always-connected culture. You can still pass along your values by modeling the tech habits you want your kids to pick up — without missing that emergency call.

What are the basic safety rules for cell phones?

Basic safety skills are essential for kids’ safety and privacy. Here are the areas kids will need to be responsible for, plus some best practices.

  • Texting
  • Calling
    • Verify the caller or texter. Don’t respond to numbers you don’t know.
    • Answer the phone when it’s Mom or Dad. Make sure your kid knows to answer when it’s YOU calling!
  • Cameras
    • Ask permission. Before you snap someone’s picture, take a video, or forward something, ask if it’s OK.
    • Don’t publicly embarrass people. Don’t post someone’s photo — especially unflattering ones — from your cell phone without permission.
  • Apps and downloads
    • Manage costs. Make sure your kids understand that they’re spending real money when they download apps, games, and music.
    • Use filters. Check your phone for parental controls that let you filter out age-inappropriate content, restrict downloads, and prevent in-app purchases.
  • Posting
    • Be selective — not impulsive. Make sure kids know to be very selective about what they post from their cell phone.
    • Be safe. Explain why they shouldn’t use location services.

What should I do if someone “sexts” my kid?

This can happen — even accidentally! Tell your kid to delete the photo and block the number. And if someone asks your kids to send them a “sext,” make sure your kids say no and tells you if they’re being pressured.

My kid’s friend texted an embarrassing photo of her to friends. What should I do?

She learned the hard way that kids can use cell phones to humiliate others by forwarding texts, photos, and other things that were thought to be private. First, explain that this is a form of cyberbullying. Next, talk to the other kid’s parents — and show them the evidence. Don’t accuse — but do make sure that you’re all on the same page about what’s appropriate behavior. Make sure your kids don’t retaliate, but do make sure they’re standing up for themselves and have supportive friends who will also stand up to bullies. Also consider discussing the matter with your kid’s school — the bully may actually be acting out due to other problems.

Is there anything I can do about the spam my kid’s phone gets?

Cell phone spam (unsolicited bulk messages) is a growing problem — and if kids click on these ads, they may be unwittingly giving away information or opting into a service. Call your cell phone company to report the problem; they may ask you to forward the spam to a specific number. Then, block the caller, either by using your phone’s settings or going through your carrier.

Should I buy parental controls from my wireless carrier?

There are pros and cons to purchasing these services, which let you do everything from filtering inappropriate content to blocking phone purchases to locating your kid on a map. The main “con” is cost. Some of these features can be expensive, and you may be able to find cheaper alternatives through the phone’s built-in settings or through third-party apps. But on the “pro” side is need. While we like to think our kids will be completely responsible, some kids will resist your rules. If your kid is risking safety, privacy, and money, it might be worth looking into these services.

Are smartphones OK for kids?

Kids love smartphones. And why not? They can play games, access the Internet, video chat — and do lots of other advanced activities. If you’re going to spring for a smartphone, get one that allows you to turn off features you don’t want your kids using (like the ability to purchase apps) and keep the ones that you’re OK with (like texting).

How do I keep tabs on my kids’ cell phone use without seeming intrusive?

Some parents say, “If I’m paying for it, I’m entitled to read my kids’ texts, check their call log, and know who their buddies are.” That’s valid, but kids consider these devices to be as personal as diaries, so tread cautiously. Spot checks are a good idea. You know your kid best. If you sense something isn’t right, spot check more often. Explain that your rules are for their safety and protection and that you need to be able to make sure they’re using their devices appropriately.

My kid seems addicted to her phone. What do I do?

Experts have compared cell-phone dependency to gambling. Every text, email, and update is like a “hit” you begin to crave. Hopefully, you’re just dealing with a compulsive habit that you can manage by structuring your kids’ time. Schedule time for the phone to be on and off, schedule activities where the cell phone can’t be used, and look into programs that block the phone from being used. If you suspect the problem is true addiction, talk to your pediatrician.

 

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