Monday, May 28, 2012

Phone Apps Keep Secrets from Parents

Did you know that there are apps for smart phones that that translate a phone text into a coded message, and that it can be decoded only by users that have that same app? What does this mean for parents?

Teens are using these apps, like Hidden Text, Text Free, and Text Plus, to share secret messages with each other. When parents check a teen's phone, Mom or Dad read a benign, coded message, thinking they are reading the real thing. According to a report by Charlotte's News Channel 36, teens are using these apps - which are free and easy to download - to sext each other.

Dr. Frank Gaskill of Charlotte's Southeast Psych says that one in five teens have sent nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves to others, and an estimated 40% of teenagers have sent sexually explicit messages.  Dr. Gaskill recommends four household rules for managing teen cell phone use:
  1. He says kids should have a phone curfew, a time when they have to put their phone down for the day.
  2. They should never be allowed to charge their phone in their bedroom overnight. Too risky and too secretive, he says.
  3. Parents have to learn the technology their kids are using. "They can't just sit back and say, ‘I don't understand that stuff."
  4. Finally, it’s all about the talk. "I'm saying have conversations with your kids starting at age five or six,” Dr. Gaskill said. And keep talking and learning, because this child psychologist knows one thing for certain: "There's a lot of apps out there…and there'll be 10 more in six months."
What's the big concern about teens sharing private and sexual material with other teens? One concern is the permanency of online posts or photos shared. Jumping to a brilliant national article by Chelsea Clinton and James Steyer, the two have this to say about young people using the Internet to share thoughts, photos and videos:
The immediacy of social media platforms, coupled with vulnerable youngsters who are socially inexperienced and not fully developed emotionally, can create a combustible mix. Kids often self-reveal before they reflect, and millions of kids say and do things they later regret. The permanence of what anyone posts online and the absence of an "eraser" button mean that the embarrassment and potential damage can last forever.
Online posts, photos and videos are permanent, and can be copied and shared with anyone. Does a teenager, whose main focus is fitting in with peers, have the maturity and sound judgement to decide what he or she is comfortable posting and sharing with the world? Can they truly trust their young friends to keep text and photos to themselves? Do they fully understand potential ramifications for sharing private or sexual material with their friends or even strangers?

And are most parents ready to contend with a continuous flood of programs that are specifically designed to help teens keep secrets from them. Or do many of us, like Dr. Gaskill claims, have our heads in the sand? The very existence of apps that are designed to keep secrets means that the onus is on us to protect our kids in ways that we may not be prepared for.

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