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

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Why Social Media is Not Smart for Middle School Kids

Psychology Today

Tween’ brains are simply too immature to use social media wisely.

This guest post is by Melanie Hempe, RN, founder of Families Managing Media

Source: interstid/Shutterstock

I really love middle school kids. I have two of them! If you have been through middle-school parenting, you may have noticed what I see: Strange things seem to happen to a tween’s brain the first day they walk into middle school.

One might sum up their main goals in life this way:

  • To be funny at all costs. (Hence, the silly bathroom jokes, talking at inappropriate times in class, and the “anything it takes to be popular” attitude.)
  • To focus on SELF — their clothes, their nose, their body, and their hair.
  • To try new things. They are playing “dress up” with their identity, trying on things to see what fits. They are impulsive and scattered, they are up and they are down, and it even seems that they have regressed in their development on their quest for independence.

As the parent, you are changing, too, as you enter the stage of parenting when you quickly depart from the naïve platform of “My child would never…” to the realization that, “I’m sure my child did that. I’m sorry, and please excuse his behavior, he is going through a phase.”

Your list of daily parenting instruction may include statements like:

  • “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”
  • “How many times do I have to tell you not the use that word?”
  • “Stop flipping that bottle!”
  • “Stop burping the ABC’s!”
  • “You’re acting like a two-year-old.”
  • “What were you thinking?”

Then it happens: Maybe because we are exhausted from their constant begging for a phone, or because we think that all their friends have one, or because we want to upgrade ours to the latest model…we cave. We act on impulse. Our brain seems to regress like theirs, and we give them our old smartphone.

And with that one little decision comes the world of social media access—something we haven’t thought about and something none of us is prepared for. Because the midbrain is reorganizing itself and risk-taking is high and impulse control is low, I can’t imagine a worse time in a child’s life to have access to social media than middle school. Here are just a few reasons why:

  1. Social media was not designed for them. A tween’s underdeveloped frontal cortex can’t manage the distraction nor the temptations that come with social media use. While you start teaching responsible use of tech now, know that you will not be able to teach the maturity that social media requires. Like trying to make clothes fit that are way too big, they will use social media inappropriately until they are older and it fits them better.
  2. Social media is an entertainment technology. It does not make your child smarter or more prepared for real life or a future job; nor is it necessary for healthy social development. It is pure entertainment attached to a marketing platform extracting bits and pieces of personal information and preferences from your child every time they use it, not to mention hours of their time and attention.
  3. A tween’s “more is better” mentality is a dangerous match for social media. Do they really have 1,456 friends? Do they really need to be on it nine hours a day? Social media allows (and encourages) them to overdo their friend connections like they tend to overdo other things in their lives.
  4. Social media is an addictive form of screen entertainment. And, like video game addiction, early use can set up future addiction patterns and habits.
  5. Social media replaces learning the hard social “work” of dealing face-to-face with peers, a skill that they will need to practice to be successful in real life.
  6. Social media can cause teens to lose connection with family and instead view “friends” as their foundation. Since the cognitive brain is still being formed, the need for your teen to be attached to your family is just as important now as when they were younger. Make sure that attachment is strong. While they need attachments to their friends, they need healthy family attachment more.
  7. Social media use represents lost potential for teens. While one can argue that there are certain benefits of social media for teens, the costs are very high during the teen years when their brain development is operating at peak performance for learning new things. It is easy for teens to waste too much of their time and too much of their brain in a digital world. We know from many studies that it is nearly impossible for them to balance it all.

How Can Kids Slow Down?

First, we need to slow down and rethink what we are allowing our kids to do. We need to understand the world of social media and how teens use it differently from adults. Here are a few tips that work well for many parents.

  1. Delay access. The longer parents delay access, the more time a child will have to mature so that he or she can use technology more wisely as a young adult. Delaying access also places a greater importance on developing personal authentic relationships first.
  2. Follow their accounts. Social media privacy is a lie: Nothing is private in the digital world, and so it should not be private to parents. Make sure privacy settings are in place but know that those settings can give you a false sense of security. Encourage your teen to have private conversations in person or via a verbal phone call instead if they don’t want you to read it on social media.
  3. Create family accounts. Create family accounts instead of individual teen accounts. This allows kids to keep up with friends in a safer social media environment.
  4. Allow social media only on large screens. Allow your teens to only use their social media accounts on home computers or laptops in plain view, this way they will use it less. When it is used on a small private phone screen they can put in their pocket there are more potential problems with reckless use.  The more secret the access, the more potential for bad choices.
  5. Keep a sharp eye on the clock; they will not. Do you know how much time your child spends on social media a day? Be aware of this, and reduce the amount of time your child is on social media across all platforms. The average teen spends nine hours a day connected to social media. Instead, set one time each day for three days a week for your child to check their social media. Do they benefit from more time than that?
  6. Plan face-to-face time with their friends. Remember that they don’t need 842 friends; four-to-six close friends are enough for healthy social development. Help them learn how to plan real, in-person, social get-togethers such as a leave-phones-at-the-door party, a home movie night, bowling, board games, cooking pizza, or hosting a bonfire. They crave these social gatherings so encourage them to invite friends over and help them (as needed) to organize the event.
  7. Spend more real non-tech time together. Teens who are strongly attached to their parents and family show more overall happiness and success in life. They still need us now more than ever. It is easy to detach from them: Teens can be annoying! But attaching to family allows them to detach from the social media drama. Your child needs to feel like they can come home and leave the drama of their social world behind for a few hours. They want you to help them say no to social media and yes to more time with the family. They are craving those moments to disconnect, so make plans and encourage this at home.

Don’t give that smartphone all the power in your home; help tweens choose healthier forms of entertainment. They have the rest of their life to be entertained by social media, but only a limited time with you.

For more tools to help balance social media use from Families Managing Media, click here

To learn how to reverse the dysregulating effects of screen-time on your child’s mood, focus, and behavior, see Reset Your Child’s Brain.