Lately, I've noticed a trend. In addition to the usual "Going 2 sonic 4 happy hour. I <3 cherry limeade" updates I often see on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, many students have been posting, "I'm bored, ask me a question" followed by a link to the site "ask.fm." When I asked the kiddos what this was, I was told it's is a social media site that allows users to ask and answer questions anonymously.
Yes. You have spent hundreds of dollars on advanced technology for your child so they could ask each other questions. When I was a kid, we asked each other questions in person, while walking up hill both ways in the snow. I initially gave this an eye-roll. Kids these days.
However, they went on to share that the site causes "a lot of drama." Intrigued, I visited the site and realized why. Users set up a profile on which other users can ask them questions anonymously. Some of the questions are innocent: "If you could have dinner with anyone who would it be?" (One Direction, duh). However, many were perverted or downright mean, asking what kind of sexual favors the user was willing to do or telling the user they were "fat, ugly and stupid" and that no one would ever date them.
This "polling strangers online" trend isn't limited to Ask.Fm. Other examples are the disturbing "Am I Pretty?" posts on Instagram and YouTube, in which users -- some of whom appear to be as young as 7 years old -- upload videos and pictures of themselves, asking "Am I pretty?" Sadly, the replies are often vulgar and nasty. Kids are getting emotionally pummeled in these unknown corners of the Internet, unnoticed by us adults who are simply trying to figure out the ever-changing privacy settings on Facebook and how we can deposit a check with our mobile banking apps.
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What can be done about this? First, be vigilant about your child's online activity. While some feel that this is invasive, imagine this: Your child asks you to take them somewhere to hangout with their friends. You pile into the minivan and drive to a building with obscene slogans and pictures in the windows. There are sketchy characters milling about inside and not an adult in sight. Your child looks at you and says, "I'll be fine. Pick me up in two hours. You can trust me."
I hope this cues locked doors and squealing tires, because this isn't about "trusting" a child. This is about helping them avoid dangerous people and places. People like to discuss the crisis of "online bullying" at length, but much of this could be solved by more online supervision. Just like children and teens have to learn street-smarts before they're allowed to roam the mall or go to the movies unsupervised, the Internet must be monitored.
There are many resources to help adults do this. Two useful sites are www.commonsensemedia.org or www.cpyu.org, but equally important is sitting down and looking at what's going on for yourself. Learn how to search your browser histories, look at the apps downloaded on phones and tablets and keep electronics in shared spaces like the kitchen or living room so you can casually "drop in" and see what's going on for yourself.
In addition to monitoring virtual reality, don't forget to take advantage of reality. Engaging the world through conversation and fun with family and friends can ground youths in the advice and support from those in their lives who actually know and care about them. Family dinners, game nights and community service build up self-esteem more than a dozen "likes" on Instagram, and it won't even push you over your data plan.