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Educating Children About The Pitfalls Of Social Media On Mobile Devices

Dean Halstead (Chevy Chase, MD) —

The number of dangers for children on the Internet is continually multiplying, making parenting harder — and increasingly requiring a parent to be tech-savvy. The latest tech category to present a danger to children is sometimes nicknamed “mobile social” — in other words, mobile device-based social media, games, and apps that enable children to do social networking with each other. Below are some of the dangers with mobile social, and some suggested preventative measures that parents and teachers might take.

Graphic: Fictitious data used for a realistic example of mobile-social dangers for children.

Online safety from a parent’s viewpoint

Being a parent, a tech-savvy guy, and an Assistant Scout Master of a Boy Scout troop, I recently volunteered to teach the Scout Computer Merit Badge, for which one of the requirements concerns online safety. However, having a child that recently (1) got his first phone, and (2) joined Facebook, I thought adding an additional topic about mobile safety would be prudent.

Mobile usage is exploding. According to some terrific articles on social media usage (like this and this), the percentage of people using social media from their mobile gadgets is between 30-60%. Even at the low end, that’s a very high number.

More people using mobile-social suggests more avenues for threats, particularly with less experiences younger users. There is now a cottage industry in tracking information about you online — where you live, what your interests are, where you frequently hang out, and even when you are likely to be alone. Last weekend, the New York Times called this collection of information about you (which can then be used, traded, or sold) the “Consumer Genome.” Users themselves are enabling the collection of their consumer genomes through public “Likes” or commentary on sites like Yelp or enabling device GPS features, sometimes without knowing it.

What’s a parent to do?

Specific dangers of mobile-social for parents and children

While your first reaction to features like being able to locate specific people’s tweets on a map might be something along the lines of “cool,” when you put your parent or teacher thinking-cap on you probably realize that this kind of functionality for good and bad reasons.

Here are some things happening when a child uses social media on mobile devices:

  • Location-based updates show places where children frequent; specific residence or school can be inferred
  • Location-based updates are often time-stamped; real-time location can be inferred
  • Updates, hashtags, and locations telegraph children’s specific interests, hobbies, and the like
  • Profile photos are the norm on social media, thus telegraphing what a child looks like to the public
  • Children are prone to “over-sharing” thus telegraphing information like when they are alone
  • Many apps stamp their name on updates (e.g., “via Foursquare”); favorite apps can be inferred

This is the new normal. What can you do to allow children to utilize the positive aspects of social media and mobile devices while shielding against some of the downsides of using such mobile-social technology?

Four steps to protecting children from mobile-social dangers

Here are a few helpful, preventative steps:

  1. Education – One of the best things you can do is simply talk to children about some of the dangers listed above. Children may be as surprised as you once were to learn some of the information that devices, services, and apps collect, store, and share about you. That alone is a deterrent.
  2. Advocate – Talk to mobile vendors about your mobile-social concerns, and ask them how they are adding features to help keep children safe from exploitation, broadly defined. Challenging the status quo of the software industry can give app developers second thoughts about adding new features, or leaving safety features out.
  3. Research – The concerns I’ve listed here are just the beginning, and moreover the field is always changing. GPS Tracking: Should Your Teens Use Location Services is a good place to start.
  4. Disable – Every phone has the ability to turn off location services. Instructions for Windows Phone are here, and for iPhone are here, for example.

Dean Halstead is a visualization architect for Microsoft Federal, based in the Washington, DC region.

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