WASHINGTON — After Friendster came MySpace. By the time Facebook dominated social media, parents had joined the party, too. But the online scene has changed, and these days even if you're friends with your own kids on Facebook, it doesn't mean you know what they're doing.
Thousands of software programs now offer cool ways to chat and swap pictures. The most popular apps turn a humdrum snapshot into artistic photography or broadcast your location to friends in case they want to meet you. Kids who use them don't need a credit card or a cellphone; they just need an Internet connection and device such as an iPod Touch or Kindle Fire.
Parents who want to keep up with the curve should stop thinking in terms of imposing time limits or banning social media services. Experts say it's time to talk frankly to kids about privacy controls and remind them that nothing in cyberspace every really goes away, even when software companies promise it does.
“What sex education used to be, it's now the ‘technology talk' we have to have with our kids,” said Rebecca Levey, a mother of 10-year-old twin daughters who runs KidzVuz.com, a video review site.
More than three-fourths of teenagers have a cellphone and use online social networking sites such as Facebook, says the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. But Facebook for teens has become a bit like a school-sanctioned prom — a rite of passage with plenty of adult chaperones — while newer apps such as Snapchat and Kik Messenger are the much cooler after-party.
Facebook acknowledged in a recent regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was losing younger users to similar products and services.
Educators say they have seen kids using their mobile devices to circulate videos of school drug searches, as well as students sending nude images to girlfriends or boyfriends. Most parents, they say, have no idea.
A stay-at-home mom of eight kids in Burke, Va., Eileen Patterson said she used to consider herself fairly tech savvy and frequently spends time on Facebook. But she was shocked to learn her kids could message their friends with just an iPod Touch mp3 player. She counts nine wireless devices in her home and has taken to shutting off her home's Wi-Fi after 9 p.m. But she says her attempt to keep tabs on her kids' online activity is “a war I'm slowly losing every day.”
“I find myself throwing up my hands every now and again,” Patterson said. “Then I'll see something on TV or read an article in the paper about some horrible thing that happened to some poor child and their family, and then I try to be more vigilant.”
Mobile apps are the software applications that can be downloaded to a mobile device through an online store such as Apple's iTunes. The Federal Trade Commission says 800,000 apps are available through Apple and 700,000 on Google Play.
Among the most popular mobile apps used by kids is Instagram, free software that can digitally enhance photos and post them to an account online. Kids on Instagram whose parents monitor their text messages, Facebook posts or emails can also chat with their friends using the service. Their photos can be shared on other social media sites such as Facebook, which bought Instagram last year.
Then there's Snapchat, among the top 10 free iPhone apps. Snapchat lets a user send a text, photo or video that purportedly self-destructs within 10 seconds of being opened — or warns a user if the recipient takes steps to quickly capture it for posterity before it disappears.
Kik Messenger also allows unlimited texting for free and effectively offers anonymity to users.
Snapchat acknowledges on its website that messages aren't guaranteed to disappear: Anyone receiving a text or photo can within 10 seconds capture a “screenshot,” taking a photo of their device's screen, and save the image. Video also can be downloaded, but Snapchat says it alerts senders when material is saved.
Instagram is considered tame as long as kids adjust privacy settings to limit who can see their photos and don't post nudity, which could subject them to child pornography laws. But Levey said many parents don't know their kids are using Instagram until there's trouble, usually when kids post inappropriate photos at parties, which begin to circulate in their social circles.
Parents often hand their kids a mobile device without knowing exactly what it can do, said Dale Harkness, a technology director at Richmond-Burton Community High School in Richmond, Ill.
The problem, he adds, is that actions “get documented, replayed and sent around.” He said students “forget how fast it moves and how far it goes.”
That was the case at Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, N.J., where a male student allegedly took a screenshot of nude pictures sent to him by female classmates via Snapchat, then posted the pictures on Instagram. According to a letter to parents by the school district's superintendent that was later posted online, police warned students to delete any downloaded pictures or face criminal charges under child pornography laws.
In the Ohio rape case involving two football players, social media both added to the victim's humiliation and helped prove her case. The defendants and their friends had recorded the attack and joked about it on a video. The case didn't come to light until the girl read text messages among friends and saw a photo of herself naked.
And there are general security concerns. Cybersecurity company F-Secure said some social networking services have become targets for malicious hacker software and propagating scams.
Online services also collect personal data, such as a person's birth date or the location of their phone, and they commonly share the information with third parties for marketing. .
A big hurdle for parents is overcoming the idea they are invading their kids' privacy by monitoring online activity, Levey said. In fact, she said, it can be the kid's first lesson that hardly anything online is private.
“If they want privacy,” she said, “they should write in a journal and hide it under their mattress.”