Part One: Kids and Social Media

By Dina Samfield

Correspondent

AYER/SHIRLEY -- The program on "cyber safety" at Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School began with a quiz.

"What does 'LOL' stand for?" asked Ariana Coniglio, Prevention & Education coordinator for Middlesex Partnerships for Youth Inc.

That one was easy for the audience of about 40 parents, school staff and administrators.

But nary an adult knew that "420" is text message shorthand for "marijuana," or that "L?^," means "Let's hook up."

The latter abbreviation prompted audible gasps from the audience.

That, said Coniglio, is why it is important for parents to learn about youth online activities, understand online challenges, and talk with their children about cyber safety.

Social Networking Sites

Social networking sites (SNS) are virtual communities where you can chat, instant message, post pictures and blog, Coniglio explained. They enable users to create public profiles and form relationships with other users who access their profiles.

These include Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Myspace, Pinterest, Tumblr and Twitter.

Today's kids don't know what it is like not to have cellphones, computers and other electronic media, Coniglio said. To emphasize that point, she shared a YouTube video called "Social Media Revolution," which stated that Facebook's 1 billion users make it "the third largest country in the world."

Coniglio said nine out of 10 13- to 17-year-olds use social media. About 87 percent text, 77 percent use email, 61 percent use Tumblr, 55 percent use Facebook and 27 percent use Twitter.

They use the Internet to socialize and hang out; as a tool for self-expression and identification exploration; for emotional support; to learn news about friends, relatives and peers; and to learn about social norms.

But teenagers are not the only youth using social media. According to a Consumer Reports survey cited by Coniglio, as many as 7.5 million social media users are under the required age of 13.

What Kids are Sharing

"Many kids have one Facebook to share with parents, and one to share with friends," Coniglio said.

And the Pew Research Center has some startling statistics about what teens are sharing on social media sites.

A 2012 Pew survey about what personal information teen social media users post on their primary profiles found that 92 percent post their real names, 91 percent post a photo of themselves, 84 percent post their interests, 82 percent post their birth date, and 71 percent post their school name and/or the town or city in which they live.

Many teens also post their relationship status, email addresses, videos of themselves and their phone numbers.

According to VisualNews.com, almost 13 million Facebook users never set their privacy settings -- this, despite the fact that Facebook's privacy policy has expanded five-fold since 2005. This means that users' photos, status updates and information can be searched.

"Go home and check your recent privacy settings," Coniglio recommended, "because the default privacy settings are always changing."

One can also change the privacy settings on other social media sites and apps, as well as on cellphones.

"Once Posted, Always Posted"

"You should think carefully about what you are making public," Coniglio stated. "Once posted, always posted."

To drive home that fact, she showed a YouTube video called "Bulletin Board." In the video, a girl posts a suggestive photo of herself on a high school bulletin board. Every time a boy discovers it and takes it off the board, a copy replaces it. Soon all of the boys are looking at and sharing the photo, and everyone in the school is talking about it. The girl takes down the photo repeatedly, but it keeps reappearing.

"Once you post your image online, you can't take it back," says a voice. "Anyone can see it: Family, friends, anyone. Remember: Think before you post."

"I think you should show all of your kids that tonight," Coniglio said.

"Any photo or video posted online can be saved, accessed and altered by anyone, even if your setting is private," she added. 

Next Week: Part Two: Sexting