Parenting in 2018 means something very different than it did in 2008, or even 2017.
The internet can be scary, basically, and trying to shield your kids from every potential online threat can feel like an absurd, unwinnable game of whack-a-mole.
That said, there are particular online spaces that parents should be aware of. While nothing beats a good parent-child conversation, here’s a helpful list of some of the most eyebrow-raising destinations on the web:
We all know and love the ruthlessly curated, filter-heavy world of Instagram. It’s an ideal place to share your latest culinary success or prove that you’re still close with your college roommates. In the last couple of years, though, teens have been utilizing Instagram’s privacy functions to create secret fake accounts, or “Finstas,” where they share updates unfit for mom or dad. While it’s certainly important for kids to have spaces to call their own, many use their Finstas as a sort of lockbox for troubling information that’s probably best left off social media altogether.
2. Video Chat Rooms
You’d never let a stranger into your child’s bedroom, but that’s essentially what happens when they connect to a video chat site. Perhaps you remember the commotion surrounding Chatroulette when it launched back in 2010 and exposed thousands of unwitting users to a whole host of explicit content. It, and sites like it (Omegle is another big one) connect strangers at random and encourage them to converse by activating their webcams. These spaces often attract predators who are eager to connect with young, unsupervised users. Lessons in stranger danger will never fall out of fashion, and with sites like these floating around, it’s worth reminding your teens that these lessons apply to the digital world.
3. The Dreaded Comments Section
In days of old, teens traded anonymous comments on Formspring, resulting in nasty “Gossip Girl”-style rumors destroying 7th grade lunch tables the world over. Thankfully, Formspring has gone the way of the dodo, but a new minefield has popped up in its place. Scroll to the bottom of any article with a comment section and you’ll find vicious verbal abuse flying around as casually as watercooler conversation. If your teen frequents sites that encourage user discussion, a dinnertime conversation about civil online discourse could do wonders to keep them out of trouble. It’s easy for even the most mild-mannered kids to be seduced by the anonymity of a keyboard and get sucked into a cyberbullying tornado.
4. Not-So-Inspirational Weight-Loss Methods
Platforms from Tumblr to Facebook are papered wall-to-wall with fitness content. While plenty of this stuff is genuinely inspiring, at least as much of it is deeply unhealthy. Social media “influencers” like Kim Kardashian and (no kidding) Sarah Palin have become brand ambassadors for weight-loss supplements with a variety of nasty side effects. Other accounts, using hashtags like #Thinspo and #Fitspo encourage vulnerable teens to eat less or push their bodies to unreasonable limits in the name of landing an “ideal” figure. While canceling your Cosmo subscription is a good start, chances are your teen is taking far more cues about body image from the news feeds they scroll through every morning.
5. Addictive Games
Some of the most popular online games are called MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games). World of Warcraft (WoW) has been the top MMORPG for nearly a decade and boasts more than 12 million players around the world. WoW is a sprawling, immersive experience designed to encourage hours of commitment, and because it’s free (up to a certain level), getting sucked in is no Herculean effort. There are plenty of happy, healthy WoW users, but it’s worth discussing the value of balancing the time your teen spends in a virtual world with their human, non-ogre compatriots.
6. Violent Games
While we’ve generally inched away from the high-pitched video game paranoia of the late ‘90s, violent games haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, they’ve only become easier to access. With the advent of eminently-available design software, pretty much anyone can sketch out a rudimentary shoot-’em-up and throw it online for millions to play. Set clear guidelines for the types of content you want your child to engage with, and maybe do a quick Google about their latest obsession since popular titles tend to cycle pretty rapidly.
7. The Bizarre World of Reddit
Reddit is one of the fastest-growing and least-explainable destinations on the web. Billed as “The Front Page of the Internet,” the site directs its users to wildly specific discussion threads called Subreddits. These spaces feature robust, sometimes-obscene conversations about everything from ‘90s hip-hop to elephant fights. While Reddit offers a great platform for teens to find communities centered around their personal interests, it’s also a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and radical political groups. Chances are low that Reddit will put your teen on the fast-track to fascism, but it’s a site best navigated after a conversation about fact-checking the information your teen finds online.
8. Location, Location, Location (Services)
In light of the recent Cambridge Analytica story, which revealed Facebook’s reckless compromise of private user info, personal data protection has gotten heavy rotation in the news cycle. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter all allow their users to share their location every time they post something. These features can be easily turned off, but they’re so integrated into the mobile apps that some teens don’t even realize that they’re broadcasting their whereabouts.
9. Ye Olde Overshare
Sometimes, teens don’t need the cover of a Finsta to get a little reckless with their online behavior. People talk so frequently about the professional and academic dangers of oversharing on social media that it’s almost tempting to write it off as paranoia. The risks, however, are very real. Thirty-five percent of college admissions officers reported turning to social media to learn more about their applicants, according to a 2017 study from Kaplan Test Prep. For a teen who knows what’s coming, this could actually be a good thing: Platforms like Twitter are great tools to spotlight their strengths and illustrate their personality. For a teen who doesn’t, though, a few off-color jokes and a beer-chugging portrait could be enough to give their dream school pause.
10. YouTube, Vimeo, and other Video-Sharing Sites
YouTube is an absolute playground stuffed with sports content, music videos, and three-hour looped supercuts of overweight cats giving the Gettysburg address. Since it’s such a far-reaching platform, it can represent the internet at its absolute best and its absolute worst – lest we forget the Tide PODS challenge of 2017 which encouraged the oral consumption of everyone’s favorite neon detergent packets. The fad caused a spike in calls to poison control centers and served as a wake-up call for many parents who were (rightly) dumbfounded by the unpredictable content that their kids were consuming online.