On June 8, parents celebrated a significant victory. Rosetta Pambakian, Tinder’s vice-president of communications, announced that Tinder would ban teens under the age of 18 from using their service.
Since its launch, the popular dating app has been a concern for parents. It previously allowed users as young as 13 to join, requiring them to verify their age so that they can only be matched with users in the 13-17 age range. Unfortunately, there was no way to prevent an online predator from impersonating a minor to get information or even groom potential victims. Even the FBI has expressed concerns, linking online dating apps like Tinder, to the rising crime wave of “sextortion.”
Tinder's announcement signaled a step in the right direction, but it’s a small one. Cyberbullying and sexting are still major issues, and to truly alleviate digital dangers, more needs to be done -- both by parents and social media sites.
Apps such as Facebook and Snapchat still pose a risk. Disappearing messages make it almost impossible to track what teens are doing and saying online. In extreme cases, online behaviors can result in suicide. Private Facebook groups, such as “Teen Dating and Flirting,” have been used for cyberbullying and have even led to murder.
So what can social media sites do to protect the younger generations using their services? For one, they can be more transparent. Detective Rich Wistocki from the Juvenile Justice Online Organization suggests a simple change that Facebook could make today. When a dependent child under 17 signs up for Facebook, the parent should receive an email to confirm his or her child is authorized to set up an account. These minor changes would give parents more visibility into how their kids are spending time online.
Social media sites can also make an impact by partnering with organizations like Stand for the Silent to raise awareness against cyberbullying. With the massive audience and sheer reach of social media sites, videos, images and other messages warning parents and teens about the dangers of cyberbullying would create substantial and much-needed awareness.
Kids today are exposed to threats that their parents never faced. These digital natives are the first generation to grow up with a super computer at their fingertips. What’s more, the digital world treats young teens like young adults, even though they don’t understand the grave consequences of their virtual actions. A picture sent in the heat of the moment may live online forever and cause serious problems in the future. Remember -- teens do not have a prefrontal cortex that is fully developed, so it’s a given that they will make bad choices.
Because of this, it’s critical for parents to establish strong communication with their children early on. Smartphones are a privilege, not a right, and one that will be carefully monitored and taken away if rules are broken.
It’s best to establish these guidelines upfront. Duties and responsibilities, such as homework and chores, should come before socializing. In-person interactions should be valued over virtual communications, and teens should be encouraged to participate in activities in the real world. Parents should also lead by example -- that means no smartphones at the dinner table.
The best way to get teens to lift their faces from the glow of their connected devices is conversation. Take an interest in their lives. Learn their language and the way they communicate. Be patient. Movies, TV shows and media events are teachable moments and opportunities to talk to children about the dangers of online strangers, school bullies and more. Even Tinder’s recent news is an opportunity to engage.
Most importantly, be tuned in to when something may not be right. When my daughter entered 9th grade, we were moving to a new district and starting at a new school. Within two days my wife could sense something was wrong. We would ask if things were ok and she’d always tell us, “Yes, I’m fine.”
Luckily my wife’s intuition told her not to let it go. We downloaded a monitoring service and saw that our daughter was being bullied severely. We knew we had to step in, so we pulled her out of that school and put her into another one. She made the soccer team, found a new group of friends and had a happy high school experience.
As the father of a cyber-victim, I always urge parents to talk to their kids and, most importantly, listen to them. Use your intuition, and if you think there may be something wrong, don't let it go. Learning the truth could save your family from potential tragedy.
Tinder made the world a little bit more secure for teens and families by banning users under the age of 18. But there are many more battles for parents to fight. This is just the start. New apps are released every day, and existing apps like Snapchat become increasingly more popular by the minute. Staying on top of a teen’s digital footprint is not easy, but it’s no longer optional for parents. Protecting your child in the digital world is as important as protecting them in the real world. It should be every parent’s priority.