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New social media apps let children avoid parental oversight

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 8:47 p.m.

Parents who believe they're doing a good job monitoring their children's use of social media by watching their Facebook or Twitter accounts may be clueless, social media experts and educators said.

Teens are shifting their online interactions to applications such as Vine, Pheed, Kik and Snapchat, tools many parents have never heard of. They're harder to control as the teens are using their smartphones and not a computer with parental controls.

“As Facebook is becoming more mainstream, with parents, teachers and grandparents joining, teens are signing off. They know they can't have fun there,” said Dena Haritos Tsamitis director of the Information Networking Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

“They've gone to other places, including Tumblr and Snapchat, where they don't have to use their real name.”

Parents of one of two girls charged last week with aggravated stalking, accused of “cyberbullying” a Florida girl until she committed suicide, said they watched their daughter's Facebook account nightly to ensure she wasn't involved in improper behavior.

But experts said teens are finding plenty of ways to keep away from their parents' prying eyes, creating accounts their parents aren't aware of. As with computers, there are parental software programs for smartphones in which a parent can track their child online through the phone.

Seneca Valley eighth-grader Brandon Fitzgerald said Friday that he posts pictures of himself and his friends on Instagram. He said he doesn't care if his mother, Amanda, sees what's on there and doesn't try to hide the account from her.

“I just don't do anything stupid,” Brandon, 14, said.

Amanda Fitzgerald of Cranberry said she probably doesn't “do as good of a job as I should” monitoring her children's social media use. She said she's found chats that her 15-year-old daughter has had with “a lot older” men in the past. Fitzgerald added that she asks for her children's passwords to their smartphones so that she can look at their interactions with friends.

“It's been a problem,” Fitzgerald said.

Haritos Tsamitis said parents need to educate themselves on the latest social media apps and discuss the dangers of them with their children, including posting questionable pictures even though they think they can't be found.

“They need to think about the long-term implications” Haritos Tsamitis said. She said that when students apply for graduate degree programs, she does a background check of online accounts.

“I don't even have to dig. It's out there,” Haritos Tsamitis said.

Mars Area High School Principal Todd Kolson said Friday that he hasn't seen major problems with social media since the district began providing laptop computers to its students this school year. He said social media sites are blocked and students are told that they can't use social media on the laptops. Their use is monitored for infractions.

Mars High School Senior Matt Astbury, 18, said he mainly uses Twitter but doesn't believe his parents monitor it frequently.

However, he added, he watches what he posts because he knows that others who know his parents could say something if they saw something questionable.

“I definitely watch what I post, no matter what,” Astbury said.

Pine-Richland High School 10th-grader Heather Miller, 15, said she doesn't believe that teens migrate to social media apps thinking, “Oh, my parents aren't going to be able to see this,” but use them as a communication tool.

Moon Area School district spokeswoman Megan Edward said she's not aware of major problems that students there have encountered because of their social media use. She said Vine, which allows people to post six-second videos, is becoming popular among students.

Greensburg Salem School District has lifted some restrictions on social media in its schools, Superintendent Eileen Amato said, allowing students to access Twitter and YouTube. She said parents have notified the district when their children are having problems on social media, to ensure that their school is aware.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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