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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Teens and Twitter

I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker this morning.  He was talking about Twitter and how he and his wife love it - not that they "Tweet" (that's what it's called when you post a message on Twitter) but because they use it to keep tabs on their teenage daughter.

Let me explain how Twitter works.  Let's say I have a Twitter account.  I can post messages or even pictures on my Twitter page from a computer or from my cell phone (via texting) at any time.  My page then has "followers," people who sign up to view my page and are notified whenever I post a new "Tweet."  Whatever I post, they see.  It's like a virtual bulletin board that I can update from anywhere.  There are no age restrictions on Twitter - anyone can start a page. Personally, I think it's a colossal waste of time - who cares if I'm getting ready to leave for work or I just watched a movie that I liked?  Are we so bored as a society that we need to focus in on the most mundane details of other people's lives? But the 12 - 30 crowd loves it.  Go figure.

Back to my co-worker and his teenage daughter.  I asked him exactly how he and his wife use Twitter to keep track of their daughter.  He said that they have a computer in the kitchen and they keep their daughter's Twitter page open all of the time.  She is apparently addicted to Twitter and Tweets every time she does anything.  They get messages like "leaving volleyball practice" and "heading to Shannon's house."  By monitoring the page, they know exactly where she is and what she's doing.  I asked him if they thought she'd ever lie about her whereabouts and they explained that she has a bunch of friends who follow the site too and she wants them to know what she's doing (so why would she lie?).  Plus they trust their daughter and feel they raised her right and know she's responsible. Essentially, they have a website that reports their daughter's whereabouts all of the time. AND, there is an added bonus...since her friends all know where she is, no one is calling the house looking for her. Sounds good right?

I continued asking my co-worker questions hoping he would come to the scary realization I was already considering.  The first question I asked was "is your daughter's Twitter account set to private or not?"  Setting a Twitter account to private means that only approved people can view it.  By default, they are not set to private, you have to go into the settings and make it that way.  His answer to my question...."I don't know."  If the account is not set to private, anyone in the world can follow it, which means anyone in the world will know exactly where his daughter is at any time.  And because she regularly posts pictures of herself, anyone would know what she looks like.  Talk about a goldmine for a sexual predator.  I explained that to him and he said "I guess we better make sure her account is set to private."  I guess. 

Even with the account set to private, there is still a danger.  Teenagers don't always use common sense.  Many times they will approve anyone who wants to be a friend.  Studies show that the 16 - 25 crowd views the number of friends or followers they have on sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter as a status symbol.  The more friends the better.  Kids will often eagerly friend someone they don't know, just to up their numbers.

Private or not, Tweeting your location and pictures of yourself at frequent intervals is a very bad idea for kids.  If your kids MUST use Twitter, set some rules: First, you have to be a follower of their page (make them show you how to get onto it if need be).  Second, no Tweets that would let someone know where to find them.  Third, no pictures of themselves or their friends (anyone who is a minor).  Fourth, you have to know who their followers are at all times.  If they don't like your rules, then take the phone away.  

Twitter, like so many other things in our online world can be fun and useful but the flipside can be very dangerous.  Kids should not be left to make important decisions about their safety and well being alone.  Be a parent.  Know what they are doing and enforce some rules.

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