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Parents' Cyber Safety Concerns Evolve as New Technologies Emerge

Parents' Cyber Safety Concerns Evolve as New Technologies Emerge
Posted at 1:00 PM, Dec 04, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-04 08:36:18-05

TALLAHASSEE, FL (WTXL) - Cyber safety is a growing concern for parents as technology makes communicating easier and more discreet. As the world becomes more digital, teenagers are finding new ways to chat and parents are simply trying to keep up.

"Nearly 9 in 10 students and children in Florida have access to a smartphone, with access to the Internet, and the technology's really changing on time," said Whitney Ray of the Florida Attorney General's Office.

But as teens go digital, concerns over what they're doing on their devices continues to grow.

Jane Marks, a Tallahassee Family Therapist explains, "We used to say, 'Substances and drugs - those are the key things that we need to be mindful of.' Now, we say social media is a key factor for parents to be constantly monitoring."

The Pew Research Center says 71% of teens use Facebook, 52% use Instagram and 41% use Snapchat.

"For parents, it is now part of the landscape. It is important to be a part of social media as far as your teens are concerned," said Marks.

Part of the concern stems from not understanding how teens are communicating. Joe Yeager created a Facebook page called "Parents' Guide to Social Media" to help bridge the gap between parents and the tech teens are using.

"When you don't know who's saying it, people have a tendency to say things they would never say in front of someone to their face," said Yeager.

It's not just social media tripping up parents. For years, teens have come up with codes to disguise what they're saying. And they might just look like random letters and numbers, but they all mean something.

For example, "LMIRL" stands for "let's meet in real life." And "GNOC"? That means "get naked on camera." Would you guess that "CD9" is really "parents are around"? And then "LH6," short for "let's have sex."

Yeager says codes like those are used to try and keep parents in the dark.

As more apps pop up, teens are starting to stray from the typical ones parents know about. The Pew study found a third of teens use messaging apps like Kik and Whatsapp. Eleven percent of teens admit they use apps like Whisper or Yikyak where you can share info anonymously.

Detective Shade McMillian is with the Leon County Sheriff's Office, "Behind a closed door, a child's cellphone or smartphone or their computer is kinda like Las Vegas to adults. It's any and everything goes on those phones, if you don't have the parental controls in place."

Locally, Leon County School Resource Deputies frequently talk to parents and students about cyber safety. They say they can tell when students are guilty of using their phones inappropriately.

"If they get really, really upset if you want to look at their phones, that's generally the biggest red flag we had in the schools, as well as school administrators and school resource deputies," said LCSO Detective Shade McMillian.

The Florida Attorney General's Office says it's not just phones that should worry parents. Video games have become a popular yet dangerous option for kids of all ages to communicate.

Ray says, "We see that sexual predators sometimes use this technology to try to build a relationship with a child and meet up at a later date."

"Young adolescents are so at-risk for making poor choices, and they're so at-risk for being victims when it comes to online participation," adds Marks.

And sometimes, being victimized turns tragic. In November 2015, a 19-year-old Pennsylvania student killed himself after being bullied on Yikyak, an app gaining popularity in high schools and colleges nationwide.

The Philadelphia Inquirer says Jacob Marberger received several hurtful messages on the app and was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Marks said, "You know, in the old days, we used to be concerned about kids saying bad things about you. But now, because of social media, it is such a big, huge difference. The consequences can be so profound."

To keep tragedies like this from happening, experts say open communication is the key.

"It's important for parents to know every social media account their child has, including their passwords -- know which apps they've downloaded and to check them regularly. A child's privacy is not worth their safety," said Ray.

Marks says, "I think a lot of times kids will say, 'Well, I would like to have my privacy.' And we understand that, but because of the risk factors, I think it's important for parents to stay on top of everything that's going on."

Experts insist the internet and social media can be positive, educational outlets for children and teens. But they warn students that anything they post online might as well be public.