City of Ukiah, California

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Secret Lives of our Teens

Secret Lives of Our Teens

In June, Harvard University announced that it had rescinded admissions offers to at least ten students who would have begun studies this fall. The reason? These students had all shared offensive images that mocked minority groups, child abuse, sexual assault, and the Holocaust, among other things, in what the students thought were private Facebook chat groups.

Can you imagine–working so hard to gain admission to Harvard only to have that dream taken away for conduct on social media?

Sharing information in a digital world has become commonplace for our teens, and while they might think their activity is hidden, the reality is that their private activities with friends may become the basis for college acceptance or rejection, employment decisions, and more in the future.

In a recent New York Times article, author Ana Homayoun outlines some of the emerging technologies teens are using to hide online communications.

One method teens use is closed and secret Facebook groups, which feel private because an administrator must approve new users. Although these groups are not searchable on Facebook, their content can become visible to non-members if a member takes a screen shot of the activity or shares it elsewhere.

Teens desiring to be secretive also employ apps like Vaulty, which allow users to hide photos and videos. Vaulty has a mug shot feature that takes a photo of anyone trying to access the app with an incorrect password. Other apps like Calculator% and Calculator+ look like regular calculators, but with a proper passcode reveal hidden data, including photos.

So what motivates kids to use these apps, or to share information they may later be embarrassed by?

Hoymayoun says teens often view positive feedback via likes, loves and comments as a barometer of popularity, and they can quickly get caught up in posting or sharing information to gain the biggest reactions. In their online world, a teen’s behavior can become motivated by the number of likes they receive, instead of real world values.

Hoymayoun also says that there are real-world biological reasons for this risky behavior. We already know teens are especially impulsive. Adding social media pressures and a teen’s inability to make logical judgments are a perfect mixture for offensive and revealing online posting, posting that may someday come back to haunt them.  

So what can we do about our teens’ online activities?

Some parents try to monitor online activities with apps like Bark. Bark monitors accounts on 20 different social media platforms and alerts parents of potentially risky behaviors. While these high-level monitoring activities are effective, they do not develop trust between teens and parents at a critical time in a teen’s development. Instead, Hoymayoun says, it is important for parents to help teens understand that their online activities and their real-life activities are more intertwined than they realize.

It’s also important to know that in a teen’s online social media world, bullying is an on-going and growing problem, and parents should remain on the lookout for warning signs. So, how can you tell if your child may be the victim of online bullying?

Plummeting grades, disconnecting with friends, quitting favorite activities, not wanting to go to school or suddenly being “sick enough to stay home” much of the time are all red flags. If your child exhibits any of these, ask them what’s going on. Let them know there is nothing too terrible for them to share with you, whether it’s drugs, sex, violence, or something else. Promise to listen to their opinions with an open mind.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind everyone that using your phone and driving is illegal unless your phone is connected to a hands-free device. Please don’t be a distracted driver. Trust me, that text, call, or social media post can wait.

As always, our mission at UPD is simple: to make Ukiah as safe as possible. If you have suggestions on how we can improve please feel free to call me. If you would like to know more about crime in your neighborhood, you can sign up for telephone, cell phone and email notifications by clicking the Nixle button on our website:

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Safety · Professionalism · Community Service