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Do you know what your kids are doing online?

by Catherine Holland

GMAZ segment by Yetta Gibson

Posted on January 21, 2014 at 4:02 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jan 21 at 4:04 PM

Poll:
Do you monitor your kids' online activities?

PHOENIX -- Do you know what your kids are doing on social media? Do you even know what apps they're using?

Forget Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Those are old school, packed with adults. What teen wants to be part of that?

SnapChat is the place to be now, but tomorrow it might different. New social apps and websites come out every day. It can be difficult, at best, to keep up.

First released in March 2012, Whisper is one of those apps hoping to catch on with teens. Users post messages as text over an image background for anyone to see.

Whisper describes itself as a place to "Share Secrets, Express Yourself, Meet New People," and according to Phoenix police, a former officer did just that when he allegedly used the app to set up a rendezvous to have sex with a teenager.

Investigators say it started with a Whisper post by a 17-year-old Valley girl -- "I want to get pregnant, but I'm only a teen."

Police believe Justin LaClere, 32, replied to the post, fostered an online relationship with the teen through Whisper, and set up a meeting for sex at her home.

It's the kind of situation that's terrifying for parents.

Many of today's social apps, like Whisper, offer the promise of anonymity. Because their names are not attached to their posts, many kids feel no sense of responsibility for what they're putting out there. They don't always realize that there are very real consequences that come with their virtual lives -- lives their parents might know nothing about.

Many believe anonymity can be a weapon against rampant cyberbullying by offering a safe space for confession and conversation, as well as a support network.

Whisper is supposed to be such a safe space.

That anonymity is alluring. According to the folks behind Whisper, the app gets more than 3 billion (yes, billion) pages views per month.

"The mobile social media app, Whisper, allows users to express themselves anonymously and reveal secrets that they wouldn’t feel comfortable revealing behind a username or profile," Mackezie Farrell wrote in a Nov. 1 article on SMUSMC.com. "Whisper allows children (and adults) to express their true feelings while avoiding ridicule from their peers. … You can over share without repercussions,"

It's that lack of repercussions that can be a problem, though, because there are people out there willing to take advantage of those who -- for whatever reason -- are vulnerable.

Our kids, whether they admit or not, are vulnerable. And they're sharing personal things with complete strangers.

"Unfortunately it gives predators an anonymous way to reach out," Ken Colburn of Data Doctors told 3TV's Jared Dillingham. "They're very, very clever. They know what they're doing and it's easy to manipulate younger folks."

Keeping up with kids in the real world is hard enough, but now parents have to at least be aware of their kids' online activities. And those activities can be extensive.

Social media expert and founder of NetworkingPhoenix.com Gelie Akhenblit says parents should be proactive and learn about the apps their kids are using.

"One of the best things to do -- if the parents can do this -- is check out the apps that are downloaded on your kid's phone and just try 'em out yourself," Akhenblit said. "Just see what they're about. It's not that difficult. Download it on your phone, log in and see what's going on.

"Some of these apps are completely harmless, but other ones could get definitely get in trouble," she continued. "Parents should really trust their own instincts and check them out if they can."

Another tool parents can use is a website called CommonSenseMedia.org.

"Common Sense Media is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology," the website reads. "We exist because our nation's children spend more time with media and digital activities than they do with their families or in school, which profoundly impacts their social, emotional, and physical development."

Child safety experts say communication is key to keeping kids out of trouble, be it in real life or online.

While they won't like it, many experts say you should know your kids' passwords so you can check up on their online activity. Also, you need to get involved early and stay up to date. Like Akhenblit suggested, know what apps your kids are using and give them a whirl yourself. Make sure your kids understand that you know how those apps work. Knowledge, as always, is power.

"If your kids figure out you're clueless about this stuff, you are done. You're sunk in the water," Colburn told Scott Pasmore during one of several "Good Morning Arizona" segments dedicated to keeping kids safe online.

"I think a lot of the kids are actually trying to get away with things and if you post on Facebook, everybody will see it," Akhenblit said. "But if you do it from your phone using an app that isn't connected to any of your other social networks, it's really a way for you to kind of be sneaky."

While keeping track of your kids' online lives might sound like a lot of work, parents who do it agree that it's worth the effort to head off potential trouble and keep their kids safe.

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