It’s a familiar story. A home-alone teen advertises her house party on Facebook. But she doesn’t restrict the event to friends. Hordes of gate-crashers turn up and the party becomes a riot. Neighbours call the police, who only regain control with the help of several squad cars, dogs and a helicopter. This is clearly a Facebook party gone wrong.
That happened in the UK, in June 2013, but every month there’s a similar story from somewhere in the world. Surely, by now, teenagers understand the danger of posting invitations online? So why are these stories so common?
The answer lies in teen psychology. The teenage brain is hardwired for risk. In particular, a 2012 study by Yale School of Medicine found that teens were more willing to accept risks if their consequences were unknown.
But that includes risks such as driving fast. Clearly, teens understand that driving fast increases the risk of an accident. What they don’t know, is how much it increases the risk on a particular day, on a specific stretch of road. So they take the chance.
Much the same is true of placing open online party invitations whether a Facebook party invitation or otherwise. Teens understand the general risk, but not the specific consequences that apply in their village, town or suburb.
And there’s an extra factor at play, too. Another study, this time by Temple University, Philadelphia, found that certain types of teenager are particularly prone to taking risks online. Those most likely to engage in risky behavior were less socially adept teens, who had fewer offline friends and took part in fewer extra-curricular activities. Taking what’s known as a “social compensation approach”, these teens took greater risks online, to compensate for what they perceived as their unfulfilling offline lives.
So if teens are hard-wired for risk, what can you do as a parent? A good idea is to insist that your teenage child accepts you as a friend on Facebook and other social networks. Sit down and discuss online behaviour with them, and agree that if you have any concerns, then you reserve the right to monitor their online activity and communications.
Still, even that’s no guarantee. You may be able to check what your kids are doing on Facebook or Twitter, but teens are notoriously adept at finding ways to hide their tracks. Strategies can range from using private communications channels, such as Blackberry Messenger, or even apps such as Snapchat, which allow users to specify how long a text or photo will be visible before it vanishes.
So, if you can’t monitor everything that your kids are doing, how can you stop them from using social media and having Facebook parties to invite 2,000 strangers into your home? There are technical solutions. With a good internet security suite, you can prevent teens from posting certain information, including your address or other personal details. And comprehensive internet security software suite can also provide online protection with shopping and password management for teens. But a technical approach is only part of the answer.
The best strategy is the one suggested by the conclusions of the Yale study. Before you go away and leave your teen at home alone, sit them down and point out just how much everything in your home would cost to replace; how irreplaceable items of sentimental value, particularly from their childhood, are; and just what the consequences, for them and the family, would be if 2,000 gate-crashers suddenly invaded your home.
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