Tahlequah Daily Press

November 4, 2013

‘Confessional’ Twitter accounts can be dangerous


TAHLEQUAH — In the 21st century, social media are valuable tools. If not for links on Twitter, many of today’s young people would be exposed to very little news other than the reality-based satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Social media are used not just to post breaking news, but to entertain and to persuade – other functions of traditional media. Their interactive nature also allows them to serve as a conduit among friends, co-workers and family members, offering a viable – and less expensive – alternative to a phone call.

But social media can also be dangerous, especially when teenagers and young children are involved. And parents who aren’t vigilant, or who have a casual attitude about what their kids are doing online, may eventually find themselves at the center of tragedy.

As we reported in Friday’s Press, a number of “confessional” sites are popping up on Twitter. The process starts when a student at a particular school creates the Twitter account, then begins sending out “tweets” – 140-character messages punctuated by hash tags (#) and “at” symbols (@) to draw searches and participation from other account holders. Before long, fellow students are tweeting their own messages.

The idea behind the “confessional” mode is to get participants to reveal private information. This typically includes vivid fantasies; descriptions of body parts; unabashedly colorful language; and even nude photos the students have posted to another social medium like Instagram and then uploaded to Twitter. Many posts describe sexual acts posters would like to perform with other students, or even teachers. In short, it’s the kind of behavior most parents would find appalling – the kind that might earn the youngster some corporal punishment of the kind described in another story in Friday’s Press.

But it doesn’t end with explicitly sexual commentary. Some posts are decidedly threatening, implying aggressive criminal acts, either real or imagined. Perhaps the worst offenses are bold attacks against other students – cyber-bullying of the kind known to culminate in physical violence, or even suicide.

The nature of social media makes it difficult, if not impossible, to control by school officials. While they and other educators may do what they can to intervene, they can’t put a halt to bad behavior once the miscreants have left campus for the day. And although administrators of Twitter, Facebook and other social media also pursue and block such accounts, they can’t get to every one of the hundreds of thousands of sites in a timely enough fashion to ensure the safety of all participants.

It’s up to the parents to police their children’s activities – and it’s up to the youngsters themselves to exercise prudence and self-restraint.

If a teenager has a proven track record as an abuser of social media, parents should restrict the use of laptops and smartphones. Kids aren’t adults, after all, and they have not yet earned the freedoms society accords to adults. Unless they show good judgment and a considerate attitude toward their peers, they have no business with unfettered access to what can essentially be used as a weapon.

As the well-known TV commercial insists, parents need to talk to their kids. They should know with whom their children are associating, and when and how they are interacting with one another. For some parents, technology has advanced so quickly that they’ve been left clueless in the dust, but they owe it to themselves – and their children – to educate themselves.

In this world of virtual interactivity, the most essential connection we can keep intact is the one we have with our kids.