Katie Greer offers honest and relatable talk to parents and students.
*Author note: Long article alert but a lot of helpful links throughout and additional info in the closing.
Greer has worked as an intelligence analyst for the Massachusetts State Police, where she was assigned to the Missing Children Clearinghouse and subsequently became the Outreach Coordinator for the Vermont Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Today she travels the country, offering ways for parents and students to safely navigate the internet.
Middle School Presentation
Speaking first to Middle School students, Greer took an informal poll to determine how many of our sixth- through eighth-graders (~11-14 years old) had social media accounts, namely Instagram, SnapChat, and TikTok. A show of hands indicated at least half were using at least one of these apps. Greer then asked all the girls to lower their hands if they were under the age of 13. Many hands went down.
“So if you are younger than 13, are you supposed to have a social media account?” she asked. Several girls said no. “That’s right. And who says?” One girl offered, The government. “Right. It’s not legal for any of these companies to collect personal information from anyone under the age of 13.”
Greer assured them that no one is going to jail from lying about their age online with the purpose of having an Instagram account, but there is a rub: “If something bad happens and you’re under 13, the companies that own these apps are under no obligation to help you.”
She also told the girls that even if their accounts are set to private, there is no guarantee that people outside their followers won’t see their posts. “If someone who follows you shares your content, it’s no longer private,” Greer said. “Courtesy is not a guarantee.”
Before each school visit, Greer spends three minutes (“I set a timer!”) and does a search for the name of the school and its location. For Girls Preparatory School Chattanooga, she was able to see posts (and mostly public accounts) that included: vacation pics, a dog’s account, 3,000+ followers, SnapChat handles, Chapel Talks, birthdays, bathroom selfies, classroom pics, May Day, year of graduation, sports teams, and swimsuit photos. While she didn’t find any disconcerting activity, “I found a lot of information very quickly and that’s a little unsettling.”
Greer told the girls to make the best decisions possible so social media becomes a positive thing in their lives, keeping in mind that “private” is not a fair description of any form of online communication.
Upper School Presentation
Again, Greer began her presentation saying that she wasn’t there to say that social media is bad, but for the students to keep in mind that it should be “a tool we choose to use, not a tool that uses us.” And she told the girls that even private accounts can be accessed when non-private friends share content or when locations are tagged.
Greer suggested that one way to think about social media is that while it costs us nothing to use it, the companies that own the apps “are making millions off of us.”
“Make sure we make the right choices and use it in the right way,” she said. Greer then shared examples of using social media for social good—from raising money for worthy causes to simply saying something nice about another person.
She recommended students frequently review their followers’ list and remove people they don’t know, set up an Instagram content filter (adding words they don’t want people to use in comments or types of images they don’t want to see), and “bully block” people who are known to be a negative influence without their knowing you’ve blocked them, aka restricting their access.
In her Upper School presentation, Greer also spent time covering sexting—the sending of nude or semi-nude photos to someone they date. “The child pornography law passed forever ago has not changed,” she said. “You are not allowed to create, send, share any nude, semi-nude, or sexually suggestive photos of someone who is not an adult (including those of yourself). Law enforcement has the discretion to prosecute.”
But, knowing that teens do what teens do with oftentimes little to no regard for consequences (and because we never hear about a teen getting arrested for sexting), Greer instead focused on the fact that sending a nude photo of themselves surrenders their power over their body and that 25 percent of people who receive a nude photo will share it with four other people without their consent.
“Any time you are being pressured into doing something, you lose control of your body,” she said. “You were raised to be polite, but you have the power to say NO! It’s your body, your rules, you own it.”
Greer also cautioned the girls that two-thirds of colleges deem it ‘fair game’ to check a students’ social media accounts while only about one-third say they actually use Google and social media searches as part of its criteria for admission. “Make sure your content is something you’re proud of or you wouldn’t be upset if your grandmother read it,” she said.
The evening before Greer’s presentation to our students, she spoke to a roomful of parents about their role in helping their children navigate social media. She highly recommended (as per the federal government) that parents not allow their children access to social media before the age of 13.
“Social media wasn’t designed for kids,” Greer said. “A tween’s undeveloped frontal cortex can’t manage all the complexities that come along with social media. It is addictive entertainment technology.”
Greer also cautioned parents to frequently check their children’s accounts for followers and what/who they’re following. “Who needs or even has 2,400 friends? Social media replaces learning the important ‘social work’ of dealing with peers face to face.”
If you feel as though your child needs a phone before eighth grade, get them a flip phone without access to the internet. Access to a world of content is exposing our children to information they’re not mature enough to handle. Read this article written by a teacher that compares an eighth-grader today to one 10 years ago.
And now a few words about TikTok and why your child should not have it on her phone. While there are privacy settings, kids don’t really understand that nothing is truly private. TikTok always has the right to repost her video because it owns all content uploaded to its app. Even if all her followers are private (which they likely are not), they can reshare her content with their followers. And the search feature offers up a plethora of content that hasn’t been filtered for her. In a nutshell, there is no way to make TikTok developmentally or psychologically appropriate or safe for kids.
As far as teens and sexting, “It’s happening and happening a lot,” Greer said. At least one in four kids ages 12-17 have either sent, received, or taken one of these photos or videos. “Teens see it as a natural part of the dating process—like a form of flirting or what you do when your relationship reaches a certain point.”
Greer told parents the same cautionary tale she gave the Upper School students—while a teen isn’t likely to get arrested for sexting, he or she does lose control over the image once it’s been sent. She said it is important for parents to talk to their kids before the teens might encounter a situation where they feel pressured to share more than they’re comfortable with, that having control over your own body is empowering. “Start the conversation early,” Greer said. “Even elementary kids comprehend messages about privacy and respect for other people’s bodies.”
While it may be unrealistic to expect your teen to forego any use of social media in his or her lifetime, Greer says diligence is key. “Ask questions—a lot and often,” she said. “If you aren’t asking what your kids are doing for seven hours a day, you are missing out on a lot of their lives. Talk with them and not at them.”
Be clear and reinforce your expectations. The earlier you set boundaries and expectations, the easier it will be to enforce them.
No devices in their rooms at night. Ever.
Mandatory off times and places. Again, boundaries.
Spot-check (not snoop) their text messages/apps/logs. Having a device is a privilege you pay for; part of the deal is you will be checking in.
Check their friend/follower/subscriber lists. If your child told you they were going to hang out at the mall with 3,000 people, you’d want to know who they were. You should have the same level of curiosity about their online friends.
Stay abreast on the latest apps; know the basics and be familiar with them.
Team up with parents so that you’re in agreement about alerting each other if one of you sees something alarming from the other’s kids.
Helpful Tools (including free options you probably already have access to)
If being the ‘bad guy’ causes you any hesitation, know that studies show kids actually enjoy a break from their technology. That’s a good enough reason to pump the brakes on all that screen time.
Additional recommended reading:
Please feel free to contact Katie Greer with concerns; she welcomes your questions:Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Email