Everyone uses Twitter—or at least it seems that way. Major news companies use it to engage audiences from all over the world; politicians use it to leverage their outreach, and celebrities use it to let their followers know what kind of dressing is on their salad. But, you probably already know all of this. What you might not know is how tweens and teens all over the U.S. are quickly adopting Twitter as their new way to text, mass text and even cyberbully—all for free.
Among other things, Twitter’s “@” and “#” technology has single-handedly changed the way we communicate as a society. If you’re not yet familiar with @ and #, then allow me to explain so you can get a better grasp of how your kids might be taking part in this social media revolution:
“@” is a way to directly refer to another Twitter user when you send out a tweet. So, if you post a tweet and you put @marykayhoal in the tweet, then I will see on my Twitter account that you mentioned me in your tweet. As well, anyone who follows me on Twitter will see that you mentioned me.
“#” is a bit more complex than “@”. The #, or hashtag, is used to create topics of discussion, or add to an already existing topic of discussion. These topics (hashtags) can be searched for by Twitter users, allowing them to see anything that was said by anyone who used that hashtag. So if you’re interested in parenting advice, then you might find #parenting to be a useful discussion to follow. There are millions of these hashtags topics, and anyone can create a topic about anything. So if you want to tweet “Finally finished reading a book a started a month ago!”, you can add a hashtag like #ilovebooks or #momalonetime or #thattookforever. Those are now topics of discussion that you’ve either created or added to.
Granted they have an Internet connection on their mobile device, these two features make Twitter a very attractive alternative for any tween or teen that’s getting slack from their parents for going over their text messaging limit.
This switch over to Twitter creates some concerns for their privacy, though, as the whole point of Twitter is to make your tweets public to your followers—a bandwagon that most Twitter users hop on without really taking into consideration how it affects their privacy. In a sense, Twitter is just a way for people to let everyone, friends and strangers, know who they’re texting and what they’re texting them. Think of it as the ultimate status update.
My concern was triggered when I noticed some heavy discussion going on in the #cyberbullying topic. I was seeing people, young and old, using it to send hurtful direct messages to another person (@), and then categorizing it as #cyberbullying so that everyone knows their intention. It seems these people have embraced the non-private, mass text messaging capabilities of Twitter, and then added in that extra hashtag in order to humiliate the person they’re referring to in their tweet. Needless to say, this trend can easily expand beyond cyberbullying, into sexting, and pretty much any hurtful or inappropriate topic imaginable.
Because Twitter was created to facilitate mass communication, privacy isn’t really a priority for the folks at Twitter. But if you know your tween/teen uses Twitter, there is one thing you can do to keep their profile somewhat private:
Go to Settings > Account > Check the box called Tweet Privacy
This will make it so their tweets are only visible to the people they approve to follow them.
Don’t forget to also talk to your kids about Twitter. As important as it is to let them know that you’re on top of technology and technology trends, it’s equally important to talk to them about the consequences of cyberbullying and sexting. Twitter is the definition of “social networking with no regard for privacy”. And because millions of Twitter users embrace this online culture, it’s more important than ever to talk to your kids about it.
Also, keep in mind that Twitter is not intended for children 12 and under. And just like Facebook, it is in violation of a very important privacy law for children called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.