Parents Can’t Afford To Ignore Their Kids’ Social Media

samaritans radar 2A new app could be just the thing for parents who want to keep a watchful eye on their kids’ digital footprints. Based on the worrisome social media output that Jaylen Fryberg left behind in his last few days, this kind of app can provide a way for parents to know what’s going on with their children online without actually becoming the kind of creepy, overbearing parent who does the digital equivalent of reading a kid’s diary (or LiveJournal).

The development of the app, called Radar, was organized by the suicide prevention organization Samaritans. What the app actually does is to monitor Twitter feeds for verbal warning signs: pleas for help, proclamations of being “so tired”, or feeling alone. If it detects a worrying pattern, it sends an alert to the Radar user to intervene. Of course, the app is a computer program, and computer programs are notoriously bad at detecting sarcasm, so if you’re one of the first people to install the app, you may find your phone blowing up every few minutes that your sarcastic teenager is Tweeting. But with user feedback, Radar will get better at learning the difference between serious suicide risks and sarcastic ones – and that’s not all it could do.

Out of the box, Radar screens for suicidal Tweets. But a decent app developer could fairly easily reverse engineer the thing to do other jobs, too: looking for warnings that a person is a risk to commit an act of violence, for example. Could an app like Radar have prevented the Marysville tragedy? Maybe, maybe not. But Fryberg’s Twitter is littered with troubling statements:

jaylen fryberg tweet 1 jaylen fryberg tweet 2 jaylen fryberg tweet 3Teenagers write angry and angsty things sometimes, but there’s a pattern to Fryberg’s social media use, and it might be something that an app like Radar could have picked up on. I’m hopeful that I’ll one day see one of those oh-so-rare happy news stories about a would-be school shooter intercepted by a Radar-esque intervention. It would be amazing for troubled Tweeters to get the attention they need when they need it – instead of us having to comb back through their timeline after the fact wondering how we could have missed the red flags.

My kids aren’t even one year old yet, so I thankfully have 12 years or so to figure out what our future social media relationship is going to be. I want them to feel free to talk to me about anything, but I also don’t want them to feel as if they’re living under a mom-operated microscope. And even if my kids and I are online BFFs on whatever the ten-years-from-now equivalent of Twitter or Facebook is, with the number of Tweets that go by in a day, it can be easy to miss a single “I’m so alone”, or to detect a larger pattern among all the noise.

No, of course Radar can’t do all of the parenting for us, and there’s no substitute for being directly involved in children’s lives. But in all the noise of a social-media world, some things are going to fall through the cracks, and it can only be a good thing to have Radar around to pick them up, sort through them, and show the important ones to us.

(Image: Facebook)

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