A New Era for Parenting: Virtual Safety

Jessica Swarner
Jessica Swarner pictured with her website.
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Trying to keep your child safe in a world of constant hazards and tragedies can be overwhelming. Now, enter a whole new world of danger: a virtual one.

With new apps being released every day, keeping up with what safety precautions to take on different apps can seem impossible. That’s why Jessica Swarner, ASU alumni, created “Parenting in the Digital Age”: a website that parents can turn to as a resource to find the latest news in the tech world.

Swarner organized the site into different sections that profile various apps and websites. It also includes a blog that Swarner updates weekly containing topics relevant to parenting with the influence of the internet, videos from experts about how to keep children safe and even an action plan that will stay relevant as new technology emerges.

Swarner also sends out a weekly newsletter regarding the latest news in technology that parents may be concerned with. The subscriptions to the newsletter have been going up as her stories have started to get more traction.

Swarner saw a news story in early 2016 about a young girl who was kidnapped and murdered by a man she met on the messaging app, Kik. The young girl’s parents were not aware of the app.

Swarner knew her younger sister also used Kik. “I knew that my parents had never really heard of that app, so it freaked me out,” Swarner says.

This led to the formation of her honor’s thesis project. Swarner says, “It got me thinking that parents should have better access to information about this stuff because it’s hard when you have new apps coming out all the time.”

Director of Cronkite News Phoenix Bureau and Professor at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Venita Hawthorne James helped Swarner edit the site and oversaw the process.

James explained the difficulty in taking on a project such as this one. “When she first proposed a website, I thought that it was a pretty big undertaking,” James says. However, Swarner met every deadline along the way, according to James.

James says, “Swarner achieved beyond what was expected.”

James says after debating about who the website should be targeted at, Swarner decided to aim the website toward middle schoolers and high schoolers who are more likely to be vulnerable to the dangers of the internet.

New apps are released every day and Swarner knows this will create an ever-changing challenge for parents. James explains how the action plan proves to be extremely important in keeping the site relevant regardless of what new technology emerges.

James says, “She wanted to make sure the website wouldn’t look dated.”

As far as the future of parenting in the digital age Swarner optimistically says, “I think it will get easier. As time goes on, more and more parents are starting to use tech themselves and becoming more comfortable with internet lingo.”

James says she accepts the reality that there may be a better understanding of technology among parents, but new challengers will present themselves.

 “I think there is so much out there, coming at you every week, it’s going to get tougher,” James says.

However, James also pointed out how there are huge advantages to the internet as well. “The internet is not evil, and it’s not going to stop. That’s why she got into those pros and cons,” James says.

One of those cons comes in the form of dangers that lie within social media. Swarner says there are accounts on Instagram promoting unhealthy lifestyles such as self-harm and eating disorders.

Swarner says, “Instagram can be very dark. A lot of that stuff doesn’t just pop up on the feed.” She even includes that if Instagram is aware of the content on the account, they will administer a warning message before the user can view the profile.

Stemming from this, Swarner plans on creating more of a conversation around the correlation of mental health and apps like Instagram. She specifically commented on users who become verified and use that platform to make money…sometimes at the expense of the consumer.

“Many people sell products without disclosing they’re being paid by the company…. a lot of the products themselves are really sketchy like the weight loss teas,” Swarner says.

With all of this danger on the internet, one can only wonder if parents having access to their child’s social accounts is a step in the right direction.

Swarner believes this is a hard line to walk. “A lot of kids feel like parents have access to their accounts is an overreach of privacy,” Swarner says.

“Most research that I have read actually recommends accessing and monitoring their accounts if you’re worried about your child.”

Brittany Cavner, an ASU nursing student, stresses the trust in a parent-child relationship. “I think there will be many more forms of media in the future, making it hard to keep up with,” Cavner says. “I plan to trust my children in their online lives. It is important to have a trustful relationship with your kids.”

James believes that the dangers of the internet will change as time goes on. “I think it’s going to be tougher in the sense that newer generations take being connected all the time for granted and don’t think about their privacy,” James says.

However, Swarner hopes that as parents become more engaged with the Internet world, her site and sites like hers will help parents to navigate the sometimes-rough waters of the internet.

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