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How to keep teens safe online and social media

Unrestricted access to the internet can bring anyone into your teen's life.

TAMPA, Fla. — Parents might assume their teens are alone in their room after telling them "good night."

However, if a teen has any sort of digital device, phone, tablet or computer, they could be talking to anyone, anywhere. 

There are dangers lurking for teens with unlimited use of the internet. 

"The devil's always in the details," says Sgt. Pat Voit with the Tampa Police Cyber Crimes Unit. 

Just take a quick look at a teenager's phone and you'll probably find half a dozen social media apps: Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Discord open the doors of a kid's life to practically anyone in the world.

Voit says it's something parents need to watch.

"If you wouldn't let your kid walk down the block to go to the store by themselves, but you give them an unrestricted iPhone with a Snapchat account, your risk assessment needs updating," Voit said.

"We know that young people, especially teenagers can be impulsive," said USF pediatric psychologist Heather Agazzi. "It's a function of their developing brain, so they're not always thinking about the long term consequences of their behaviors."

Police want to make sure parents and teens know two things:

1. Once a picture or video leaves your phone and is sent to someone else, it is out of your control.

"That lives on the internet forever," Voit said.

2. Voit says someone can use that picture or video against you.

"We've seen attempts to extort kids for money," Voit said.

What should a parent be doing? How do you balance respecting your teen's privacy with keeping them safe and out of trouble? 

"They should not be given the same privacy as an adult because they don't have the maturity and just the life experience to deal with things in a way that we would assume is natural," Voit said.

Agazzi said this is why parents need to set the ground rules before there's a problem.

"They thrive when they have clear boundaries and expectations with associated consequences," Agazzi said.

She suggests:

1. Taking the phone overnight. 

2. Explaining what you consider appropriate to post on social media.

"You wouldn't leave your child at home unsupervised for a week when they're 14 years old and just trust that they're doing fine, trust that they're doing their laundry and going to bed on time and they're doing homework as they should," Agazzi said. "They need similar supervision to use these apps and to use them responsibly."

Voit recommends parents and teens check out the website Netsmartz for some guidelines to follow.

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