It's easy enough for adults to screw up on social media -- but when kids get their hands on the keyboard the dangers are multiplied.
The arrest of a 14-year-old girl in Holland for tweeting a terrorist threat highlights the power of Twitter -- and how unprepared some kids are to use it responsibly. And today, more than a dozen copycats tweeted similar threats.
Social media has given children something no other generation has had -- the power to say anything to the world, speak with celebrities and in this case, stage a prank, before they've developed the ability to communicate responsibly, experts say.
Kids once crank called teachers or acquaintances with "do you have Prince Albert in a can?" noted Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. But Twitter, a platform built around "instant responses," allows kids to spread all kinds of "havoc raising ideas," he noted. "Technology has allowed these pranks to happen instantly in the age of terrorism -- and (the girl arrested) was based on what scares people more than anything else."
One sociologist posited that kids using social media is an "interesting policy issue."
"Should kids even have a Twitter account at 14?" asked sociologist Anna Akbari, who studies how technology affects relationships and identity.
"We don't give kids the right to vote, or have a gun, or drink alcohol -- and other tools of power and potential destruction we limit for adolescents," Akbari said. Yet, many kids are given unfettered access to social media, which some use to bully, taunt, and threaten others, noted Akbari.
Tweeting a fake threat from al-Qaida is far more serious than "yelling it across a playground," Akbari said. Adults engage in digitally dumb behavior too, of course -- but a 14-year-old is less likely to "understand the subtext," of making a jokey bomb threat via the Internet, Akbari explained. The brains of teenagers are still under construction, making them prone to acting impulsively before fully thinking through the results of their behavior, added Alan Entin, a family psychologist in Richmond, Va., who is the past president of the Division of Family Psychology for the American Psychology Association. "They're unaware of the consequences of their behavior."
Tweens and teens act out on social media for much the same reasons they boast, brag, exaggerate or joke in real life -- to "show that they're clever," flaunt their importance, or alleviate feelings of inadequacy, said Entin, adding that those with personality and impulse disorders are particularly susceptible to getting into trouble.
A 2011 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics noted that adolescents' inability to self-regulate and their susceptibility to peer pressure resulted in many undesirable online behaviors, including cyber bullying, sexting and clique-forming, and was a factor in internet addiction and sleep deprivation. At the minimum, "parents should pay attention to what their kids are doing," online and "exercise parental controls," Entin said.
The latest cyber flap reminds us that ordinary childhood behaviors can have enormous repercussions when played out in a virtual international stage.
City investigators take to social media to fight crime
These days the motto "if you see something say something" applies to the virtual spaces of social media for the NYPD and city prosecutors.
Over the last few years, city investigators have become more tech savvy and surveyed Twitter, Facebook and other sites for leads on criminal activity.
Although the NYPD and Manhattan DA's office couldn't comment about the extent of their social media use in investigations, they have touted its value in high-profile arrests.
Last April, 63 members of three gangs that operated out of East Harlem and were allegedly responsible for three murders, were indicted after the police intercepted several Facebook and Twitter posts to plan the shootings of rival gang members.
"We use social media to document past crimes and intercept new ones being talked about openly by crew members on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube," former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said in a statement following the arrests.
In another case in March 2013, investigators spotted an alleged drug dealer boasting about his crimes and retaliating against his rivals on Facebook and YouTube. The social media detective work helped to indict 18 defendants.
- IVAN PEREIRA