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Alert! Digital Drama to Watch Out for This School Year

Kids heading into middle or high school? Get clued in to the latest tech tools and trends that might stir up trouble.

This school year, "drama" won't be limited to the school auditorium. Digital drama will play out in texts, on social media, and on popular teen websites. From forums that let kids pose hurtful questions to self-destructing messaging apps, new technologies enable novel ways to get attention, provoke, and try out online personas -- and they go viral fast.

Of course there are many beneficial technologies that kids use responsibly, and not all new technologies can or will be misused. Kids often are the first to discover the latest and greatest thing, whether it's a download from the app store or a cool online trend -- but, just as they must sit through algebra and world history, they need to learn how to use these tools safely and responsibly.

You never know what might bubble up at your kids' school as the heady brew of hormones, relationships, and technology is stirred. Here is a sampling of the digital-drama igniters to have on your radar:  

Apple's Spotlight search
What it is. This iOS super-sleuth unearths any name on your phone, from people you texted to those simply mentioned in a text. And it can cause a digital drama dustup if the phone gets into the wrong hands. Kids use Spotlight to incriminate the device's owner by searching for persons of interest (such as exes, crushes, or themselves) to find out what was said about them.
What to do. Spotlight can be disabled, or kids can simply password-protect their devices.

What it is. Creating a fake social media profile page in another kid's name, using that person's password to hack into his or her accounts, creating a bogus email address, or swiping someone's phone and texting under the owner's name all are ways kids can impersonate others online. The practice (sometimes called e-personation) violates websites' terms of service -- but it's not always done maliciously. With kids, the intention of the pranksters really matters. Some kids do it to harass, but some kids do it to joke.
What to do. Tell kids never to share passwords (or other sensitive information); review a site's abuse-reporting procedure; discuss the consequences (in some states, e-personation is illegal); and block the perpetrators so they can't contact your kid.

Anonymous question sites
What they are. Sites such as, Spillit, and (formerly Formspring) let kids create a profile page where they can field questions from other users who can remain anonymous. Cyberbullying is common on these sites, as anonymity can encourage kids to be bolder -- or crueler -- than they would be otherwise. 
What to do. Discourage your kids from using question sites. If that fails, encourage them to block anonymous questioners if possible and use the strictest privacy settings the sites allow.

Sub-tweeting and sub-booking
What it is.
​"Subliminal tweeting" is a form of bullying by exclusion. Public, passive-aggressive gossiping about someone on Twitter or Facebook without ever mentioning the person by name still makes it perfectly obvious who's being spoken about. Typical exchanges look like this: Person A tweets: "Wear your skirt a little shorter, Miss Mini Skirt." Person B replies: "R U talking about me?" Cue the digital drama.
What to do. Take it seriously, but don't overreact. Work with your kid to report the behavior to the app or website as abusive and consider discussing it with the responsible party's parents and possibly the school.

Social surveillance
What it is.
Following everything a person does online by "liking" all their posts -- but not in a friendly way -- almost to the point of cyberstalking. Say Person A Instagrams her fabulous slumber party photos for all her followers to see -- including those not on the guest list. Uninvited Person B takes it upon herself to obsessively "like" every single picture, intimidating Person A, as if to say, "I know you didn't invite me to your party, so I'm going to track you down, watch everything you do, and make you feel guilty."
What to do. Be aware that kids will figure out creative (and mischievous) ways to use a site's social media tools for purposes the site never intended. Encourage kids to work out real-life issues face to face.

Unflattering photos, snarky captions, and cringepics
What they are.
Kids can drum up lots of digital drama with photos. Posting less-than-flattering pics of someone, texting a snarky (or downright mean) caption for an Instagram photo, blackmailing others with embarrassing pictures, and uploading super awkward pictures (called cringepics because they're so cringe-inducing) -- these all are violations of trust that can destroy friendships.
What to do. Review rules of responsible photo-sharing with kids. Make sure your kids know to ask permission before uploading someone's picture. If someone uploads unflattering pictures of them without their permission, encourage them to ask the poster nicely to take the photos down or at least un-tag them.

Self-destructing apps
What they are.
Blink, Snapchat, and BurnNote have tapped into a desire among kids to share casual moments and avoid their parents' prying eyes. But these apps have the potential to encourage kids to share inappropriate photos because they think the pics will disappear. Also, self-destructing apps tend to have iffy privacy settings.
What to do. Talk with your kid about what is appropriate to share and what isn't. Also explain that, despite what the app says, the pics don't really disappear. And always use privacy settings that limit who can contact you and who can see your pics.

What it is.
Remember Manti Te'o? Catfishing is creating a false online identity to lure an unsuspecting person into an online relationship. Teens are increasingly engaging in catfishing aided by apps that facilitate online relationships such as MeetMe and Badoo.
What to do. Kids who get involved with strangers online typically are looking for a thrill. Review Internet safety and privacy best practices and check out Psychology Today's excellent advice about teens and catfishing.

Common Sense's Digital Learning Consultant Emily Weinstein contributed to this article.

Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.