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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Gena Ellis, an educator with First Things First, and Chris Gregory, development director with First Things First, introduce themselves during a Parenting in the Brave New Digital World session at First Things First Tuesday, March 5, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Parenting in the Brave New Digital World is designed to give parents an inside look at the pros and cons of technology's effects on family relationships.

Cyberbullying, sexting, selfies, porn, the "Momo challenge" — there are a lot of things for parents to worry about when their children have access to technology.

In recent weeks, parents have flocked to social media to warn others about supposed videos featuring "Momo," a scary creature urging children to harm themselves and others, but the challenge turned out to be a hoax. The hoax had evolved from another faux challenge that proposed ever-escalating dares to kids on the messaging app, What's App, according to the Associated Press, but it wasn't linked to actual evidence of children hurting, or killing, themselves.

Regardless, local organizations are doing their part to help parents traverse the muddy waters of parenting in an uncertain digital world.

First Things First, Chattanooga's local family advocacy nonprofit group, has been holding a new workshop to provide tips for parents in the digital age. The nonprofit noticed once of the most common things parents came looking for guidance on was social media and technology — parents asked for tips for navigating the sometimes-foreign, online world. The organization also recently conducted a survey of 1,000 Hamilton County teenagers on their technology and social media use.

The parents and grandparents who attended the workshop were across the spectrum when it came to their own comfort levels with technology and with letting their children use technology, but many of them shared the same concerns.

Lack of guardrails and ease of accessing content they might not approve of, the sheer amount of time spent on social media or playing games or on their phones, and the lack of security were among some of the biggest concerns. Many parents were also curious how they can get their kids thinking about the permanence of what they put online.

"Your kids are going to get technology, you can't just stop them from having it. They need it for school, will encounter it at a friend's house," said Chris Gregory, development director for First Things First. "So how do you create a relationship with your kid so that when they see something that's not OK, they come to you first?"

For Gregory, that means he knows the passwords or passcodes to all his kids' devices. Sometimes he'll scroll through Instagram with his daughter or lean over the computer screen, wondering who is playing Fornite with his son.

But 60 percent of teens surveyed said their parents never checked their phones and about 28 percent said their parents didn't follow them on social media apps.

"I remember when my parents first got call-waiting," said Gena Ellis, educator for First Things First, during a recent workshop. "It's amazing how much technology has changed in our lifetime."

Many parents don't even know what apps are hot among kids right now. Parents in the workshop acknowledged Instagram, but debated Musical.ly and Snapchat. According to the survey, teens use YouTube and iMessage but aren't really on Kik, WhatsApp or Twitter.

Facebook remains a channel used by about half of today's teens, but some parents wonder if it's just to please them.

Sandy and Joe Pricer have six kids, ages 14, 12, 12, 11, 10 and 7.

Joe Pricer says parents often talk about avoiding technology, but don't talk about how it can be used.

"It's one thing to avoid technology completely, it's another to take it and harness it to make it part of the environment you want for your child," he said.

The Pricers have some firm guidelines, but also try to utilize technology for its advantages. One of their sons is diabetic, and Joe Pricer can track his blood sugar through the app Dexcom on his phone. All six Pricer kids, their parents and even grandma share locations with each other so they know where they are at any time.

Joe Pricer acknowledges that some parents — especially ones still comfortable using an analog watch and going inside the bank — are scared of technology or shy away from it, but he believes they just have to understand how it can be used.

Ellis told parents that "fear is not a parenting strategy."

MORE INFORMATION

If you are interested in attending a "Parenting in the Brave New Digital World" workshop, visit www.firstthings.org. The organization also offers the class to schools, churches and community organizations. For more information, contact Gena Ellis at 423-267-5383 or gena@firstthings.org.

Instead, parents have to find what works for them. He provided tips to parents such as creating a family media plan and setting limits on when, where and how often kids should be using devices.

At Ellis's house, the dining room table is a tech-free zone. For Gregory's family, phones are all plugged in on the kitchen counter at night.

They also encourage families to wait as long as possible to let a younger child get a smartphone or create a social media account, especially if parents are worried about young children accessing Momo-like hoaxes or content.

Last year, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond issued a warning to parents, cautioning them to pay attention to what their children post on social media after an uptick in investigations into threats that originated on social media.

A final note that Ellis and Gregory gave parents when it comes to technology use: be a role model.

"We often focus the technology lens at our kids," Ellis said. "Sometimes we need to turn it around and look at ourselves in the mirror and see how we are role-modeling technology use."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

TIPS FOR PARENTS

1. Make your own family media use plan

2. Treat media as you would any other environment in your child's life

3. Set limits and encourage offline playtime

4. Screen tiem shouldn't always be alone time

5. Be a good role model

6. Know the value pf face-to-face communication

7. Limit digital media for your youngest family members

8. Create tech-free zones

9. Don't use technology as an emotional pacifier

10. Apps for kids - do your homework

11. It's okay for your teen to be online

12. Warn children about the importance of privacy and the dangers of predators and sexting

Source: First Things First and HealthyChildren.org

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