Fourteen-year-old Eli Mundy of San Francisco was brought to our attention by his cousin, Guy Marzorati, a producer for The California Report. Guy says Eli's a monster on Instagram.
"You could say that, I guess, yeah," acknowledges the bright, confident eighth-grader, who's wearing a 49ers jersey when I interview him at his dining room table with his mom, Alberta Neilson.
Eli has 750 followers. He follows about 1,000 people. His passion is photography, especially photos of sport shoes, which he collects.
"Like, if you went through my feed," Eli says, "it would be shoes, shoes, shoes, like, a friend, and then more shoes."
Neither parent follows his private feed, but a cool aunt of his does. Eli got his first phone in fifth grade and a smartphone at the end of sixth grade. Has he ever made a mistake?
"I don’t honestly know," Neilson says. "I know he’s not perfect, and I feel like I may be making it sound like he is! But I do think he’s really sensible, and I don’t think he ever wants to hurt anybody."
That, and she's a busy woman. "I don’t really have time to be responding to all my emails," says Neilson. She's on Facebook, but just barely. Follow Eli? "I feel it would be a complete time sink for me, if I started doing something like that."
Neilson is an educator, as is her husband. She’s heard of kids misbehaving online, but she's not worried for Eli.
"I really think it boils down to what kind of relationship you have with your kid," she says, "and I think Eli is very responsible. He would worry if he put something out there that he shouldn’t. And we’ve talked a lot about the fact anytime you press send on anything, it’s out there, and you really don’t have any control over it."
But as everybody who has survived middle school knows, even innocent children will witness -- if not be victimized by -- the bad behavior of other children. It happens on the playground. It happens on social media.
This racy video for Iggy Azalea’s “Black Widow,” featuring Rita Ora, includes a none-too-subtle product placement for Wickr, one of a growing number of apps that allow users to exchange encrypted, self-destructing messages. Experts will tell you the false promise tempts some people to bully others and/or send sexually explicit photos. It's a false promise because the conversation is NOT temporary or anonymous, if someone involved knows how to take a screen shot.
Eli says he's seen friends get in trouble with Ask.fm, another "anonymous" social networking website where users ask other users questions. Some guys, he says, don't realize certain conversations have gotten out of hand and offended people until they get to school the next day and get confronted, in person.
Whether you’re a witness to or a victim of digital drama, it can feel like you can’t get away from the yuck. Yalda T. Uhls studies these issues as a senior researcher at UCLA's Children’s Digital Media Center.
"What’s different today," she says, "is the bullying can follow you home because it’s online. The virtual world is on 24/7, it’s viral and it’s very public."
In the past, home was a safe haven from the social scene at school.
"You don't really have that anymore," Uhls says.
She's also the Southern California regional director of Common Sense Media, an online nonprofit resource for parents, teachers and other adults interacting with children. She has two research subjects/kids, ages 11 and 14.
While Uhls says she wouldn't presume for any other parent, she does think kids have good reasons for wanting some sort of device.
"By not allowing them to have a phone, you’re disconnecting them from many of their peers," she says, "and many of their peers have phones and are talking that way. So they’re socializing that way and your child is not in that sphere."
Most parents who can afford it end up capitulating. According to Nielsen, by age 10, roughly half of children in the United States own a mobile phone. By age 11, it's three-fifths, and by age 12, fully three-quarters of all children have their own mobile phone.
That said, given what she’s observed professionally, Uhls keeps a tight rein on her kids at home.
"You know, they may seem to know the technology more than you," she says. "But they don’t have the social life experience that, if I say something that way, it’ll be perceived this way, or if I put this photo up, it’ll be perceived that way."
She gives one example. Her daughter posted a selfie on Instagram that showed her hanging from a pole.
"You couldn't see that this was a fireman's pole in a play gym," Uhls recalls, but to adult eyes, it looked as if she were pole dancing. It was an innocent mistake, and a teachable moment. The picture came down.
Uhls cautions that parental guidance should happen offline. Just as you would want to be corrected out of the view of your friends, kids are keen to avoid being shamed in front of theirs.
"But Rachael," one friend of mine complained when I told him I was reporting this story. "I'm on the computer all day at work. The last thing I want to do when I come home is get on the computer and read my daughter's feed!"
Uhls sympathizes with oversubscribed, sleep-deprived parents who don’t want to follow their children online -- and don't want to keep learning new apps and social media platforms to keep up. But she puts it this way: You wouldn’t let go of a squirmy toddler’s hand in a parking lot. You shouldn’t let go of a 10-year-old’s hand while he learns the rules of engagement online.
"You have to give me your passwords," Uhls says. "I own this thing. If I see behavior I don’t like, I’ll take it away. Until you’re 18, I’m paying for this. And I also have their email on my phone, which has been highly useful."
But assuming you have laid out ground rules, and that your child is more or less responsible, there comes a time to start easing up.
"If you’re too overprotective," Mundy says, "they’re going to feel like they don’t have any freedom. You should kind of lay back, and if you think something bad is happening, check it out. But, I mean, for the most part, you let them kind of make their own decisions. I think that’s part of growing up."