When my son and the Houseguest were tweens, they did not yet possess cell phones. One of the principal methods of social contact 11 year-olds had with each other at the time was myspace. My kids wanted myspace, Yahoo chat, AOL instant messenger and all kinds of other ways to interact with others, young and old, online.
When I was a kid, “video games” constituted Space Invaders on a 16-color “video game” system by Atari. Facebooking someone meant throwing a book at their face.
Though they both had freedom to roam on their bikes if they were together. They had taken full advantage of this freedom, traveling up to fifteen miles from home.
After several weeks of pestering me I allowed them to have whatever sort of account they desired – with conditions:
1) I set up the accounts and made the passwords.
2) I would not give them the passwords to their accounts anytime soon.
3) If they wanted to log into an account, they had to ask me, and this was based on their good behavior.
4) I had the right as a parent to look over their accounts. When they are 18, they can have all the “privacy” they want, and at that point, they are also responsible for their own actions.
5) We went over the rules for online safety. Several times, over several years.
Within the first few weeks of myspace the Houseguest (the older one) had removed all the security measures I’d put in place. This was years ago, when adults could search myspace for children. The Houseguest also put up a shirtless picture of his 12 year-old self, perhaps to attract little tween girls, or maybe he just wasn’t thinking.
It was less than a week before he received an inappropriate friend request from an adult. Here is what I learned to do:
a) Ignore your child’s protests and demands for “privacy.” You are their parent, not their friend. Stop trying to win a popularity contest. Some children will try to take advantage of their non-custodial parent. Children who are allowed to get away with this sort of behavior don’t turn out well.
b) Look at what’s happening in the account. Read the messages and the posts. Unless it is some sort of vital issue DO NOT discuss these investigations with your kids. By vital, I mean danger of life and death. I have been able to maintain a level of trust with my kids because when I do find out something perhaps I shouldn’t know, I don’t run to them and talk about it. I try to give them a chance to resolve their issues for themselves, and from what I have seen with their interactions with others, my faith in them over time has been entirely justified. Keep in mind that your goal as a parent is to have an independent, productive child who knows the difference between right and wrong. This is something they will have to learn for themselves in many cases.
c) Realize that 93% of kids go online, and most are unsupervised by parents. Most parents have “no clue” what’s happening online according to a survey of children by Pew. Sixteen percent of children receive inappropriate contact from adults while online, which means odds are your child or one of his close friends has had this happen.
d) When an adult makes inappropriate contact occurs, there are things you can do: Contact Facebook admin with a complaint, as well as local law enforcement. Remember, if they are doing it to your child, they are doing it to others.
e) If your child is missing, the clues to their whereabouts are very often available online.
I quietly supervised the online activities of my son and the Houseguest for two years, at which point, I gave them the passwords, but let them know they were not allowed to change them. I still have the passwords to their accounts but choose not to use them except in an emergency.
I educated myself on the many places kids go online. Here are a few with information about them:
Facebook – Unless you’ve been in a coma, you are aware of Facebook. Kids who learn how to use Facebook settings can make posts only viewable by certain groups. If you add your child as a friend on Facebook, they can make you an “acquaintance,” preventing you from seeing all that is going on.
YouTube – The most benign of all video sites (there are many others). Kids can learn almost anything from the instructional videos available. Pornographic content is prohibited, but is allowed on many other video sites.
Twitter – Known as “tweets,” the brief messages on twitter allow kids to let the world know what is happening in their lives, and find out what is happening in the lives of others they know, as well as celebs. This forum is uncensored and contains humanity-in-the-raw abbreviated to a few short sentences at a time.
Online Gaming – XBox and PlayStation as well as computer games allow kids to play with others, often adults. They can, in many games, participate in online chat with teammates and opponents. It is an unfortunate and common practice for adults to use extreme profanity and insults with children as young as 8.
Snapchat – The “next generation” in apps on smartphones is SnapChat, which is an app that allows people to send pictures of themselves to others. These pictures erase in a few seconds. If the recipient saves the picture, Snapchat lets the sender know.
Children face a number of risks online. Here are some of the main risks:
1) Bullying – Horribly enough, bullying is one of the milder risks children face online. Unfortunately it has led to a number of suicides. Bullying must not be tolerated and none of the social media sites will permit it if you make sure to complain.
2) Inappropriate Contact With Adults – This inappropriate contact can range from online bullying to sexual proposition. The rule of NEVER meeting up with someone they don’t know in real life should be strictly enforced. Adults with bad intentions often pose as other children. Kids often thing they know best and are more “online savvy” than mom or dad. Parents have more life experience, which is why we are in charge.
3) Identity theft – This can range from theft of your information to the theft of your children’s name, date of birth and social security number.
4) Phishing – Trustworthy sources, or places that LOOK like trustworthy sources will steal login information and everything else they can. Once a principal e-mail address is breached, bank accounts and virtually anything else can be compromised.