Parents: It’s 10:00 p.m. You know that your child is home and in his/her room, but do you really know what he or she is doing??
Today’s technology tools and Internet access combine to provide us with absolutely wonderful informational outlets, educational tools, and entertainment mediums. We benefit daily from the advances these tools have brought us and see how they have shaped our world in exciting new ways. The iPhone alone has certainly transformed mine as well as my grandkids. We could publish a separate newsletter regarding ways to utilize technology to assist with our children’s education, but that is not the pressing issue this article will address. With every progressive leap forward we make as a society, we also uncover some hidden dangers that occur as a byproduct. As a parent, grandparent and mental health professional, I believe we need a keen appreciation for the pitfalls/dangers that young people can face through their use of technology and the Internet. In turn, we must have a better acceptance of the duties and responsibilities we adults should embrace in order to help young people protect themselves.
The following are a few real-life scenarios that CRG and the families we serve have had to address:
- A 12-year old boy and a 12-year old girl are classmates at the same school. They are attracted to one another and talk and text each other often. They send each other photos over SnapChat. Soon a suggestive photo is sent followed by the exchange of nude pictures. Fortunately, the photos are discovered by the parents before any of them were shared with school-age peers or others.
- A 13-year old boy shares with his parents and later his therapist that he is worried he is addicted to pornography. This worry stems from the fact that he does not seem to be able to stop going to pornographic sites despite knowing this is inappropriate and that his parents disapprove. He was first exposed to pornography when he was 8 years old and playing at a friend’s house. The friend’s older brother showed them their first pornographic sites.
- The parents of a 15-year old boy discover that he has been visiting inappropriate sites on his laptop computer. Further exploration results in the discovery that he has been exchanging text messages with an online site and has attempted to set up a meeting with a woman that he has been conversing with, with a plan to have sex.
- A police officer contacts the mother of a 14-year old girl. They have been alerted to the fact that nude pictures of her daughter have been sent over the Internet to a male student at her school. The photos were then shared with numerous male friends of that individual. The girl initially refused to respond to the boy’s request but then gave into pressure from the boy. Unbeknownst to her, the boy she responded to was merely the front person for a group of males from her school who gathered together at one of their houses and plotted the above.
Although it can be very uncomfortable to accept and discuss scenarios described above, these are just a few of the situations your children could find themselves involved in. That reality might be the result of their own making or being the recipient of unwanted photos and or emails. What is a parent to do? First is the full recognition that, as a parent, the responsibility and ownership for this issue and its ramifications lie with us. We can certainly expect some assistance from our Internet providers, our schools, our law enforcement agencies and our technology companies, but we must own the responsibility for our children’s well-being in this arena as in any other. The following are some simple guidelines proposed for your consideration. These are followed by some quality resources you can explore for further guidance.
Second, begin an ongoing educational conversation with your children as soon as possible; ideally before they have access to their own laptop, iPad or Internet phone. If they already have access, then any transgression or inappropriate use allows a natural time to have this discussion. Don’t expect that this conversation will go easily if your children are already used to such access.
One way to think about the discussion of Internet use is to treat it like driving a car:
- while you do not need to acquire a license, you do need education;
- there are many potential hazards to be cautious about;
- there are benefits to be obtained;
- it is possible lose the privilege;
- it is fun and rewarding;
- there is an etiquette that not everyone uses; and
- there are those who do not obey the rules and could cause you harm, so operate defensively.
As is the case with a beginning driver, emphasize that you need to know where they are and who they are with. Consequently, your children need to be open about their browsing, texting, and e-mailing, knowing you will periodically check on these. You will need to know their passwords; privacy does not extend to their Internet use. If this makes you uncomfortable, bear in mind that every guideline I’ve seen from the FBI to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends it.
I help parents anticipate that they will have to deprive their son/daughter of driving privileges at some point (kids make mistakes). The same patterns holds with illicit usage of technology. Visiting inappropriate sites as well as viewing or exchanging inappropriate language/photos results in loss of privilege. Not forever, but long enough to get their attention. Another unpopular rule is no screen access in the bedroom. We are a sleep-deprived nation and this issue is of particularly relevance to teens.
Remember are that there is no best time for this conversation with your son/daughter. The right catalyst may be your reading of this article and becoming more aware of the dangers.
Adolescence and pre-adolescence is a time when it is normal for kids to explore; to be curious and educate themselves, sometimes by trial and error. So just as I remind parents that there will likely be a fender bender for beginning drivers, there will be mistakes made on the Internet, too. Also keep in mind your son’s/daughter’s level of maturity and if they have developmental issues or emotional/behavioral issues that may play a role in how you educate and respond. Then “STAY CALM AND CARRY ON.” If need be, seek assistance from one of CRG’s providers.
The following is not meant to be a complete listing of rules and limitations you may want to set for your children regarding technology/Internet use, but it is a beginning. I would encourage parents to engage in discussion with other interested parents, school authorities and youth workers so that some consensus begins to build in your community regarding this issue. Listed below are excellent resources you can use to obtain additional information and parental guidance.