Kids and Social Media: To Interfere or Not
When I started blogging for TulsaKids, the most advanced technology my kids had access to was a VCR, a Wii, and the occasional use of a family tablet or computer they shared. But as Stevie Nicks tells us, time makes you bolder, even children get older, and I’m getting older, too.
As slightly older parents who had our kids in our mid-30s, my husband and I are in a unique position when it comes to connective technology and specifically with social media. We both went online for the first time as teenage young adults, and while we’ve spent our entire adult lives immersed in the Digital Age, we watched it grow up as we did, experiencing the perils of dial-up, pagers, early text messaging on our Nokias (and Snake!), early chat rooms, Hotmail, Myspace. Ask freaking Jeeves. I remember when making friends online seemed utterly futuristic and bizarre rather than the norm.
For better, worse, or indifferent, the sum of these experiences is added to the pile of things we considered when our kids started using technology without adult supervision and asking permission to sign up for apps like Discord. As Gen-Xers, we grew up in a time when scaring the crap out of kids was the go-to parenting tool, a tool that almost invariably backfires when kids realize the hyperbole of it all once they piece together that there’s no crack in their Halloween candy. I didn’t want to do that to my kids, but I also know that it’s a dangerous world out there, and the risks are real when it comes to online communications. Heck, in 2003 while we slept, our neighbors four doors down were executed by someone one of them met online.
Deciding How Much Online Privacy Teens Should Have
The problem is that there is as of yet no expert consensus on the right way to manage teenagers’ online communications. If you want to take a closer look at opinions on the topic, you’ll step feet first into a hornets’ nest of differing viewpoints. Justin and I tend to be Chaotic Good parents: We don’t have a lot of rules as long as respect for others and self are the standard, and we favor communication over draconian measures, so we struggled with the lack of insight available on this topic.
Our approach was recommended by many experts including a library book I picked up called What They Don’t Teach Teens: Life Safety Skills for Teens and the Adults Who Care for Them. We talked to the kids at length about online safety issues, information sharing, privacy, risks, cyberbullying, etc., before giving them fairly unfettered access to online communications. I modified our approach by introducing the kids to online communication when they were still young enough for us to manage their interactions, creating accounts that we supervised through Messenger Kids and Instagram.
But now that my sons are 14 and almost 14, they’re past the age that most social media sites allow kids to have accounts. I also know that denying kids access to a thing tends to mean they’re just going to pursue that thing without adult permission and supervision, which frankly scares the crap out of me.
As I tried to sort through expert opinions on how to bring kids into a world I never experienced as a kid, my head was swimming with my own experiences in my early social media days, hard knocks where I learned the consequences of oversharing, the reality of friendships that seem more intimate than they are in reality, the perils of feeling empowered by anonymity and harming others with my words. These were hard lessons to learn as an adult, and I did so in the early days of the Internet when a poor decision didn’t necessarily have lasting consequences the way it does today.
Ever-present in my mind is also the mental dossier of unsolicited advances and unwanted eggplant pics I’ve received online over the years in my DMs, and not just on sites like Facebook. I once played a French-speaking Scrabble partner to boost my language skills, occasionally conversing in the chat, when one fateful day, he started asking me about whether, as a married woman, I consider online “sharing” (to be euphemistic) to be in just good fun and would I be interested in DMing for said purposes outside of the app? And just recently, a particularly enterprising fellow tried to make a love connection on Nextdoor. Et Tu, Nextdoor?
Perhaps more troubling is the fact that expert consensus on how to manage teens’ digital activity is veritably nonexistent at this point. In its place, I found parents with strong opinions that either teenagers should be given total privacy online (the argument that educating them and setting them free is the best approach) or given no expectation of privacy at all. To say I found the debate utterly dizzying is something of an understatement.
Some arguments maintain that too much digital oversight can erode trust between parents and is tantamount to reading a child’s diary, overlooking the fact that a diary only involves the thoughts of one person whereas online interactions open them up to the world. And then there’s the reality that most kids are more Internet-savvy than their folks, deftly employing VPNs, incognito windows, and alternate accounts to evade parental oversight.
Understanding the Potential Risks
Initially, I took the approach of educating my kids heavily on the potential risks of online communication and other key issues. I allowed them to sign up for Discord, but with the caveat that I would be looking in from time to time. It felt invasive to me, so I imagine it may have felt that way to them as well, but I wanted to essentially give them “training wheels,” alerting them to potential problems as they came up. They were mainly interested in talking to other kids, some of whom they met in Xbox live games and wanted to connect to share cheat codes and tips.
Every time I would randomly peek in on my kids’ web history or peer at their computer, everything seemed on the up-and-up. Until it didn’t. And then one day, I found something that represented a risk on one of their accounts, with the kid in question using subterfuge to keep us from discovering many of their interactions online.
I don’t blame the child in question for this but my own naivete, and for my child’s privacy, I won’t go into specifics. But it was a wake-up call to realize that education alone isn’t enough because kids do not have fully formed prefrontal cortexes and are biologically incapable of always having the same level of discernment and judgment as adults are expected to.
I think it’s good to trust kids, but I also understand that even good, well-intended kids need oversight. I understood that before letting them dive into social media, which is why I established ground rules that I would be periodically checking their accounts for safety issues. I have also seen enough Dateline to know that forbidding social media until they’re grown simply postpones the risk until a time when kids are out from under parents’ protection.
I don’t have any conclusions to offer you today except to warn you that even if you trust your kids fully, the Internet is inherently a risky place for minors. The teenage best friends who were killed in Delphi are just one example of sweet kids getting tricked into thinking they were in an online relationship with a safe teen their own age only to become the target of a disturbing, heartbreaking crime. And the risk isn’t just from predatory adults. Take, for example, the teen girl who pressured her boyfriend to commit suicide via a barrage of text messages.
The FBI estimates that more than 500,000 predators are targeting teens and youth online, often posing as teens themselves and luring kids into friendship with cheat codes for games and other such boons. Discord in particular is brimming with sexual predators specifically targeting kids and young teens, and they’re doing little to stop it.
I don’t know the answers, but I do know that just because you have educated your kids and you trust them and you’re monitoring them, it may not be enough. Groomers are good at what they do, and they’re a helluva lot savvier than most parents.
I also hope this post will encourage people to think about better solutions for protecting all our kids while they’re engaging in online activity. Perhaps we need a comprehensive education component as part of their school curriculum. Perhaps we need to hold social media companies more accountable from a legal standpoint when kids are harmed by predators. I don’t know the answers, but I do know one thing. I’d rather be an overprotective smother who pisses my kid off than the grieving parent of a child who was targeted by a predator.
Thanks for reading, and have a safe week in your nebula.