Did you know school-yard squabbles migrated online?
Last school year I had police officers in front of me four times dealing with internet threats of violence among students. That’s right… four! It starts with someone throwing an insult out of jealousy or whatever. Then, because its risky to start something in the schoolyard, each time, a vile chat with the meanest language took place on Facebook or Whatsapp. But it didn’t stop there.
It spilled over offline again the following day outside the school… complete with Youtube videos… which were also mentioned in the chat from the night before. I can’t tell you how reassuring it was when I heard a student make the remark, “Some children need attention so much they plan a fight–and a really violent one–but neither won’t let it start until someone takes out a phone and starts recording.”
You know the world isn’t really turned upside down when crazy stuff startles even a seventeen-year-old.
Parenting got even more complicated in the digital age. As parents, some of us think of ourselves as “technically challenged.” Even if we’re savvy when it comes to the information age, there are still parental challenges we just never saw coming.
While we pride ourselves in having children who can actually schedule the DVR by remote, we stress inwardly. How in the world are we supposed to know how to monitor our family’s use of the internet and social media? They have to use the internet to do projects and school work, but do we know what they are doing online all those hours behind the computer?
What about that latest smart-phone that our teenager claims she can’t do without? Apart from the technological side of the issue, what’s the common-sense way for savvy parents to approach all this?
Technology For Parents
First and foremost, parents need to think of opening Internet Explorer, Firefox or any other browser in the same way as closing the front door of the home behind, and stepping outside into the world. We can’t make the internet 100% safe, but we can take measures to put the odds in our favor. Invest some time and resources in parental control software, especially if you have children who have proven they still haven’t learned as yet what responsible behavior looks like.
Just as important however, is how we conceive of the digital world. The internet is public space. Perhaps it is more public than any single place our children can be on this earth. This is the biggest challenge for caretakers who did not grow up interacting with the internet.
We don’t allow our kids to close that door behind and wander aimlessly around. We don’t toot a horn and announce that any taker come find them and give them something to do.
Instead, hopefully we’ve already made the correct choice about where our children are going. And we’ve already sat down with them to discuss guidelines for behavior, and to talk about possible scenarios that they should know how to handle “out there.” They should also know that for certain activities, we will be accompanying them. For others, we will be checking up on them as all responsible parents do. And yet for others, we will be coming for them physically to take them back home. It’s not exactly the same online, of course, but you get the drift.
WhatsApp, Yahoo Instant Messenger , Windows Live Messenger, Google hangout, Skype and quite a few others all have chat software that allow text communication in real time. All the popular social media also have chat features. Text chatting has the same advantages for everyone, including our kids. It is cheap, can be done in secret silence even with unaware parents just a few feet away, and gives us new ways to control how and to whom we express ourselves. Here are few things to be aware of:
- School: Some school projects do benefit from collaboration online, and many students choose to chat as a means of doing so. However, those chat sessions tend to focus on real work only when it becomes urgent. They focus on far less serious things most other times. If that sounds familiar, it’s only because adults follow the same patterns. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that our kids are from another planet and it doesn’t apply to them as well.
- Inappropriate topics: Even with proper software installed, chatting with strangers is still something we need to be vigilant about. But let’s give our children and teenagers credit where it is due. For the most part today’s savvy youth monitor their own internet safety better than they did in the recent past, and certainly far better than many parents do themselves. Also, “pervs” or pedophiles still get at their targets without using technology far more often than they do online. Reassuring as that might be, we still need to repeat, especially to pre-teens, to avoid sexual conversations, or any chat that make them feel uncomfortable, like the plague… and they should feel totally free to come tell us about it.
- Internet bullying: The chances are astronomically greater for our kids to be hurt through internet bullying. The bully is almost never a total stranger. A schoolmate may do nothing more than log on and type in a status message on their Live Messenger profile.. a message that spreads an untruthful but nasty rumor about your daughter.That kind of bullying is just as common and just as disastrous for her development as the kind of unprovoked male physical aggression that we traditionally associated with bullying. Some of the same precautions recommended for school should be taken when our kids are online, but parents do need updated information for prevention and intervention.
- Chat lingo: I highly recommend that parents who don’t yet use chat software start doing so, even if the only reason is so that they can find out for themselves how best to monitor, supervise and guide in their own households. The most benign student typically uses language and chat acronyms that are different as well as more obscene and aggressive than they usually do offline. Any parent who gets the opportunity to read a long chat by their teenager is bound to learn some new curse words. Parents differ in their views on it especially where teenagers are concerned. I’m pointing it out here because unlike what happens in offline conversations, chats are often saved on a server somewhere, and often on the device where it happens as well.In my experience, younger teenagers are notoriously careless about leaving that option in place. A few also frequently give out their passwords to peers who do not have their best interest at heart. Or sometimes they walk away from a computer still logged in to their chat. Yet another common practice is to log on as a favor for a friend to use the chat software. All sorts of malicious things have happened as a result. Further, these unwise practices leave easily accessible black and white trails that can be accessed years later.
- Chat groups: Getting more savvy with the technology is the new parental responsibility. Online chat groups can be put together within seconds after logging on for just about any purpose. That includes planning a birthday surprise, discussing how to cheat on the next exam or debating the relative greatness or corniness of the Captain America movie. Routine uses include how to have everyone come up with the same story by the time they get in front of the principal, or even deciding on the best tactics for teaching John Doe a lesson after he snitched about who stole the teacher’s money from her bag. Lack of knowledge about such trends can leave many a parent bewildered about why they always seem to be 3 steps behind. Back in the day, parents had their own networks that kept them a step ahead of the kids. We were bewildered that Mom knew about the fight before we got home. Just be aware that for parents who are not tech-savvy, today the tables are turned.
- It’s your call: Based on sound principles, decide just how vigilant you want to be about who goes on your child’s chat list, when and how often they chat, and whether or not you should be checking over their shoulders every so often. We don’t make any hard and fast recommendations about things like these because each child is different, and should be treated accordingly. One rule does not fit all. But that’s for another blog post.
If your kids are anything like mine, they’re going to get angry and frustrated when you handle the internet as public space. You’ll hear reactions like, “you’re the only parent I know who does that. None of my friends have to go through this.” And if you’re anything like me, your reply will be something like, “I’m sorry. Really I am, but I haven’t seen you do anything irresponsible that can come back to haunt you in 20 years. So I only have to do this every now and again just to live up to my responsibility as a parent. Just keep conducting yourself the way you are now, and we’ll be just fine.” And I’m sure I don’t have to, but I’ll remind you anyway. This may not apply to all children or teens.
Other Social Media
The lines have become totally blurred between social media and chat software, but here I’m referring specifically to Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Snapchat, Instagram, You Tube and Whatsapp. I’m sure I’ve left out quite a few others too. School personnel and parents alike are rightfully concerned with the trend towards the publishing of videos showing all sorts of violence and inappropriate sexuality.
Sometimes it seems like some sort of fad; as if the scene, though real enough, was orchestrated at least in part for recording and placing on the internet. One school reports a case where two teenage students could not see eye-to-eye on anything save one…an agreement to sort their difference out with fists in front of all their friends, have the incident recorded, and placed on You Tube!.
Profiles: Social media profiles have to be monitored. We are well-advised to insist on being on our child’s list of “friends.” Yes, it limits what we put on our own profiles too, but that’s part of what we signed up for when we became parents, right? Teachers in schools keep saying that they are shocked that the parents of some of their students allow pictures on Facebook that are downright scandalous. Here again, if parents allow it, that is one thing. If they just are not aware, that’s quite another.
Don’t overreact: We should not react to everything though. Let’s say a 17-year old’s status message states “I’m sooooooo screwed. The neighbor’s party kept me from sleeping all night, and I fell off in the Math test.” Be aware that jumping on it every time she expresses herself like that will probably make her stop. One very cool way of knowing what’s going on with her will be gone… just like that.
Sometimes it is wise to just let kids work through their own things no matter how we find out. Other times we can approach the subject in a roundabout manner that won’t let on where the source of our concern originated. Use your own judgement…just a word to the wise.
What I’ve concluded so far also applies to the amazing smart-phones on the market today. Mobile versions of all the chat software are available across all the platforms. It’s amusing how shocked many techies are when they find out that many parents still are not aware of what their own children are doing with cell-phones. For example, when parents tell their teenager to get off the laptop and go to bed, that chat is often continued in the dark under the sheets until the wee hours of the morning. Only teachers see the result of it that school day.
I scarcely see Blackberry phones any more here on the island of St. Maarten. I-phones are becoming more popular, but Androids started to dominate back in 2013. In any case, Blackberry Messenger (BBM) stays logged on to all other similar phones all over the globe, night and day. The Android phones and i-phones can’t use BBM, so even BB users now download WhatsApp.
Whatsapp uses regular telephone numbers to do the same thing… keep in touch with someone almost anywhere in the world no matter what they’re doing. It’s awesome, but its also a huge risk in the hands of kids who are immature, careless, or malicious.
In the U.S., Blackberries are now hard to find. What a difference five years makes. A few years ago, older teenagers started jumping on just to have another platform their parents don’t visit or know about. That trend will repeat itself every few years because parents have gotten more savvy, and start following their kids. Snapchat’s users are still mostly millennials, but that’s changing rapidly. I predict by 2018 teens will have another digital place to hide their conversation from prying parents.
As far as safety is concerned, more and more parental mobile apps are beginning to flood the market, which is good for us as parents if we stay abreast. It’s not that good for teens if parents get overzealous. Again, that’s another story we cover elsewhere.
Simply put, a good rule-of-thumb is that under-aged children should prove first that they are responsible enough before they can be rewarded with a smart-phone. Apart from what I’ve already discussed, my biggest concern here has to do with the speed of the technology. Within seconds, pictures and videos are typically sent to hundreds of other mobile phones in real time. It cannot be undone by any means This is a potent and dangerous thing for a careless, impulsive teenager or a gullible older child to have in its hands.
On the other hand, even crafty politicians have slipped up with the technology. And yet I know countless 15-year-olds who are so responsible with the technology, their parents no longer need to check up on them.
Recently I’ve seen legislation being considered in U.S. states that would criminalize the notorious actions of Anthony Weiner if those same actions were conducted by a child or teenager. Sexting is obviously a serious disturbing issue, but when you see strange controversies like this pop up, you can tell no one has quite figured it all out as yet. But they’re working on it.
Clearly, this post is not supposed to take care of all the issues parents should be concerned about where parenting and information technology are concerned. Give us your feedback just to let us know how you feel about anything in this post, or to let the community know what we left out in the article. I’ll be sure to take care of it in a future post. In the meantime, scroll up and enter your email at the top right for upcoming tips, news and trends for savvy parents.