Teenagers have a natural desire for privacy, which doesn’t necessarily equate with illicit behaviour.
Yet there are dangers. A friend, a father of two daughters in their late teens, discovered some years ago that his younger child had been entering chat rooms, despite being expressly forbidden from doing so.
“The computer was in a family area, and one evening when I walked in, I noticed my daughter, who was then 13, scrambling to shut down the site that she had been looking at,” he says. “I made her put it back on the screen and discovered she’d been using a chat room and had been getting deeply inappropriate messages from a man with an unthinkably crude logon.”
The girl had been bewildered and upset but the man was so persistent that she hadn’t known how to end the exchange.
“I fired off a furious a message saying I was her dad, that I was calling the police to find out if he was traceable and that, if he was, I would get his details and go around personally to 'have a word’. That stopped the messages.”
Thereafter he maintained a watching brief, but was conscious not to appear heavy-handed.
“I think it’s perfectly reasonable to want to know who your children are talking to online,” he says. “But once they get older, you have to ease off. You can’t micromanage their lives.
And you’re probably right. But in my day, that’s all you could get. If something more graphic had been out there, we probably would have gone for it. Interest in those, um, topics is natural. So start a dialogue based on that knowledge. You should have that talk anyway, but now you can have it with some kind of context.
Recent research by the NSPCC revealed that sexting is so widespread as to be considered mundane. Girls as young as 13 send topless and naked photographs on their mobile phones without hesitation, regarding it as a form of flirtation.
Will your teenagers find other ways of communicating to their friends when they realize you may be watching? Yes. But text messages and cellphones don’t offer the anonymity and danger of the Internet. They are usually one-on-one with someone you know. It is far easier for a predator to troll chat rooms and MySpace and Facebook.
While middle-class parents might be horrified, evidence suggests that socio-demographics do not play any role in dictating who engages in the practice. According to psychologist and author Oliver James, as soon as a parent hands their child a smartphone, they have “entered the Wild West” and are virtually guaranteed to explore the furthest frontiers of cyberspace, including hard-core pornography.
Some will say that it’s better just to use parental blocks that deny access to risky sites. I have found that they don’t work. Children know how to get around them. But more than that — and this is where it gets tough — I want to know what’s being said in e-mail and instant messages and in chat rooms.
Most will have a quick peek but won’t linger.
“If you have a good relationship with your children, you have nothing to worry about,” says James, blithely. “The vast majority of kids don’t come to any harm; if you think you have the sort of troubled child who is vulnerable, then what are they doing owning a piece of equipment that can lead them into difficulties?”
With a son aged eight and a daughter who has just turned 11, James, whose most recent book is Love Bomb: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat, is resigned to giving them technological freedom, while ensuring that they feel loved enough to turn to him for support if and when they need it.
“Yes, there are people online pretending to be 16 when they are really 30 or 50, but what can you do?” he says. “If your child has half a brain they can spot a fake. And besides, I have absolute confidence that my children will be moderate and sensible.
Our knee-jerk reaction as freedom-loving Americans is to be suspicious of anything that hints at invasion of privacy. That’s a good and noble thing. But it’s not an absolute, particularly in the face of the new and evolving challenges presented by the Internet. And particularly when it comes to our children.
But his views clash with those of fellow psychologist Prof Tanya Byron, who has sounded the alarm over children being “raised in captivity”, because of paranoia over health and safety. “Children are not free range any more,” she told the North of England Education Conference last week. “There are no more predators on the streets, no more paedophiles, than when I was growing up in the 1970s, yet children are rarely seen out. Instead, they are having a blast in this fantastic global space. I would argue that they are more vulnerable there than if they were hanging out on the street.
Parenting has never been for the faint of heart. One friend of mine, using spyware to monitor his college-bound, straight-A daughter, found out that not only was she using drugs but she was sleeping with her dealer. He wisely took a deep breath before confronting her
. Then he decided to come clean, to let her know how he had found out, to speak with her about the dangers inherent in her behavior. He’d had these conversations before, of course, but this time he had context. She listened
. There was no anger. Things seem better now.
Lucy Russell, director of campaigns at the Young Minds charity, stresses the importance of children learning how to experience the world and build up emotional resilience by dealing with problematic situations.
Trying to cocoon them isn’t the answer; helping them if they are floundering is much more beneficial.
Some will say that you should simply trust your child, that if he is old enough to go on the Internet he is old enough to know the dangers. Trust is one thing, but surrendering parental responsibility to a machine that allows the entire world access to your home borders on negligence.
“You have to have conversations so that they can ask for help,” says Russell. “Children are incredibly savvy in terms of technology, and they will find ways to do whatever it is you want them not to do. Parents are kidding themselves if they think they can control social media.
Scary. But a good idea. Most parents won’t even consider it.
Also, rules imposed in the later years of primary school won’t be appropriate for teenagers. “When my children were younger I insisted I was a friend on Facebook, but now they are 15 and 16 they have blocked me,” she says. “I accept that, but I have friends who tell me what’s going on. The relationship with your children should be one of trust and honesty - but with a little well-intentioned spying, via a circuitous route.”
So, if to snoop or not to snoop is the question, the answer would appear to be: yes, but for heaven’s sake don’t get caught.
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