Every parent has a first time and now that kids are growing up online, it comes sooner. It’s that uh-oh moment that signals teenagehood is on the horizon for your baby and it’s time to rejig your parenting plan. Not everyone gets blindsided the way my friend Kate did, though. She called yesterday to talk about her eldest, Josh.
“You won’t believe this!” Kate hasn’t figure out yet that I have two teens and a tween and there’s not much I won’t believe.
Josh came home from a birthday party and spilled the beans. Apparently, one of the boys had discovered a website called Omegle. Its tag line? Talk to strangers. And that’s exactly what the 11-year-olds had been doing. For months.
“Have your kids been on there?” she asked. Nope, I told her. They’re also not hanging out on porn sites or taking off their clothes on Skype or planning to sneak out at 2am.
My friend was shocked that these things actually happen. Up to now, her anxiety has only skyrocketed over hockey injuries and lice.
“How do you know they’re not?” she asked.
I know because we have – wait for it – spyware installed on all the computers in this house. Now it was her turn for disbelief.
Yes, Kate, we can see which sites our children access on their laptops aka the tools they use to go virtually anywhere in the world and meet anyone and everyone alive. We can also see the content of postings, should we choose to do so – which 99% of the time we do not because kids do need leash to learn. But any sign of trouble, and we sit down and talk.
Yes, of course our kids are aware we’re watching. Just knowing that makes them think twice about sites they visit and stuff they post.
“I’m freaking out,” Kate said.
But why? Teaching online smarts is exactly the same as teaching street smarts. You let them loose in the virtual world in steps, just as you do in the real world – when you let them ride a bike around the block, cross an intersection, head to the park in a group. You don’t just drop them into the pool and walk away, right?
Online, just like offline, kids start small and build. With a little guidance and practice, they slowly gain ground, earn trust and gain more ground. Will they fuck up? Sure. So? If you’re watching, you’ll talk about it then they’ll get back out there.
The plan is that by the time kids are university-bound, free to do whatever they want online and off, they’ll be prepared.
It seems like Parenting 101, but I’ve learned that it’s not, and that’s why too many parents are still getting blindsided by that uh-oh teenage moment.
Some swear they’ll avoid all the digital drama by just banning their kids from big, bad Facebook until they hit 16. A lot of good that will do them. We’re all connected now, kids included. Cut them off from the most popular way to socialize and they’ll get on there anyway, and hide. And you can bet they won’t learn the the first thing about navigating the Internet.
Then there are those who feel we shouldn’t force our kids to friend us on Facebook because – get this – doing so is akin to reading their diary. Huh?
To them, I say this: Call me stalker if you must but the online world is the opposite of a diary. It’s a public place that everyone inhabits. If your kids don’t realize that people are watching on there – including us parents – then they don’t understand it and neither do you.
And fyi, I think I know your kid. He’s 14 going on who-knows. If you checked now and then, you’d see that his Facebook wall is full of photos of him chugging beer and that according to his Formspring answers, he is proud of what he’s doing to girls at parties.
Oh, and by the way, on Saturday night, he’s not sleeping where he said he was. But hey, way to respect his right to privacy.