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Friday, July 16, 2010

The Danger of "The Fade"

Typical scenario:

Dealing with a 6 year old

A responsible parent wanting their 6 year old to be safe online - isn't extremely tech savvy but is willing to learn. The parent does some research, purchases filtering software, sets up parental controls, and moves the family computer to a "public" area so that they can monitor the child while he/she is online.  The parent takes the time to learn which sites are safe for kids and sets up bookmarks to kid-friendly sites for games and activities.  In short, the parent is very involved in the child's digital life.

Dealing with a 16 year old

Responsible parent cant keep up with all of the different ways their child is connecting online - cell phone, video game console, iPod, not to mention the laptop their school requires them to have which they take into their room or over to friends house to do homework.  Child has MySpace, Facebook, Meebo, and Twitter accounts and two different e-mail addresses. When parent tries to set up parental controls or filtering software the child complains.  When the parent asks the child about their online activities they get resistance and accusations of "invasion of privacy."  In short, the parent gets frustrated and gives up.  I call this "The Fade" as it represents a parent who was very involved and eventually faded away.

The scenario above is extremely common.  In fact, it has been documented in many cases that have ended tragically.  In released court documents in the case of a Long Island teenager who took her own life as a result of cyber-bullying back in March, the mother is quoted as saying "I didn't watch what she did online.  Every time I tried or asked she would get angry..."  It's so easy for parents to be involved in their children's online lives at age 6.  At that age, children expect guidance and rules from parents and honestly, many 6 year olds don't have the socialization to be tech savvy yet.  That means they probably can't even get online without Mom or Dad's help.  16 year olds on the other hand typically don't want Mom or Dad's help and would prefer if their parents left them alone to do as they will.

The irony in all of this is that the time your kids are resisting your involvement in their online lives is the time when they need your guidance the most.  At 6, the online avenues to harmful content are extremely few.  When my kids were 6 we had links to sites like Webkins, Popcap, and National Geographic Kids bookmarked in the browser.  When the kids got on the computer, they clicked one of those buttons and went to that site (and remember, the computer was in the kitchen so even if they stumbled onto something bad it could be addressed immediately).  At 6 kids don't know about what else is out there and they don't care.  All they want to do is entertain themselves.  6 year olds are typically not entertained by bullying people online or pornography.

At 16, it's a different story.  They are much more interested in content that could be harmful to them.  The largest consumer of Internet pornography in the United States is boys between the ages of 12 and 17.  I've got a friend whose son injured himself pretty badly trying to copycat some idiot online who posted a YouTube video on how to make a bomb out of a plastic bottle and some Draino.  The teenage years are when the cliques are forming and the mean-spirited harassment of other kids really kicks into high gear. It is also the time when more and more understandable options are available to them to connect online.  A 6 year old would probably lose interest in Twitter pretty quickly or be confused by all of the configuration required when setting up a Facebook page.  Teenagers aren't so inhibited.  They seek out new avenues to gain popularity, express themselves, and explore their adulthood.

We also have to keep another truth in mind.  The teenage years are the hormonal years.  Various urges are waking in kids that make them do things they've never done before.  Boys will likely seek out information on the female body online.  Girls will seek out social media sources to chat about boys and ultimately bicker about boys (which can lead to cyber-bullying).  Their minds and bodies are actively...hungrily seeking out new stimuli.

So lets go back to our scenario above and word it a little differently.  Just when your child has reached an age where they know how to use every source of social media and Internet connectivity available...just when they reach the age when they are seeking to exhibit their own adulthood by exploring things that are "taboo"... just when they reach the age where they are hormonally supercharged... the parent decides to give them free reign of the Internet?

As a parent, I understand how difficult it is to struggle with your teenagers to get anything done.  You say "pick up your dirty laundry" and they seem tho throw more on the floor.  The teenage years are the most difficult for many parents because it is when their authority is most challenged.  I know it's hard to stay involved in your children's online lives but think about it this way:  You've got a pipe bringing fresh water into the house.  If your teenager decided to take a bucket and collect water from a dirty, oil filled puddle along a road somewhere and then bring that water home to drink and bathe in would you allow it?  What if they said "I'm an adult and I should be allowed to make my own choices?"  Would you back down?  Probably not.  Then why do you back down when they challenge you about their online lives?

Let's not forget something are the parent, they are the children.  You pay the bills, you own the house, you provide them with a wide variety of services (food preparation, laundry, clothing, education, etc.).  You are certainly permitted to have rules and they are obliged to follow them.  Parents seem to step up and get tough when their kids do something stupid that could physically harm themselves but for some reason, the Internet is overlooked.  Is it because that computer, cell phone, or video game console doesn't explode if they misuse it?  Would it change your mind if it did?  Misuse of the internet can cause depression, suicide, anxiety, misdirected sexuality (and in some extreme cases, rape), abduction, violence, vandalism,...the list goes on and on.  Are these not threats to your child's health and well being just like contaminated water would be?

The teenage years are when you should be most involved in your child's online lives.  Know who they interact with online. Make them provide the login credentials (username and password) for their social media (e.g. Facebook) and e-mail accounts.  Reserve the right to get onto their phones or iPods at any time and poke around.  And above all else, you have to actually do these things (not just say you might).  Think of the Internet as a potentially contaminated stream of information that could harm your child.  Guide them through it.  Your job as a parent is to protect them, even if they don't like all of the choices you make.

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