The friends you’ll never meet: What parents need to know about kids and online communities

drawingA 12-year-old girl befriends a group of people in an online community dedicated to nurturing teen artists. Although she will never meet them face-to-face, speak to them on the telephone or engage with them in any other way, she quickly forms what she feels are meaningful friendships.

When she is away on a school trip, her mom picks up her daughter’s iPad, notices the site is open and begins reading through the messages. In between the many messages about various art projects, experiments with watercolours and collage and mostly constructive feedback on each other’s artistic creations, she sees messages with words that alarm her: cutting, drinking, fighting, drugs, suicide attempts. One of the boys claims he is 18 and is virtually “dating” a 14-year-old girl (who told him she was 16).

When her daughter comes home, mom brings it up. Her daughter blows off her concerns, saying it’s all just posing online. These are not her REAL friends, the ones she sees every day. They are just teen artists using funky avatars (images chosen to represent their persona) playing around online.

Mom is mollified but concerned. They talk about the references to drinking, drugs, mentions of suicide attempts. Cutting. She has her daughter’s password to this site and they agree to keep talking.

A week later, daughter comes to her mom in tears. Someone on this young person’s art network just posted a notice saying one of their online friends has died. She is distraught. Mom is freaked out. She doesn’t know what to do – does she ban her daughter from this social network and risk her defiance? How can she intervene in something that seems to be completely out of her control?

So she emails me for advice.

The Internet, for all its wonders of information, access, creativity and connection, also exposes our kids to communities of influence they might not otherwise know. We can move to a good neighbourhood, put them in good schools, get to know the parents of their friends and their soccer coaches. We can try to stack the deck in their favour with good influences and positive role models.

And while the Internet can offer many wonderful things, it is also an open door to stuff that kids will find difficult to handle. Hard core pornography. Violence. Information about sniffing, huffing, car surfing or the “monkey game.” But aside from all of these things, it also offers connections to new people whose real identities can be easily disguised. Most of them really are 14-year old girls interested in art or 16-year old boys with a genuine interest in online role-playing games, as they claim to be. But some of them are pretending to be what they are not, whether for kicks (just because they can) or for more insidious reasons.

When I speak about the deceptive ease with which someone can “pass” as someone else, most people laugh it off. Everyone seems to think they would somehow know if someone is lying. Others may be taken in, but they are too smart. Too savvy.

And you know what? They aren’t. Adults as well as kids tend to take what people say about themselves at face value. It’s super easy to be fooled, especially when our friends believe it too.

What does this have to do with my story? When I spoke with the concerned mom about the details of this supposed online death, a lot of inconsistencies and strange facts threw up red flags. The dead boy had claimed to be working with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency on a drug bust (yeah, right). He had proposed marriage to another 16-year-old girl on this network even though they had never met. The stories of fights and wild parties all had an unreal edge. He regularly let others post notices from his account. He had been banned by the site administrators before, and had registered for a new account.

So while the circle of teen artists invested in this community posted their grief in dark charcoal drawings and angst-ridden poetry, we discussed the very likely possibility that this was all a sham. She was relieved, and her daughter — though she didn’t want to believe it at first — gradually (and grudgingly) admitted the stories may have been exaggerated or made up.

Upset about the whole ordeal, Mom said she wanted to ban her daughter from this site. And although my first instinct as a parent would be to do the exact same thing, I urged her to reconsider.

Here’s why: A 12-year-old banned from a website she finds extremely compelling will be very tempted to sneak on when her mom isn’t watching. On a friend’s computer. At school. It’s extremely difficult to enforce that kind of ban, and extremely tempting to a kid to defy it. If they do, then a parent has to react decisively. You are setting yourself up for a battle that will be hard — or even impossible — to win.

But in this case, the daughter hadn’t done anything wrong. She didn’t need punishing — she needed guidance. The biggest takeaway from this episode is that fact that she came to talk to her mother when she saw something upsetting. Isn’t that ultimately what we all want with our kids? If mom banned the website, her daughter would no longer be able to discuss it with her.

So mom allowed her daughter to keep her account, but with some new conditions: that they go on together to review her messages and postings. She praised her daughter for keeping a cool head and coming to talk to her. She told her that she was giving her the freedom to stay on this site (with guidance) precisely because she showed good judgment in speaking to her mother.

So far, it seems this very upsetting situation evolved into an opportunity to learn some more about managing relationships – both online and off. Some important guidelines about kids and online communities:

  • Parents of kids and young teens need to give their usernames and passwords to parents
  • Kids and young teens have no right to privacy from their parents when online. These accounts are not the same as private diaries.  There is too much need for guidance around potential pitfalls. They can earn this privacy over time by showing consistent good judgment.
  • Kids and young teens don’t think they can be fooled by people pretending to someone else. This needs to be discussed regularly. Point out examples whenever possible.
  • Look into the online communities your kids want to join. Are there moderators? A contact for support if someone acts inappropriately. A way to flag inappropriate posts?
  • Go online with your kids every once in a while to see what kinds of things are being posted. Discuss what you see.
  • Steer kids to some of the excellent online communities for their age and interests. Spend a bit of time on Google checking them out – there are many wonderful, creative and reasonably safe online spaces for kids to interact.

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