Author Archives: riskwithinreason

Keeping our kids safe – what I’ll be talking about this Sunday

I’m really excited to be a featured speaker this Sunday at Montreal Families Magazine’s first ever Parenting Workshop, along with study skills and homework expert Carolyn Melmed. Space is filling up fast, so if you’ll be in Montreal this weekend, click on the link above and reserve your seat now.

I thought it might be useful to offer readers a quick overview of what I’ll be covering. Called “The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviours,” I’ll be talking about why it’s never too early to prepare your child to deal with the many confusing and conflicting messages they get concerning high-risk activities. What does smoking have to do with your preschooler? Why would you worry about Facebook or drinking alcohol if your kid is in grade 2? And if you already have a high schooler, I’ll talk about why it’s not too late to put prevention strategies into play.

To better understand the answers to these questions, I’ll be offering an overview of what high-risk activities are, and providing surprising information on when kids first start experimenting with them. I’ll be talking about the current research on children’s and adolescent’s brain development, and how understanding how their minds work can help us better tailor our prevention strategies. I’ll provide specific, concrete and practical age-based strategies for how to prepare your kids, so that they are better able to resist peer and media influence and develop important coping strategies. Worried your teen is already in trouble? I will tell you what your options are for seeking help. I will also point parents towards online resources for more specific information on different risk activities.

Please pass this on to anyone you know who might be interested in learning more about thinking ahead.

Can’t make it this Sunday? Not in Montreal? Interested in bringing me in to speak to parents or teachers at your child’s school or community centre? Email me at alissasklar@hotmail.com to discuss the range of workshops I can offer for parents, educators and students on high risk behaviours, Internet safety and more.

Is it ever OK to spy on your teens?

On Monday evening, I was invited to speak about digital safety to a group of parents of 8th graders at a local high school. It was a great group of people, energetic, informed and enthusiastic about keeping their kids safe. They had so many questions, we ended up staying some time after the session was supposed to end.

It was abundantly clear that thy were very concerned. And somewhat at a loss for how to implement some of my recommendations with their 13 and 14-year-olds.

I understand that. Ideally, we should begin introducing these rules when they log on to their first Club Penguin or Webkinz account in elementary school. I had a harsh lesson in setting up Internet safety rules early: my then 5-year-old typed “Elmo” into a YouTube search at a friend’s house three years ago, and saw some homemade video with a puppet murder scene that left her with nightmares for months.

It’s one thing if they grow up knowing that mom and/or dad need to give permission to set up accounts on websites, that parents need access to all passwords until it’s decided they are responsible and mature enough to earn their privacy, that they must never, ever clear the history from their Internet browsers. It’s all about leaving traces to prove where they’ve been and what they are doing.

But introducing this rule for the first time at 13? Yikes. I can only imagine the moaning and groaning. A number of parents in the room were clearly anticipating the battles that lay ahead of them when they went home to announce this new policy.

But there is no shortcut. It needs to be done.

I compared it to driving a car. We would never imagine handing the keys to our car to a 14-year-old. They are too young, too inexperienced, too immature to handle the responsibility. Possibly they are not even physiologically capable yet — their legs may be too short to reach the brake and gas pedals. They might hurt themselves or others, or cause damage. And yet we don’t always question the wisdom of allowing our kids to make use of the incredibly powerful, public communication tools that exist online, often without any adult supervision at all. There can still be damange; people can get very hurt.

This brings me to one particularly interesting question brought up at the meeting. One parent asked about spying software available to record keystrokes or copy the browser history, even if your devious teenager finds a way to erase it. Basically, he wanted to know if it’s OK to spy on your kids.

My answer? It depends.

Ideally, we don’t want to spy on them. But privacy is not a sacred right when you are 13 or 14 years old. It is a privilege that has to be earned by showing consistent responsibility. Possibly your 16 or 17-year-old has demonstrated they don’t need their Internet activity closely monitored anymore. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a single 12-year-old with the judgement skills to go it alone.

Instead of spying, start off by involving your kids in the supervision. Link their Facebook accounts to your email to start with, so that you get notifications of friend requests, pictures posted and messages. Instead of sitting around reading them, have your kid show you their home feed and profile every once in a while. Ask to look at their email in boxes. There are some fabulous conversations waiting to be had. This isn’t a lecture, it’s a discussion. Big difference. Ask them what they think of language being used, pictures being tagged. You’ll get some really interesting insights into their world.

You should check their browser histories from time to time, but you can do that with them too. I have no problem with a look at their histories without them, but that shouldn’t be the only way you do it.

Is it ever OK to spy? To log in using their passwords when they are not around? Absolutely. If you think your child is in trouble, if you are concerned about recent behaviour, possible depression, cyberbullying (whether they are victim or perpetrator), drugs, sexual health issues or violence. If your motivation is one of genuine concern for your minor child or someone they may be hurting, and your intrusion is as respectful as possible, then you should disregard the usual respect for privacy.

Has your child ever lied about their activity online? Have they set up a safe, dummy account for you to check, then surreptitiously set up another for them to engage freely with friends? That’s fraudulent. That’s a fast-track to having privileges revoked and strict rules put into place. That’s when you may need to do some poking around. Some benevolent monitoring.

What I’m saying is, that’s when you need to do some spying.

Moreover, this is a rule that should be established with them when they are young enough to listen, so if the day comes that you log in with their passwords to their account, they cannot say “How could you do this?”

Who am I kidding? They will definitely say that. Guaranteed. Probably quite loudly.  But now you have an iron-clad response: we may have to do this to keep them safe.

Could your teen be a cyberbully?

This evening I’ll spend some time talking to a group of parents of students entering Grade 8. Their principal specifically wanted me to spend some time addressing the topic of cyberbullying. It’s a real hot button topic, a trigger word that brings to mind the spectre of antisocial, angry schoolyard bullies further emboldened by their Internet connections to extend their victims’ torment to a much larger audience. Modern day trolls. Problem cases.

This concern isn’t too surprising, given the prevalence of the problem. One 2008 University of Toronto study found over half of respondents reported being cyberbullied.

The funny thing is that cyberbullies don’t always fit into that mold. They don’t always fit the same profile as the old-fashioned bullies who might have tormented our peers when we were in school. Their parents rarely suspect what their kids are up to. Sometimes their friends are surprised to learn about it. Sometimes they say they were just joking, and didn’t think what they were doing was really bullying. Occasionally they are just naive or unsophisticated enough to not be aware of how their comments or actions constitute bullying.

They could be my kids. Or yours.

When parents worry about cyberbullies, they almost always approach the subject from the perspective of potential victims. They worry about how other kids — mean antisocial kids — might hurt their children. They don’t realize how easily their kids, good kids, can do something online that proves deeply hurtful to someone else. One recent study of 1,500 parents found that not a single one of them believed their kids could be cyberbullies. But cyberbullies clearly exist, and they have moms and dads too.

A whispered not-so-nice comment in the school cafeteria may vanish from memory a few minutes later, but the same comment texted, or posted on someone’s Facebook wall, or sent off in an email, is a profoundly public, often irrevocable damaging blow. Kids don’t always get that the Internet is written in ink (hell, a lot of adults don’t realize this either, so what can we expect?).

Truth is, our culture tends to treat the subject of online reputations in very cavalier ways (check out this Roger cellphone commercial and this T-Mobile one). On the one hand we tell them how important this is, on the other we fill magazines, gossip columns and websites with celebrity gossip and intrusive speculation about the private lives of others.

But the acid test for cyberbullying must always be the end result. If someone is hurt by it, then it is wrong, even if we “just thought it was a joke.” It is little consolation to any teenager that their “friends'” comments about their weight or sexuality wasn’t meant to get forwarded to the whole school. It makes no difference to a teacher secretly taped in class and photoshopped for ridicule that their students were just having a laugh. It is damaging and destructive and can ruin reputations. It can result in depression, health problems, drop in grades, violations of personal privacy and even suicide (including, just last Thursday, that of a 17-year-old boy in Hamilton, Ontario).

McGill professor Dr. Shaheen Sharif has put together a fabulous website on this subject, called Define the Line. A slide show on the topic traces the legal evolution of cyberbullying, with one key Quebec case involving a 17-year-old (Aubry vs. Editions Vice Versa) finding that a teenager’s sensitivity to teasing by her friends counts as foreseeable harm: the right to privacy trumps freedom of expression.

And while most cyberbullying is persistent and sustained and involves ongoing violations and threats using social media, cellphones and the Internet, it is also important to understand that sometimes they are one-off occurrences perpetuated by teens lacking the sophistication, judgement and tech savvy to understand what the consequences are for someone else. I have seen this happen on several occasions among my own daughters’ groups of online friends. It doesn’t matter. The harm done is exactly the same.

And as parents it is our jobs to make sure our kids are properly supervised and held accountable for their actions. Schools need to be part of the education and awareness, particularly since a lot of cyberbullying happens on the ground within school environments and communities. Article 1460 of the Quebec Civil Code stipulates that even non-parents “entrusted with the custody, supervision or education of a minor can be held liable for the act or fault of this minor.” Similar legislation has been introduced in the United States (although still subject to dispute).

Freedom is a privilege to be earned trough the consistent demonstration of good judgment. Despite what many people think, privacy is not a sacred right for a 13-year-old with a Facebook account. As a parent, you should have passwords to your children’s accounts. You should regular review their online activity with them. There should be ongoing discussions about permissible behaviour, both at home and in school. Schools should have clear social media policies in place. There should be clear, consistent consequences (at home and in school) for inappropriate use, including withdrawal of online privileges.

For more information and resources:

Stop a Bully (Canada-wide antibullying program) – http://stopabully.ca/resources/anti-bullying-materials

Stand up to Bullying (Red Cross program) – http://www.redcross.ca/article.asp?id=24700&tid=108

Cyberbullying pioneer researcher Bill Belsey’s – www.cyberbullying.ca

Media Awareness Network (Be WebAware) – http://www.bewebaware.ca/english/aboutus.html