CTV News interviewed me for this terrible story about a 24-year-old man who posed as a young girl on Facebook to lure 11 to 13-year-old boys into sending nude pictures of themselves. He would then coerce or blackmail them into sending more by threatening to expose them to their families.
Kids are often quick to take other users’ identities at face value. They don’t yet have the experience and judgement to question such things, or to anticipate this kind of deception. The person on the other end doesn’t have to be a pedophile – it can also be a school bully, or another student attempting a mean-spirited joke.
What can parents tell their kids? If your kids are online, you should bring up the subject of deliberate or mistaken identity switches. Let them know people can do this for all sorts of reasons, out of curiosity, for a joke, to bully someone or to gain someone’s trust to hurt or humiliate them. Tell your children it is unethical – and sometimes illegal – to pass as someone else just to gain their trust. All it takes is a stolen password or using someone else’s picture, and it’s difficult for other users to know what’s going on.
Remind your kids to maintain a healthy dose of suspicion if anyone online asks you to do something that makes you uncomfortable, or that is illegal. It is important that kids know it is against the law to share pictures of anyone under the age of 18 wearing anything less than a bathing suit. Even if he is your boyfriend (or girlfriend). Even if you send it willingly. Tell a trusted adult. And if they don’t do anything, tell someone else.
Most of the time this kind of deception involves a peer, classmate or acquaintance and not a sexual predator online, but the underlying lesson about the ease of deception online remains the same.
A 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.
The first time I stepped into a university classroom as a teacher, I felt like a television. After more than 5-10 minutes of lecturing — no matter how interesting the subject — their gazes began to glaze over. Even those students who were engaged in the material seemed to quickly forget I could see them sitting there at their desks.
They picked their noses. Played with their various piercings. Doodled in their notebooks. Activities that would be openly insulting if I was speaking to them one on one.
I quickly learned to jazz up my material with media clips, punctuate lectures with frequent discussion questions, group work, pair and share activities. I moved around the whole classroom, worked hard to modulate my voice and throw in joke. I’d leave each class thoroughly drained but satisfied that I’d kept their attention.
I thought of this as the Sesame Street/ MTV effect. These students had been weaned on non-stop entertainment, on rapid jolts of audio-visual stimulation. They were not accustomed to sustained periods of focused attention. Video games seem to accentuate this tendency to prefer hyper-kinetic media forms.
I’m very sensitive to this with my own children. I have no problem with some exposure to the Wii’s, Nintendo DS’s and iPads that fill their days. I let them eat their Cheerios with Elmo and Dora, and move on to Wizards of Waverly Place and (eventually) Glee. But I was always insistent on time also spent with real books, on the kind of art projects that make your fingers dirty and adventure games played outdoors with flesh-and-blood friends (not just onscreen with avatars).
As they get older, the struggle to keep this balance is harder and harder. Most of their homework is done online (often in very creative ways). There’s no more trudging over to a library to look things up in books. Everything is online. Instantaneous. Rendered in live-streaming, HD-quality video. Teachers instantly email them feedback and answer questions on Saturday afternoons.
Although I still work very hard to make sure they do spend some time outside (not just skiing on the Wii) and meet their friends face to face, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to maintain a more balanced understanding of the time our kids spend online. It isn’t fair to lump it all under the rubric “screen time” as if Photoshop were the same as Phineas andPherb.
Because it’s not.
A couple of years ago I interviewed Michael Hoechsmann, then a professor in McGill University’s Faculty of Education (and now at Lakehead University), for an article in Montreal Families Magazine about whether socializing online was actually bad for our kids. Dr. Hoechsmann, himself a father of two teenaged boys, urged parents to make a distinction between using a computer for production and consumption. When his children are writing on a blog or posting a poem, for example, “I consider it the equivalent of time spent drawing or building a model.” However, ‘”If they are just doing consumption online [such as watching YouTube videos or playing a game], I consider it only a slightly more active version of watching TV.”
Some of the things our kids can do online are downright amazing. They have access to the most powerful, creative and productive technologies ever produced. The potential for learning new things, stimulating their growing brains, developing new interests and exploring new talents is phenomenal.
So I thought that instead of joining the mob decrying the impact of computers and the Internet on our children, I’d use this post to remind us that used judiciously, in moderation, technology is pretty damned amazing.
One of my older daughters has devoted time over the past year to writing her own novel. It’s almost 150 pages long now, and she has enjoyed the writing as much as the research she can do instantly on her iPad. I can’t imagine time better spent.
As both she and her twin sister enjoy different kinds of creative writing, both girls are members of a website called Figment.com, where young writers can post their work and enjoy a moderated, copyright-safe feedback forum of other kids and teens.
A similar site called Deviantart.com invites teens to post their original artwork (the right-click is disabled so images can’t be copied) and invite moderated feedback.
All of my girls have spent hours on a free, user-friendly animation building website called GoAnimate.com, where kids can build all sorts of interesting cartoons. You can check out one of Sophie’s earliest animations here. Kids can build their own stories with graphics, movement and audio and send them to their friends. They can also use them for homework assignments and class presentations.
Kids who are really into animation should check out the National Film Board of Canada’s excellent StopMoStudio workshop online. The scant 19-minute video has some of the NFB’s experts demonstrating their techniques. And once they’ve been inspired, they should go to the NFB’s PixStop stop-motion animation. Available for free on iTunes, this iPad app was originally developed for classroom use, so it has plenty of tutorials and a very intuitive interface.
Other cool animation apps for Apple products include iStopMotion for user-friendly stop-motion animation for iPhone, iPad and Mac, as well as the point and click StopMotion Recorder for iPhone. Users can use the onion-skin views to reposition the camera and integrate Instagram-like features (such as noir, sepia and Lomography).
Do your kids love computer games? Let them try and build their own on My Doodle Game, where they can design the landscape, put in their own challenges and choose from a wide-variety of characters and obstacles. This is a great example of creativity, problem-solving and sequencing.
Have a reluctant reader at home? Check out ReadingRewards.com, a safe social network devoted to reading, which incorporates gaming elements to encourage kids to read, review and recommend books to others.
Curious about the world? Dealing with homework questions mom and dad can’t help with? Direct kids to the award-winning HowStuffWorks website and get lost in a fascinating, informative virtual place where it’s hip to be smart. Aside from articles, there are quizzes, games and podcasts on what Apple called one of the “best apps of 2011.”
These sites and apps offer just a hint of the amazing, innovative and creative potential of the web. It’s not all Facebook, YouTube and World of Warcraft out there. Challenge your kids to check out some of these creative and production-oriented sites so you can cut them a little slack if they want to spend hours in front of their screens.
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RiskWithinReason is intended as a support and information resource. If you need counselling for your child, consider contacting a trained child psychologist. Your family doctor or CLSC can recommend one, or you can also visit Collage Therapies at http://www.collagetherapies.ca/en