Tag Archives: teens

Stranger danger online: What parents need to know

The recent spate of news stories about young girls going missing in the Montreal area has a lot of parents worried. The police have said they have evidence that the girls, who were living in a Laval group home, may have been lured away by gangs for sexual exploitation. The disappearances have been linked to the use of social media to target young, vulnerable teens. Five girls have gone missing over the last month, and four have been located. 17-year-old Vanessa Ticas still has not been found.

SextingNow I have always argued that most kids, most of the time, are far more at risk from the people they know than strangers on line. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that abductions by strangers account for only 1% of kidnappings. Far more common are kidnapping by parents in a custody dispute, or someone else related to the family. When it comes to sexual abuse, it is estimated that 8 out of 10 abused children know their abuser offline.

Kids are far more likely to be harmed online by their peers, whether its through bullying or the non-consensual sharing of sexual images. However, there are clearly many risks online for children and teens. When you mix kids and adults, anonymity, spontaneity and the incredible power of digital technology, people are likely to get hurt. So what can parents do to help keep their kids safe from strangers online?

Start young. The best strategy is to begin age-appropriate conversations about the power and challenges of online tools from the time kids are very young. It’s much harder to introduce supervision, rules and consequences with a 14-year-old. Children get online as soon as they can click or swipe, and many start with gaming accounts, progressing to email, messaging and social media. Your young children and preteens should ask permission before they open any accounts, and should share passwords with parents. Sit next to them to configure privacy settings. Don’t know how? Google is a user manual for everything – show them you are interested in learning about these tools.

Teach online “street smarts.” They need to be told over and over that nothing they do online should ever be considered private, whether it’s a text message to your best friend, an email to a classmate, or a picture sent to a boyfriend. They need to understand that even though their computer feels private , it’s actually very public and they should behave accordingly. Explain repeatedly how easy it is for someone to “pass” as someone else, whether it’s an older man passing as a teen boy, a student pretending to be a teacher, or a stranger pretending to be a friend.

Be frank about the risks. Parenting in 2016 means putting aside your embarrassment and addressing sex online. Kids today have access to the kinds of sexualized images adults couldn’t legally get their hands on 10 years ago. You are kidding yourself if you think your kid hasn’t seen porn online, accidentally in a pop-up, or through a search. They need to understand the meaning of sharing sexualized images of themselves or others. And both young girls and boys need to be told that others may try to “groom” them for exploitation by being charming or flattering, promising gifts or extra attention. This resource on sexual trafficking of kids by gangs has some great tips. This document from BC is also very useful.

Set rules. Establish consequences. Follow through. If you don’t want your teen using video chat in a room with a closed door, make that clear and follow through. If you want your child to notify you by text whenever they change locations (going to a movie, going to a friend’s house, etc.), make it a condition of owning a cellphone.

Freedom is a privilege to be earned through consistent, responsible behaviour. I’ve said it before, and I believe this is true online and off. Having access to wifi, smartphones, iPads and computers is an incredible privilege. If your child wants privacy from you online, they need to earn it in increments by showing good judgement.

Teens recommend educational apps

teens recommend educational appsThey may spend plenty of time on Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram, but many of today’s kids are also learning to use digital technologies in responsible ways for creative, productive projects as well.

This month’s educational column of Montreal Families Magazine was co-written by my 14-year-old twin daughters, Sophie and Alex. They list and describe some helpful apps kids can for school. Check out the article here. Show your kids how to put French verbs right at their fingertips, turn their smartphones or tablets into scientific calculators, and even compress the amount of data they use (reducing your monthly bills in the process).

Do I tell? What to do with sensitive information about your child’s friend

Should I tell?

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Among the trickier situations you may come across are those that involve your friends’ kids. You come across your friend’s 12-year-old son smoking cigarettes in a neighbourhood park. Or perhaps you stumble across a compromising picture of another’s daughter online. Maybe you hear about disturbing bullying behaviour going on at school. Or, most complicated of all, your own child comes to you concerned about a friend engaging in high-risk activities, from drinking or illegal drug use to cutting.

What do you do? Reporting on what you’ve heard or seen can feel awkward at best, potentially risky at worst. We all like to think we’d want to know if our kids were doing something illegal or dangerous, but the truth can be way more complicated. Some parents can get very defensive. They may be embarrassed or aggressive. It’s quite common for parents to deny that their baby would ever do something like that, because the implication is that they have somehow failed in their parenting role.

In the very worst cases, calling up another child’s parent to report on what you’ve heard or seen can turn friends/acquaintances into enemies. A highly defensive parent may accuse you or your child of having a hidden agenda, accusing you of being self-righteous, never having liked their child,  or starting untrue rumours for social gain. And if your child came to you with disturbing news in confidence, you risk alienating your own kid and causing social issues for them, in an effort to help a child at risk.

There’s no easy answer in this kind of scenario, but the following guidelines can help you make sense of a difficult situation and determine the best thing to do.

Understand the difference between meddling and worthwhile intervention. This is similar to the distinction we give kids between tattling and telling when they have witnessed bullying going on. Tattling behaviour (or meddling) is all about getting someone into trouble (“She puts on lipstick as soon as her parents aren’t around”); telling (or worthwhile intervention) is about getting someone out of trouble (She’s cutting her arms with a razor blade”). Only those indiscretions which truly involve potential danger need be reported. (Click to tweet this.)

Question your own motivation for getting involved. Is there some element of competition? Some unresolved issue between you and the child’s parents, or between your kids? If you truly feel this child is at risk because of what you know, then you are on more solid ground. Assure the child’s parents that you have no intention of gossiping or judging them, and that in a similar situation you would want someone to tell you your child was in trouble.

Consider how close you are with the child’s parents. There are some smaller indiscretions you may choose to tell a very close friend, because you know their values, worries and concerns for their kids, but which would be inappropriate to tell an acquaintance or a parent you’ve never met.

Never promise your child complete confidence when someone can potentially be hurt.  It’s tempting to tell our children that we will always keep their secrets, but this is dangerous ground. If you believe they know of a potentially dangerous situation (for themselves or others), you and they have a moral obligation to do something about it. They need to know this from the beginning, even if it means they may occasionally be more reluctant to speak to you. The critical factor is how you react: Don’t go behind their backs. Involve them in problem-solving. Determine the most effective and respectful form of intervention. Try and explain the long-term consequences of helping their friend.

Consider whether this issue places an undue burden of responsibility on your own child. A friend who confides to your child about such problems as depression, drug use, or thoughts of suicide is inadvertently overwhelming them with responsibility. These serious problems are too much for a teenager to deal with alone, and if something really terrible happens as a result, they will feel accountable. Kids don’t have the experience, judgement and knowledge to help out someone in real trouble, so know when to go to an adult for help is really important. If your child has come to you with this, it’s likely because they are feeling overwhelmed. They need your help to figure this out. Note that it’s always worth gently questioning your child about their own involvement, since it’s not uncommon to bring forward a problem to test your reaction by saying it’s “for a friend.”