The Internet and Children: Keeping Our Kids Safe

When my first child was born, friends and family would visit. They would stand over the crib and stare at my doe-eyed daughter and say, “Wait, before you know it, she will be getting her license.”  I must have heard that cautionary point at least half a dozen times with each of my three children. I get it. Life passes quickly. One day, your daughter is in fuzzy pink overalls sitting behind a tray in her high chair. Blink, and she is sitting in a miniskirt behind a steering-wheel. Or so I hear, as my children have yet to reach that point but I, nonetheless, understand their point. The right to drive was once a first rite of passage from youth into young adulthood; a literal portal to the big, vast world.

The privilege of operating a motor vehicle has always presented vast responsibility and immense convenience. It also presents the possibility of sheer independence, the necessity of good judgment, and the presence of danger all at once. With all of that in mind, I am not rushing that moment when my eldest daughter asks my husband and me for the keys to the car and backs out of our driveway alone.

The world continues to evolve and now there is a tool of equal weight and consequence that our youth operate even sooner than the automobile. The Internet. When used responsibly, this tool can be a great source of convenience, knowledge, education, and communication. This same invention also puts children in direct interaction with the big, vast world out there without leaving the comfort and assumed safety of their parent’s home. Among great possibility also lurks the opportunity for those seeking anonymity and those with less than honorable intentions. There is a world of promise coupled with danger right within your own home. The issue then becomes, How do we offer our children independence and respect and protection simultaneously?

My friend, Jamie Tripp Utitus, Parental Guidance blogger for nj.com recently wrote a story, Facebook, Should We Get Access If Our Child Dies? Jamie focuses on the Nash family, a family who lost their fifteen year old son to suicide. Now that grieving family has been battling Facebook to have the right to access their deceased 15 year-old son’s inbox with the hope of finding a clue about why he took his own precious life.

It also presents the larger issinternetchildue of whether a parent should have legal access to a child’s social networking account or if it should be kept private. As an individual with a therapeutic background in the medical field, I spent many years working with families and contending with privacy laws. Even in those circumstances, the parents of a minor may access their child’s records. It, therefore, seems foolish that parents can access the most intimate of psychiatric and medical records but are then denied the right to their child’s inbox messages.

How do you protect your child from cyber bullying, access to inappropriate content, exposure to predators, and from revealing too much personal information? As portable devices become ever popular and the Internet can now be accessed from smart phones and iPads in school hallways, coffee shops, on school buses, and in bathrooms, the task of monitoring becomes ever complex.

This isn’t about reading a locked diary hidden under your child’s bed or protecting your child’s reputation online. This is about navigating an entirely new dimension in the lives of our youth. It seems that protecting your child from the world online is as essential a task as it is to protect your child from the real world.

No plan is perfect and as technology becomes more high-tech, monitoring strategies must become more sophisticated. Here are some suggestions:

  • Start the conversation with your kids about online safety. Educate your children on the perils that are out there. Ignorance is not bliss. Revisit the issue often.
  • Place limitations on when and where children can access certain websites.
  • Put rules in place for when and what a webcam can be used for. Discuss texting and what it should be used for and how often it can be used. Establish reasonable boundaries and honor them.
  • Set up the home computer in a highly trafficked area of the home.
  • Monitor cell phones, laptops, and devices used for gaming. Check browsing histories.
  • Take time to let your children show you what they like to do online. See what sites they visit, become familiar with what they like to do and who they are communicating with.
  • Notice any change in your child’s behavior. Look for changes in sleep patterns, eating habits, mood, unwillingness to attend school, withdrawal from social activities, and other changes. Take these changes seriously. Talk to their teachers. Don’t just be your child’s friend but remember you are their greatest advocate. Get your child help if he or she needs it.

Mr. Nash had a good rule for his children. Although he assured them he respected their privacy, he had the password of each child’s account. Days before their son, Eric, ended his life, he changed his own password.

What safety measures have you put in place? I am a firm believer that there is no substitute for good supervision. I am interested to know how thousands upon thousands of other parents are handling the issue. Where do you draw the line between respecting your child’s privacy and safely monitoring their activities?


Bumpy Milestones and Mean Kids

parentsignAs a mother, once your child is born and sometimes long before that baby was even expected, you dream of celebrating your child’s milestones. Since the very moment I held my first daughter, Sonoma, I imagined what it would be like when she said her first word, ate messy cake at her first birthday party, went on her first family trip to Disney World with us, and understood what the excitement of Christmas morning was all about. I vividly imagined every moment from walking her into her kindergarten classroom to her walk down the aisle with her father on her wedding day, and all of the future memories in between. Maybe its a bit cliché but that is what I did and I still continue to do every so often. As these early milestones come and go, I have rejoiced with my enthusiastic daughter and secretly wished that I could slow down each minute. It all seems to goes by in a blink. What milestone I did not anticipate was the first time she would encounter mean kids at school, and that milestone came last night.

When I was putting my soon-to-be four-year-old to bed last night and helping her put on her x-small blue princess pajamas, she woefully asked me, “Mama, am I too small?” Sonoma is one of the sweetest little souls you may ever encounter. She is in the first percentile for weight, the seventh percentile for height, and 110th percentile for energy. When I asked her as to why she was asking me that, she explained. She said that two girls in her preschool class told her she is “too small” and cannot play at the workbench with them. She added that they called her “tiny”, pulled all of the toys away, and told her to “go away”. The words and tone coming forth from her petite frame crushed my heart.

For all the hours of therapeutic graduate study and practice that I have offering the “right answers” to children and adults alike, I was at a loss. I remain still at somewhat of a loss. I know the preferred answers in theory, yet the Mama Bear in me wants to stomp through the sandbox and yank these little bullies by their pigtails* and tell them to stay away from my daughter. Better yet, I should really be yanking the side-ponies* of these girls’ mothers. It is more an issue of what they have learned, where they have learned it, and what is permissible. A  four-year-old learned that acting this way towards a fellow peer is okay from somewhere or someone. It’s an age old case of falling apples and trees.

Sonoma shares a room with her younger sister, Sienna. For as every bit gentle as Sonoma is, my middle-child is headstrong and spirited. As Sonoma told me about this rude, exclusive playground duo, Sienna sat there adamantly shaking her head in disapproval and telling her sister, “Noma, I no like the girls!” Somehow, I imagine my fiery-redheaded daughter wouldn’t have handled it the same as her older sister. Sienna can be a pusher and a fighter. I know that as a mom, encouraging a shove is not the answer by any means, but I would be lying if I told you it didn’t cross my mind. It is interesting how you have children born a few months apart and believe to be raising them the same way and they each develop so differently with such unique responses.

My response was a bit botched. I said something to the effect of  “great things come in small packages.” Sonoma looked at me quizzically and told me she “didn’t want to come in a package” but wanted to just “get along” with everyone. After I encouraged Sonoma to talk to her teachers and reaffirmed how truly wonderful she is, I retreated to my bedroom and began whispering about it with my husband. The debate began.

I was never popular in school. I was labelled Dork-O’Rourke (O’Rourke being my maiden name) and still remain a nerd in many aspects. It became worse in high school. Well over fifteen years and countless hours of self-introspection later, I’m so very okay with who I am. I can say with ungarnished honesty that I am glad high school was not the highlight of my life. I am happy I didn’t follow a herd mentality. Undoubtedly, some of the friction I faced helped to shape me into a person who is unique in my perception of things, to shape my voraciously competitive spirit, and to mold me into an individual who is sensitive to others. The strife that I faced was truly a boot camp for my sensitivity, helping me to shed my victim skin, and metamorphosis into a strong soul. All that said though, I’d like my daughters to avoid many of the struggles I endured.

In direct opposition to my humble experience, my husband was always popular. He excelled in sports, attended all the parties, threw the best parties (according to local legend), and was one of the last ones to leave the party. He had and continues to have a close group of loyal, lifelong friends with whom he grew up with. My husband has unabashed confidence and a fiery strong will. To him, words from his critics and quips from naysayers are like water off a duck’s back. I, on the other hand, always had trouble sloughing the harsh words of others off. At times, I envy my husband’s self-assurance and his refusal to overthink each step of the way. He often plods forward where I stumble over my own trepidacious feet.

I realize it’s all a trade-off and there are benefits of each experience but I struggle with what the right answers are. This is just such a hard topic and I ponder how so many other parents deal with it.

When it comes to parenting, my worst preoccupation is that I just don’t want to make crucial mistakes. I wholeheartedly want to give all three of my daughters the best answers, the best choices, and the best direction. I’d like to take the best of my husband and the best of myself and offer it to them so that they can become their best selves and aspire big-time. I want the world to be kind to my children. Although I don’t intend to ruin my children by making their lives easy, I also don’t want to watch them struggle.

I can’t help but think of that scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall when Alvy walks up to the fashionable, smiling young couple on the city sidewalk and asks them how they account for their happiness. The young, trendy woman replies, “I am very shallow and empty, and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say. ” Her attractive male counterpart adds, “I am exactly the same way.” Perhaps being too sensitive and too aware of the world around you, adversely effects your happiness. Maybe ignorance, and insensitivity,are often bliss.

I also wonder whether this is actually an issue of my daughter’s feelings or my feelings. I can’t help but feel that maybe I am the one who is too sensitive on the matter entirely. I do not want to clout this matter with all of my own magnified issues of the past. Am I making this too big a deal? Maybe this moment is more pivotal for me than it is for her?

I intend to go speak with her teachers. From a positive perspective, she seemed very enthusiastic about going to school and spoke about how much she enjoys her time with her other friends in the class. Let me know your thoughts. I am interested to hear your strategies and the lessons that you have learned and insight you may have. Input on this subject is very much appreciated!

(*and please don’t write me about yanking anyone’s hair – it is an expression and not an intention – I’m not an aggressive person or a hair-puller by any means.)