A lot of buzz happening this week in the papers and on line revolving around the monitoring of teens on line activities. First there was this article on talking to teens about the internet and then yesterday this piece in the Times about the suicide of a 12 year old girl that may have been prompted in part by cyber-bullying.
The basic premise is that there are too many ways for kids to get into trouble on line and that it is almost impossible for parents to keep up with all the latest social media trends. The solution? Monitor your kids on line activity until they “prove ” they are trustworthy. Read their texts. Periodically take away their phones. Access their online accounts and their computer history.
Here’s the problem. Spying on someone is a sure fire way to get them NOT to trust you. It is, however, a great way to motivate them to get better at sneaking around, going behind your back and finding ways around the rules. Even some schools, like this one in California, want to monitor kids public social media posts. They say this will help curb bullying and inappropriate use of social media.
I wonder what adults would think if the same measures were imposed on them?
The first time mother of 12 year old Rebecca Sedgwick found out about the on line bullying of her daughter, she responded by taking away Rebecca’s cell phone and shutting down her Facebook page. Eventually, after switching schools and seeming to feel better, Rebecca got her phone back. And her mother had no clue that anything was amiss. She even speculated after her daughter’s death that maybe Rebecca didn’t let on that anything was wrong because she didn’t want her cell phone taken away again.
I am in no way blaming Rebecca’s mother for her death. I believe that there were many issues at play, cyber-bullying being but one of them. But this tragedy does speak to a couple of issues regarding kids’ on line activity and parents seeming inability to deal with it.
First, why punish your child for being bullied? I’m sure that Rebecca’s mom thought she was protecting her daughter, but from Rebecca’s point of view, she was the one who wound up with no internet access and no social media; not those doing the bullying. Second, it seems to me that the answer to all of this is not spying, but communicating. Why are parents so reluctant to engage in substantive discourse with their kids? Instead they preach and dictate and wonder why their children don’t listen. Would you?
The conversation should start when the kids are young. Before they want a Facebook page, an Instagram account or are tempted to dive into the melee that is ask.fm or other similar sites. Talk to your kids about your concerns. In my experience parents often fail to do this; they either assume the kid already knows or conversely that they won’t understand. As a result the rules laid out appear arbitrary or part of a parental power trip. (And if you can’t come up with a better reason for a rule than ‘because I said so’, then it might be a good idea to re-think it.)
Public school teachers respond to my call for better communication between parents and children by saying it is inherently flawed due to the number of parents who have no interest in communicating with their kids. And they have a point, so I will amend. Ideally communication is established early between parent and child and that’s how trust is built. However, it can also be any other adult in a place of respect in a child’s life. Notice I said “respect” and not “authority”. Perhaps there is another relative, or family friend, or pastor or teacher with whom the child has a good relationship who can take on the role of mentor & guide in this regard.
You will not ever gain a person’s trust, no matter their age, by spying on them. The only way to build trust is by trusting. You must pave a path of open communication and then be the example. You want your kids to trust you? Trust them first and be trustworthy. Know that mistakes will be made but that if there is no fear of retribution (meaning the kid doesn’t fear your wrath which might include confiscation of their computer or phone) a child is far more likely to come forward and admit their mistakes or discuss their problems.
My kids are still relatively young at age 13 and 9, so I am speaking from the point of view of someone in the process. So far, so good. I don’t monitor their on line activity and I know they are aware of the types of negative things that can go on in social media sites. In fact, I’ve talked with them about both articles to which I linked above, and asked their opinions. They know that I trust them and also that trust, once broken, is very hard to regain.
Trust is a two way street and I know that spying – monitoring – is a sure way to destroy it.
I’ll take my chances with communication, every time.