It’s all over the news again. This time, a 13 year old girl murdered by college students she met on an online app called Kik. A mother’s worst nightmare. The college students painted as “good, smart kids” with everything going for them. The story brings up so many questions and makes the task of keeping our kids safe online seem virtually impossible.
What would motivate these students to commit murder? Why on earth would a 13 year old sneak out of the house in the middle of the night to meet someone she only knew online? Even if she considered him her boyfriend- how could a 13 year old have an 18 year old boyfriend without her parents knowing? Could her parents have done anything differently?
My husband and I talk hypothetical situations like this all the time, especially now that we have a baby girl due this summer. I think back at all of the precarious situations I put myself in over the years and that scares me. In every news headline I can see myself or my own kids.
So how do we keep kids safe online in today’s increasingly digital world?
Honestly, I’m still figuring it out. That’s how motherhood works. You prepare your kids and then you have to hope and trust them to use what you taught them to make good decisions. If they choose to make a bad decision, you hope they have the opportunity to learn from it.
I could sit here behind my keyboard, the mom of 6 & 4 year old boys, and preach how children shouldn’t have smart phones or their own computers. How kids shouldn’t be on Facebook or YouTube, or any social media for that matter, until well past the minimum age of 13.
I could dole out advice about how parents need to watch and monitor every single move their children make online by using screen mirroring to have every text sent to their parents device. I can even type how computers and video games should be used in open family areas and not behind closed bedroom doors.
You already know that. You’ve heard all of that advice before.
Yet I still read stories in the news, like this story of Breck Bednar, about parents who do everything right, whose kids still sneak out and end up murdered by online predators that systematically groomed them and turned them against their parents.
How do you know that and still raise your kids to believe in the good in the world? How do you protect them and teach them to be vigilant without ending up a cynical asshole? Because if there’s one thing I do know about life — we can only get through it together. Sometimes you have to let down your guard and let people in. You have to open up to people you don’t know all that well, to become true friends with them. Ultimately, there will come a time when you need to be able to trust your kids and their friends to make good decisions.
I know that’s not what you want to hear. I know you want a checklist of things you can do to protect your kids from every possible calamity. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist, because that’s not how life works. Knowing that makes our jobs as mothers even harder.
Still, we can do everything in our power to set them up for success and keep them safe online.
It starts with a close, supportive family
That will look different for everyone. I like to think it means you know you can count on your family when you need them. You enjoy spending time together. You talk to each other and don’t exist like a bunch of ships passing in the night. Your family name means something to you and you instill those values in your kids from an early age. Maybe it’s by telling them stories. Or just talking about what’s important to you and why around a family dinner table.
You get to build your own family and it can stand for whatever you want it to. Keeping kids safe online shouldn’t be any different than keeping them safe in the offline world. It involves a lot of talking and examples, a lot of repetition and conversation. A lot of preparation and root building. Then a lot of trust to let them spread their wings and soar.
Of course it also involves setting a good example
Why oh why does it always come back to modeling? I spend a lot of time online and my husband doesn’t know whether I’m working or just slacking off scrolling through Facebook. I talk to him about articles I see online, like parents probably talked about things they read in the paper or saw on TV. He says the kids will see me doing it and think it’s ok. He has a point. But truthfully, a lot of the time I’m on the computer or my phone I’m actually working.
They also see him come home from work and watch You Tube videos until dinner time on his tablet. He thinks that’s ok because he doesn’t watch TV anymore. I argue it’s the same. In fact, I’m more afraid of YouTube than any other online channel right now.
Right now, the best solution to me seems to be open and honest. My kids hate that I’m on the computer and phone a lot. I can be upfront with them about trying to cut back. I can set limits for myself and use a timer. I can try harder to be more present, but still get my work done. It might mean less mindless Facebook scrolling- but is that really a bad thing?
Trust or constant vigilance?
My husband and I fundamentally disagree on this. He may think I’m naive and that my kids have me conned, but I’m realistic enough to know that no matter how much I monitor and pay attention, they are still going to push the boundaries and find ways around the rules.
No matter how much my mom trusted me and gave me freedom as a teenager (midnight curfew because I had a junior driver’s license), I still pushed the limits and stayed out too late talking at the park with my boyfriend. (Yes I ultimately got in trouble for that.)
If you turn your back for one second, they will seize the opportunity to sneak the piece of candy. They’ll get into the absolute highest cabinet and find your hidden stash of sweets. They’ll pick the lock on the cupboard.
They’ll grow up, and even though they are a straight A student with everything going for them, they’ll tell you they are sleeping over at their friend’s house when really they are going to camp out in a field, drink orange flavored vodka straight from the bottle to impress a boy, and end up puking in a big old patch of poison ivy. Then their friends’ parents will think THEY are the bad influence- even though they didn’t plan the party or buy the alcohol.
So how does a family find the balance between trust and vigilance?
- With all of that said, here are a few things I do, that I’m hoping will make a difference.
Exposing them to age appropriate content, as best I can. Common Sense Media is my biggest resource. It explains why most Disney movies aren’t actually appropriate developmentally until kids are 6-8 years old. I don’t always adhere strictly to the guidelines, but it gives me a perspective that I can share with relatives who might choose to let my kids watch whatever they want.
- Talking openly with my kids about why I won’t let them watch adult or inappropriate things. Sometimes, we bend the rules and let them watch certain things like the Avengers (it’s PG-13, eek!). My husband watches first, or with them, so we can talk about any issues that come up.
- Some shows are off limits, like SpongeBob, and the kids know it. When a relative suggests putting it on, my kids tell them they aren’t allowed to see it. I think this is because I’m constantly reinforcing with them that some things are for older kids and luckily they understand and cooperate.
- It’s about balance and using your judgement, and talking with kids about why you decide to let them see some things, but not others, helps model that for them.
- My kids don’t use You Tube. I’m pretty adamant about that. Did you know that perverted adults dub over the voices of kid shows with inappropriate and sexual commentary? As an adult, it’s sometimes hilarious. But for that reason my kids do not have unlimited access to YouTube.
- They do have Leap Search on their tablets and they have somehow found Minecraft Music Videos (some of which aren’t appropriate) through the Kideos channel. The best we can do is monitor what they see and occasionally turn off their wifi access to try to keep them from forming a daily habit. After a few days of begging, they start to forget about the tablets and find other ways to occupy their time.
I know as they grow up, we’ll face new challenges. Just because they don’t have a smartphone, doesn’t mean their friends won’t show them inappropriate things at school. At some point, we’ll have to have a discussion about, gasp, porn and what to do if they stumble across it online.
Unfortunately, keeping our kids safe online involves more than a checklist or a few tips that we execute. It will require both vigilance and trust. It will involve open communication, with our kids and maybe even with their friends’ parents. It will require us to educate our kids to speak up to protect their friends if it’s necessary. And it will require solutions and ideas we haven’t even thought of yet.
We are in new territory as parents, but we’ll figure it out together.
I hope this post gives you something to think about when it comes to keeping your kids safe online. I’d love to hear your thoughts and the safeguards you’re putting in place. Come join the conversation on my Facebook page, or tweet me.