The Real Me? – Our Kids and Their Online Lives

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From an early age our daughter knew she would get her first cell phone the summer before middle school, on her 11th birthday.  Sixth grade is traditionally the symbolic first step towards becoming a teenager, and leaving behind the indulgences of elementary school for the hard knocks of the middle grades seems a perfect atmosphere to experiment with more hazardous responsibilities.

Her mother and I agreed on three ground rules to start; non-negotiables we would enforce like British nannies in our respective homes.

  • No password protection
  • No deleting text messages (more emblematic than practical)
  • We can check her phone anytime – with or without consent

Our aim was to sear into her conscience the conviction that mom and dad are always watching and her online life is not something she can keep hidden. I’m especially sensitive to the dangers lurking around every technological corner; while friends and acquaintances have shared horror stories of what happens when kids and unsupervised electronics collide. My unease is made worse by the complexities inherent with divorced co-parenting.

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A November article in London’s The Guardian reinforced the necessity of what some consider our hardline approach. The piece’s value rests in showing a glimpse of the dangers with technology and the internet – in kids own words.

Cal, a 16 year old, who first went online at age nine and spends upwards of six hours per day there said,

“Parents need to know the dark side of the online world can’t be avoided – if they have teenage children, it is almost certainly already in their lives.”

Kushal, 17, when asked about online bullying said,

“Parents should make sure their child knows they can come to them for anything. They shouldn’t just tell then to turn off the screen or deactivate the account. They should guide them into confidently confronting the attack.”

Katie, a 16 year old, who by comparison is a part time internet user at only two hours per day says,

“Older men, people I’ve never spoken to, are always adding me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It has become normality”

Tom, a 15 year old from London who averages seven hours of screen time daily offers the most sobering thought,

The sort of stuff we do, boys my age, is go on pornographic websites. I could watch from two minutes to an hour a day. Does it affect the way I look at woman? Massively.

When asked what parents should do, “Never, ever buy your son or daughter anything electrical.”

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Perhaps the greatest weakness of any parent is the naivety we have about our children. We may become so blinded by their perceived innocence, unable to see beyond that toddler they once were, we delude ourselves by thinking they could ever do anything shameful. Unsurprisingly, our kids pick up on this misplaced trust and will use it in manipulative ways, working to throw us off any scent of possible wrongdoing. Or worse still they avoid approaching us with their problem altogether fearing our disappointment, anger, or inability to help.

Reading through this article I’m reminded of valuable leadership advice once offered by a former V.P. after I was promoted to my first management job. “When it comes to your people, Kyle – trust but verify.”  It’s a lesson equally suitable for parents.

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We want to trust our children, to believe in them because any lack of is a direct reflection on us – and frankly seems bad parenting. And we should trust our kids, but it must be trust that is appropriately placed and adequately earned. Offering too much too quickly and I provide an opportunity for my daughter to fashion her online life differently from the one she lives in the real world – just because I’m not looking over her shoulder. But where I feel many parents are tripped up is thinking this approach is somehow an indictment of her, when it’s actually how every aspect of the world operates. Trust is never freely given but earned.

This is where my former manager’s wisdom is so fitting, as parents we must recognize that only through time, experience, and most importantly evidence should our children cultivate deeper trust.  Offering our total confidence simply because they’re our children or somehow believing we’ve done a good job – and they would never do anything like that – is foolish and irresponsible.

My daughter and son will need to earn my trust over time; passing through stages where each successful completion affords them greater trust and more responsibility. There’s little doubt these steps may at times seem to them overly burdensome and terribly frustrating, but I think it’s crucial that we take an aggressive stance now else we risk both of them moving into their teenage years thinking, as one teen in the article so aptly described,

‘The real you is your second life, life on the Internet is your first life.”

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