Maren’s younger daughter, then age 13, was communicating online with an individual in his 30s, claiming to be a teenager. Maren discovered this when she walked into the house one afternoon and found her daughter Skyping with the man.
“What happened when you walked in?” I asked. I hardly knew this mom, but she’d reached out to me to share her story with hopes of helping other families.
“She closed her laptop, but I started asking questions,” Maren said. “She tried to say it was a kid from her school, but her demeanor gave her away. She tried to tell us he was a teenager from school. But he wasn’t. Then she said he was 19.”
“And?” I asked.
“I was upset my 13-year-old was talking to a 19-year-old, but then, when she showed me his picture [on his chat app profile], I realized he was closer to 30.”
“So then?” I asked.
“We started investigating and pulling up her deleted conversations.”
“Was she fighting you on this?” I asked.
“Very much so. Good thing my husband’s an IT guy,” Maren said, describing what they learned. “They started talking on a chat program, then moved to Skype.”
We sat there in the coffee shop for a minute, just two moms, shaking our heads, looking straight at each other, saying nothing.
Earlier, she’d explained that, when it comes to social media and technology, particularly with her kids, she and her husband, an IT professional, have always been proactive and conservative. They’ve set limits. They’ve employed usage controls and tracking apps on their kids’ phones. They’ve spoken frequently about the dangers of interacting with strangers online. They’ve tried to limit their kids’ unsupervised time on devices at home. They’ve even launched a support group in the community, educating other parents about the dangers of online predators.
“So,” I asked, “did you ever follow up with the 30-year-old guy?”
“The police investigated,” Maren said, “and did a forensic dump of her phone. Sadly, they said the case paled in comparison to the truly horrific cyber cases they were dealing with — that shocked me.”
She described how the police offered to follow up with the individual. “They were like, …’if you want us to we will, but you caught it early and your kid is safe…’ So we didn’t do anything except talk to our daughter.”
Maren described how she and her husband, until that point, believed they’d taken all the right measures to prevent this very situation.
“And yet it still happened,” she said.
Then, she described another issue involving her older daughter, a high schooler.
“She was getting harassed by a boy online for not engaging in his advances. At one point, he told her he’d kill himself if she didn’t stop ignoring his texts — and that she’d be responsible,” Maren said of her daughter. Fortunately, she also informed her parents.
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“I hated having to make the call, but I contacted the police and informed them of the threats. I asked the cops to go to his house and do a well-check.”
The boy ended up being okay, and his parents were made aware of the situation, but the call to the police launched a brand new set of issues. Maren’s older daughter was then criticized by friends — and strangers — for having a parent who called the cops.
Soon thereafter, Maren, looking through her older daughter’s phone, discovered that she was actively engaged in a group chat that was cyberbullying another student. The conversation, Maren discovered, included verbal attacks and insults.
“I was horrified by the comments. By the language. By my child. It was…unbelievable,” Maren said. “I wondered, ‘What are we doing wrong as parents? How could we allow something like this to happen?'”
“What did you do when you discovered the group chat?” I asked.
“We had a serious talk with our daughter. I have to admit I was beside myself. I said, ‘What do you think this does to someone, reading what you’ve written? This isn’t you. This isn’t right. How do you think that person receives all these messages?’ I can’t say I delivered the message calmly.”
“And what was your daughter’s reaction?” I asked.
“She was sobbing,” Maren said, simulating the familiar signs of an ugly cry, tear-swiping and backhand snot-wiping. “When it finally hit her, she was beside herself.”
“That’s good,” I offered. “We want our kids to know empathy. It sounds like you broke through to her?”
“Well, I hope so,” Maren said, “But then it got worse. I ended up calling the principal after discovering my daughter’s cyberbullying. I thought the school should be aware of what was happening with all the kids involved. Two of them were suspended. And this all got me thinking: This was the third time that I was the one contacting an authority about online struggles involving my kids. And I wondered: Are all these issues valid? As a parent, am I going to get the reputation as one of THOSE parents? Are the authorities going to wonder what the hell is going on in our household?
“What I want to tell you is that this is happening everywhere,” Maren said, pushing away her empty cup, “and parents just aren’t equipped to handle it. It’s constant. My husband and I are trying so hard to do the right thing. We’re both educated. We’re both actively employed. We have the resources to supervise and engage with our kids. We talk to them about why all these issues are bad. And yet it’s still happening. I can’t even imagine how a single parent deals with this. Sometimes, I’m really not sure how to do this right.”
I asked Maren what her goal was in speaking to me. “What’s the action you’re hoping to see?”
“Honestly, I’m not even sure,” she said, “but something has to change.”
Missing in all this constant social media activity, I think, are opportunities to process everything. When do kids ever decompress, and really THINK about what they’re doing with their phones…or how their behavior impacts others?
I have to wonder: Where and when do kids receive healthy opportunities to discuss and process social media engagement?
Consider a typical teenager’s day:
- Wake up with the alarm on the phone. Check social media.
- Get to school, where, in my town, phones are forbidden in the classrooms up to middle school but not at the high school level, where kids are encouraged to use their devices responsibly. The rule, as I understand it, is, “You can have your phone as long as it’s not disrupting anyone.” So if 16-year-old can text or check a chat app silently at her seat in the back of the room, what’s stopping her?
- a) After school activity, or
b) Connect with friends using phones and apps as tools, or
c) Go home and watch others’ activities unfold on social media
- Eat. Homework/Work. Bed. Phone is never far away.
- Start over.
Where in that day is the time to learn about, deconstruct, or evaluate social media usage and behavior?
During a rushed breakfast?
During dinner with the parents?
Just before heading to bed?
Where are the opportunities to sit down with a child and say, “Hey, who’ve you been chatting with? What’s the latest on Instagram?”
Kids crave, need and deserve privacy and independence. We’ve all been there. Life skills aren’t acquired if we’re spoon feeding them until they’re launched. But when we hand our kids these powerful devices — without opportunities to evaluate, assess or process their use — what are we really doing?
We’d never leave a set of car keys on the table and assume they’ll figure out how to drive.
We’d never hand over a chainsaw and simply pop in some earplugs.
Kids also crave, need and deserve our guidance.
So why aren’t we creating more opportunities and architecture to help kids manage social media and smartphones? What are the ways that work, and what more can we be doing?