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Parents, Get a Clue: What Teens are Really Doing Online Plus: Tips on How to Talk to Your Teen about Internet Safety

by Elisabeth Wilkins, Empowering Parents Editor
Parents, Get a Clue: What Teens are Really Doing Online Plus: Tips on How to Talk to Your Teen about Internet Safety

Amber* got onto Facebook when she was 12. “It was easy," she said with a shrug. "All you have to do is lie about your age and give them your email address.” The teen, who is now 15, said, “I guess I accepted a lot of ‘Friends’ to my list without really knowing who they were.” On social networking sites, the goal is to acquire as many “friends” as possible, a virtual popularity contest that can add up to a whole lot of unknowns. That’s how “Mike,” a man posing as a teen-ager, started messaging Amber. Eventually, he suggested they meet, but before that rendezvous could happen, it emerged that Mike was really a 28-year-old delivery man from a nearby town. Amber had the sense to stop messaging him and remove him from her Friends List, but many other teens and pre-teens haven’t been so fortunate. In Texas, a lawsuit was brought against Myspace by the parents of a fourteen-year-old who was sexually assaulted by a man she met on the social networking site. The suit was dismissed in court, but the problem of how to protect teens online remains.

Dr. Cynthia Kaplan has been the program director of Adolescent Residential Services at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts for more than 15 years. She is also the co-author of the book, Helping Your Troubled Teen: Learn to Recognize, Understand, and Address the Destructive Behaviors of Today’s Teens. “Ten years ago, I used to see kids with profound psychiatric problems,” says Dr. Kaplan. “Now, on any given Monday, I see teenagers who’ve met someone over the Internet and run away. I get people coming into my office whose thirteen-year-old has been posing as an eighteen-year-old online, and invited someone back to her house. The parents wake up in the middle of the night to find a twenty-three-year old man walking into their daughter’s bedroom.”

“Teens don’t often think about the ‘cons’ of what they post, so you see them making mistakes publicly and permanently. I don’t think that teens realize the permanence of what they publish—it’s pretty impossible to take back.” —Anastasia Goodstein, author of Totally Wired

The Stranger in the Room
EmpoweringParents.com asked Lucy and Josh, two teens who are on both Facebook, how they would know if they were talking to an older person who was posing as a teen-ager. “You just know,” said Lucy. “It’s easy to tell.” “Yeah,” said Josh. “You just steer away from people who you don’t know, who aren’t on your list of friends.” The Norton Global Online Living Report, released earlier this year, reported some alarming results: 16 percent of kids and teens have been approached by strangers online, and 42 percent have been asked to share personal information over the Internet.

Are Lucy and Josh over-confident, or do they know what they’re talking about? Anastasia Goodstein, the author of
Totally Wired: What Your Teen is Really Doing Online” agreed with what they had to say—for the most part. “I think the whole stranger issue—it’s certainly out there, with predators as well as phishers or scammers.” Because teens don’t yet have a credit history, they are desirable targets for phishers and scammers, who break into their profiles and steal their identities, taking out credit cards and wracking up thousands of dollars worth of debt. Goodstein went on to say that identity thieves can “scrape” profiles with just a real first and last name and part of an address.

Most parents’ greatest fear when it comes to their kid's online activities is still the issue of predators. And the fear is real: “If girls put pictures of themselves up, predators are definitely zooming in on them. Teen agers need to be smart,” says Goodstein. “The good news is that most teens are smart. They don’t want to talk to adults; they don’t want to talk to some creepy 50-year-old guy. Actually, what law enforcement found is that only about five percent of kids engage in that type of contact [after being approached initially].” The teens and pre-teens to watch closely include kids who are not yet 14 and who are lying to be on Facebook—kids who often tend to be more naïve about people they meet online. Teens who are acting out in other ways—engaging in risky behavior, which may include using drugs and alcohol—should also be watched more carefully.

“These are the teens that are more likely to be vulnerable to advances—or who might even initiate a meeting with an online stranger,” says Goodstein. Most of those meetings happen after there have been a series of contacts and communications made. “It goes back to which kids are going to do this—it’s the same girl that’s going to lie about getting into a college frat party and push those limits.”

What Happens on the Internet, Stays on the Internet…and That’s Part of the Problem
Although the Internet may feel safe, anonymous and impermanent, actually the opposite is true. What teens don’t often realize is that what gets posted on the Internet, stays on the Internet. The online world for a teen is “Very much about confessing, talking about personal things to an invisible audience,” says Goodstein. “Who knows who it is, but everyone is in that confessional booth with their video camera. When people talk about the generation gap, they often talk about this sense of privacy. The younger generation, because they’ve grown up this way, is much more comfortable putting it out there. They’re creating their own sort of reality show about themselves on their sites.”

Since college recruiters and employers are routinely searching for profiles now before they say “yes” to applicants, a lapse in judgment can haunt teens for a long time to come. “Teens don’t often think about the cons of what they post, so you see them making mistakes publicly and permanently,” says Goodstein. “I don’t think that teens realize the permanence of what they publish—it’s pretty impossible to take back.”

While social networking sites are not inherently bad—they provide a place for teens to meet, keep in touch, and hang out, a sort of virtual mall or pizza joint—parents need to be aware of how they work. If not, says Dr. Kaplan, “The end result is that as a parent, I don’t know what my kid knows. We are already so far behind them it’s frightening. The best message is to talk to them proactively, before they join these sites.”

 Tips for Parents:

  • Begin conversations about Internet safety as soon as you allow your kids on the Internet. You can use block filtering and monitoring for kids age 6-9 to prevent them from going on to a porn site, for example. But once kids are 12, 13, or 14, they know how to get around “Net Nanny” type programs and turn them off, and how to change browser history, so you need to have those conversations—the sooner, the better.
  • Keep the computer in a central space in your house. (When your kids are working on something interesting, be sure to comment on that too.) “You need to understand the technology your child is using, and you need to set up ground rules,” says Dr. Kaplan. Night time is often where the planning of dangerous liaisons happens, when teens are online. “We probably see a kid a month here at McLean who has run away with someone they met online. The important thing is that none of this stuff—computers, cells, iphones—should be in their bedroom.” If you have a child who engages in risky behavior, insist on getting their passwords and “spot checking” their profiles. As a parent, you need to factor in your child’s personality and then decide how closely you will monitor their online activities.
  • One way to have a conversation about social networking sites: You can ask your teen to help you set up your profile. “They’ll roll their eyes and act like they can’t believe how dumb you are, but they’ll be secretly pleased that you know they’re good at it,” says Goodstein. Click on privacy settings together and make sure your kids know how to set their default settings from public to private. “If you go on Facebook and find that you or your teen has set your profile to ‘public,’ that’s a great teachable moment. Then you can have the conversation: that the college recruiter can find it, future employers can look at it, anyone can see your profile.” Be sure to talk about what’s appropriate to post, and what’s not.
  • People should never, under any circumstances, post personal information like social security numbers, telephone numbers or their address on a profile. This makes them easy targets for phishers, scammers and identity thieves.
  • Don’t ever share passwords with anyone: not best friends, boyfriends or girlfriends. There have been cases where the relationship has gone sour and people have gotten revenge through a Myspace or Facebook profile, by posing as the person with whom they have a grudge.
  • Let your kids know that the computer keeps a record of online exchanges and where they originate from on the hard drive—even though it looks as if the message “disappears.”  Tell your child that they should use the same language online that they would in face-to-face communication. They should never say anything rash or threatening because the emails and instant messages can be downloaded and the child can get into real trouble.
  • Teens need to know that they can’t assume everyone online is who they say they are. They should always report any inappropriate material or conversations immediately to their parents and to the social networking site.

Understand that while most of the activity that takes place on Facebook is harmless, many teens are using social networking sites as a place to fill a void, feel popular, and hook up with other users. If you find your child’s profile online, you need to talk with them immediately about  the possible consequences of posting their personal information and photos. Says Dr. Kaplan, “The whole idea here is to let the child know that the Internet is ‘public domain’ and that they do not have the privacy or anonymity they think they do.”

*Names of teens in this article have been changed.


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Elisabeth Wilkins is the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of one son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

READER'S COMMENTS

Great article. My teen aged boys both have computers in their rooms right now. I'm not sure if I'm going to move them out to the living room, but I will start checking on what they're doing.

Comment By : Dadof3Boys

I agree totally with obtaining your kid's passwords to access their myspace. My kids could only have a myspace if they gave me their passwords. I check them several times a week. I told them as long as the computer is in my home, I am ultimately responsible for what is going on on the computer. If they do not like the rule, they do not have to use the computer! Thanks for backing me up!!

Comment By : volley#1

Be aware too that your children can have secret sites on my space: they may have a site they show you, and one they don't. Also try bsafe software. It's a great tool and can notify you at work when your child enters inappropriate chat rooms.

Comment By : lyndasue

Good article. It's a fight every day with my daughter and I. She is only 12 and has no idea of the problems occurring. I just caught her swearing on her MSN title. She's of course grounded. I check her internet activities daily through cookies and I also make her open her MSN randomly so she never knows when. I disable her MSN before I go to work so she cannot go onto it until I am home. She gets so mad at me that she calls me yelling at me from home, while I'm at work. I just remind her who pays the bills.

Comment By : SEM

This is really important information. My daughter's identity was "scraped" from Myspace, we think. Someone took out three separate credit cards in her name. We didnt' find out until the bills started rolling in!

Comment By : LowtechMom

Thanks for this--I'm going to have my son help me set up a profile on Myspace tonight.

Comment By : Clueless

Read GENERATION MYSPACE by Candice M. Kelsey, tons on information.

Comment By : CB

help! what do you do when you find out your 14 yr girl has a myspace, refuses to give parents password or negotiate. they can make up any name & get one. i feel like the FBI. and when she refused to give me her password and became indignant of course she wound up on restriction. the computers are locked @ our home, but when she goes to grandparents to visit dad it's a free for all with no rules. i cant win

Comment By : lisa

My 10 year old had a myspace account a year ago that we found out about and had her cancel. The computer is in the dining room and we set her up with an email account that is kid-friendly and explained that she is not to use any other. A year later I am seeing "Blue Bet" and "Meebo"? Not sure what these are but I just found out that she has two new "friends", one is 17 and the other is 21 on Blue Bet. Can anyone tell me what these two sites are about? Thanks.

Comment By : Concerned Mom

Myspace has been an ongoing fight in our house. We have locked down our home computers, but our 16 yo son goes to the library. I have asked him to make his profile private, but he refuses. He won't give us his password. But with his site open as it is, I can check it and see some of what he is doing. I have read Myspace policy and have been able to get his site deleted several times. Unfortunately, he is getting smarter and smarter. Whatever happened to snail mail?

Comment By : exhaustedMOM

So what if you're just now realizing that your teen is crossing the line on these social sites, and refuses to provide their passwords so you can monitor? He is 16yo, and has a history of defying our boundaries anyway, and to be honest, I already have some fear of him exploding. But this issue is life threatening in my opinion, and I need to be able to get on that profile and fix it. In fact, he currently uses language on those sites that he'd never use in front of teachers or other people's parents, and I can't get him to stop doing it. I'm concerned that the people he wants to impress like coaches, future employers, etc. will see his facebook page and pass him by. When I tell him that, he acts like I'm crazy. I even caught him getting a phone number from someone on runescape last week. When I said, "you don't even know if they are who they say they are," he said, "Yeah, I know," like that was okay. Do I take his cell phone away? Do I cancel our internet (which I need for working from home)? Feeling a bit lost here.

Comment By : momofthree

* Dear momofthree: Since your son is engaging in risky behavior on the Internet, the experts I spoke with for this article agreed that it might be time to start monitoring him more actively. You can buy software that monitors his internet activity, and also his cell phone usage. I would recommend that you tell your son in advance that you are going to do this--honesty is the best policy with kids, I find, but it's up to each individual parent, of course. In the case of the cell phone, including texting and photos, you can actually tell him that you'll only check names of people who you don't know. You can also make up a list together of people you won't "spy" on. (Friends of his that you know, etc.) I hope this is helpful--good luck!

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

My 13 yr old daughter posted her cellphone number on her Myspace status! I had a male friend from work call her and act interested. It freaked her out enough that she never did it again. Evil, I know. But it worked.

Comment By : sunshine

My daughter met a boy at school. Both are 14. They are exchanging X-Rated messages via IM on Facebook. The boy is telling my daughter about the things he wants to do (which I cannot repeat here). I'm very concerned; what can I do about this? I know he is serious and my daughter is very vulnerable. She thinks she is in love with this low-life. I was thinking about sharing this information with his mom; is that a good idea? I'm very afraid that my daughter is heading down the wrong path.

Comment By : Concerned Dad

* To Concerned Dad: The Internet and Facebook can be very scary places these days, and it sounds like your daughter is making some poor decisions in her use. You cannot control what rules (if any) other parents place on their child’s use of Facebook, and other social media. It’s going to be most effective to focus on the area where you have the most control, which is your house rules surrounding Internet use. We recommend having a discussion with your daughter about the rules around Facebook, and having a problem-solving conversation with her about how she is going to follow them. You can let her know that because of her poor choices and breaking these rules that her Internet use is going to be more closely monitored and supervised until she can demonstrate that she can be more responsible with her use. You can also let her know that you are going to closely supervise any time spent with this boy in person. I am including links to some articles I think you might find helpful as you continue to address this. Take care.
Risky Teen Behavior: Can You Trust Your Child Again?
Does Your Child Have "Toxic" Friends? 6 Ways to Deal with the Wrong Crowd

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

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Related keywords:

adolescent behavior, teens, Myspace Safety, Internet Predator, disobedient children, The Total Transformation, James Lehman, Angry teenagers, child lying, child behavior problem

Responses to questions posted on EmpoweringParents.com are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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