Your Child’s Secret Life Online: 7 Ways to Manage It as a Parent

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Your teen needed a laptop for school, so you bought it. He needed a phone to keep in touch with you, so after a half-hour argument with him at the wireless store, a “phone” became an iPhone 6. He has an iPad Air because, after you told him it wasn’t in the budget, he spent the weekend with his dad, and voila! He has an iPad.

Now, every time you look at your son, he has a screen in front of his face, barely audible text notifications going off at all hours and he’s on social media sites you’ve never heard of. Suddenly, his use of technology has gone past school work and into a strange kind of secrecy.

I believe the most important thing you can do is open up regular dialogue about your child’s online experiences and approach it with genuine, open curiosity.

Technology is empowering and necessary for kids and for parents. But the longer I work with families in my practice, the more I see technology becoming problematic for them. Think about your child’s smart phone. It’s a very complex device that can be used for good or bad. It’s a communication tool and a wonderful research and study tool. For the kid who struggles to focus on homework, however, it’s a chronic distraction machine—an ADD machine, if you will. It’s a camera and video camera that can broadcast your child’s mistakes and poor choices to the world in seconds. It’s a weapon for bullying and a source of anxiety for kids who are bullied. It’s a reason your son doesn’t get enough sleep at night. It’s a pornography machine at the touch of the wrong link. It’s a device that can expose your young child to things you don’t want her to see. Ever.

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How are your kids using technology? Do you know what they’re looking at when they’re curled up on the sofa for five hours with their phones six inches from their face? When you ask them who they’re talking to online, do you get a one-word, snippy answer, if any answer at all? It’s tricky territory for parents. Your teen knows more about the online world than you probably ever will, and it can quickly become another way for your child to behave defiantly with you. So how do you even talk to your child about their online life, interests and safety?

Immobilized Parents: “I don’t know what to do about it, so I’ll do nothing.”

Although they may be wizards with setting up devices and finding cool apps, most kids do not have the emotional intelligence to be able to manage and understand everything they’re seeing online. That’s why parents need to be involved.

Increasingly, though, I see parents becoming immobilized around their kids’ use of technology. They don’t know what to do or where to start, so they do nothing. It’s normal for parents to feel “frozen” and helpless about the online world of their child.

I met a parent recently who had discovered her young son had been watching videos online of people playing Russian Roulette. She was lucky. Her son brought up the subject, instead of keeping it to himself, because he was disturbed by what he saw. Mom felt immobilized. What should she do? Take his phone away? Restrict access? Should she talk to him about what else he’s watching online? Without a clear option, should she do nothing?

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Remaining immobilized around your child’s technology use isn’t effective or empowering for you as a parent, and it doesn’t help your child. I believe the most important thing you can do is open up regular dialogue about your child’s online experiences and approach it with genuine, open curiosity. Many kids remain secretive about what they’re doing and seeing online because:

  • Technology is a tether to their social life; they are very socially focused and protective of their right to be.
  • They don’t want you in their business, and the secrecy is a form of defiance
  • They’re in over their heads as far as what they’re seeing or engaging in online and don’t know how to talk about it. I remember an 11-year-old client who started looking at pornography sites on his phone and eventually clicked on particularly disturbing, violent porn that gave him nightmares. He wanted to talk about the problem but he was ashamed and afraid.

This is why it’s important for parents to engage with their kids about what’s happening online for them. It shouldn’t be a secret in the home. Here are some ways for parents to manage their child’s online life and open dialogue about it that I’ve found to be effective.

7 Ways to Manage Your Child’s Online Life

  1. Set large boundaries early. If you have younger children between the ages of 5 and 8, consider setting large boundaries around your own smartphone or tablet. I do this with my own kids. My wife and I make the limit very clear: “You cannot touch Daddy’s iPhone. If you want to see my pictures on the phone, you have to ask first.” I do this because I only want them to be exposed to what’s appropriate for them at that age. And, frankly, it’s just easier for me at this stage. I minimize the risk of them getting on the web and going down some scary road by setting one large, simple limit and staying consistent with it.For example, I do this a lot in my practice. Use the words, “Show me.” I’m at an age where I can very clearly remember what it was like to be 15, but I’m far enough away from it to ask a question that’s fairly innocent. So if I want to know what kind of social media platforms a teen is engaging in, I’ll simply say, “Hey, what’s SnapChat about? Can you show me?” It’s a simple question, and more often than not, kids will show you the app on their phone, and you can start a conversation about it. You’re not asking to see specific content and pry into your child’s privacy. You’re simply asking about the app. And you can see where your child is comfortable and uncomfortable. If you feel empowered to be truly curious, you will learn something and connect with your child. It’s no longer a big secret. I think this is essential when it comes to the online world. If you don’t ask questions, how else will you learn?
  2. Ask your child questions about their online experience with no judgment. Ask when you can do so with openness and genuine curiosity, not when you’re feeling testy or angry. Take the stance that “No one’s in trouble here.”
  3. Ask your teen what other kids are doing. I use this question to get kids to open up about drug use among their peers: “What kinds of drugs are you seeing kids use?” You can use a similar question about how “other kids” use social media or online chat: “I’m curious. What kinds of social media apps are other kids using? Are they chatting online these days? How?” Again, if you can remain open and curious, this is an opportunity for your child to talk about what’s happening for them online, through the example of “other kids.”
  4. Ask your teen: “Have you ever seen anything online that disturbed you?” As parents, we’ve all encountered things online that made us hit the back button or the home button and get out of it. Your teen has likely done the same thing and may be more interested in talking about it than you think. Ask the question and talk about a personal example of something you found disturbing. It normalizes the experience and makes it less of a secret.
  5. Speak with like-minded parents. You are not the only parent who wishes their child would engage with them half as much as they do their devices. Ask parents whom you trust, “How are you managing phones in your family?” You’re likely to get some good tips on managing technology. All you have to do is ask.
  6. Establish text-free times for everyone in your home. Model appropriate use of technology. Set aside time each day for no texting, Facebook-checking or email sending. And follow it as parents. Put down your iPad. Use that time to talk about how your kids’ days went.
  7. Replace online time with family time. Limits around technology use are a lot easier to enforce if you replace what you’re taking away with something that benefits everyone. Plan a technology-free night as a family. No phones, no Instagram, no texting. Go to a movie or to the beach…and talk.

There’s nothing more powerful than parental influence in a child’s life. But technology holds a seductive type of power for adults and kids that can overwhelm parental influence without us even being aware of it. The antidote to this can be one or two sincere questions that you ask your child and a willingness and courage to allow for whatever the answer is.

 

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Comments (9)
  • Sabrina
    Not even sure where to start. Electronics have been a problem for our daughter since she was handed a laptop, by her school, in 5th grade. We would set a rule, “laptop must be left in kitchen, in backpack, as soon as homework is done. Never allowedMore in room.” We would find her in the closet watching youtube in the middle of the night. We would take away, store in our bedroom, and then be taking to school midday the next day, once we forgot to get in her backpack the next morning. As she got older, we tried to only allow cellphones without “smart technology,” but schools seemed to expect kids to have texting/ email and other capabilities on their phones. By 16 she finally had an iphone 5s. We installed software to track or lock out social media, but discovered friends would bring her their old devices to get around what was locked on her phone. We have now taken away her laptop, her cell phone, and found and taken away three more devices that have shown up in our home. We have changed network passwords, to try to control the # of devises allowed on our ip address, but she ends up uncovering the password when she has to use her computer for school work. Honestly, social media has become the biggest nightmare in our home! Our now 17 year old daughter (same one) has set up fake instagram accounts (Finsta) where she has created a life that does not exist. Over the past 7 months she has written such elaborate tales, her friends believe she is in dire straits in her home. She even has one friends parent willing to help her escape this “awful environment” the day she turns 18. Of course to our face she is sweet as pie! Her online persona, and her home persona are two different people. She has been diagnosed as bipolar; of course her friends, and the parent who is offering her a place to run, have no idea. We as parents feel trapped in this world. Unsure exactly how to get through to this other parent. Once she turns 18, I cant stop her from leaving. Im afraid once she messes up this other families life, she my be on the street. Right now she has so much opportunity, with college right around the corner. She wants so much to be in control that she will give it all away totey to get so e co trol by threteni g to leave. We finally pulled her from school, because she had too many bad influencesthere. I will now have to watch her do her senior year online. Unfortunately she is still treatening to leave the day she turns 18. I wont allow her to take the computer, so she just might not graduate.
  • Kieran
    My 12yo daughter has been having online conversations with a boy that used to go to school with her but now lives out of state. While many of the conversations they have are around the online games they play together, a number of them have gotten crude and sexual,More nearly all of them started by the boy. When I first noticed this, I had a conversation with my daughter, telling her that's not the way a boy should be talking to a girl and that she needed to tell him to knock it off or stop talking with him. My daughter didn't see what the big deal was and my wife just discovered they are still chatting and the discussions are getting more sexually crude. I know that this is the age when kids start to use vulgarities to test boundaries and such, but I really feel they are overstepping here. Another issue is, while I have taken my daughter's phone away due to issues with her grades, she still needs to use the computer for homework, which she then uses to connect to her friends. Help!!!!
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I understand your concern around the conversations that your daughter is having online, and I’m glad that you are here sharing your experiences. Setting expectations around online conduct is an important aspect of managing your child’s behavior online. It’s quite common that your daughter might not agree withMore your expectations, or see why they are important. This is mainly due to her developmental level; as a 12 year old, she’s probably not going to be able to see her behavior through an adult perspective. The thing is, she doesn’t have to agree with your rules or see why they are important. She needs to find a way to follow them, however, or face the consequences. At this point, it might be helpful to have a problem-solving conversation about what she will do to follow the rules around online conduct. If you are not already doing so, I also encourage you to have your daughter use the computer in a public area of the house, as well as more closely supervising and monitoring her when she is using it. Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • Time will tell
    Technology is stealing away the lives of our children. Please encourage your kids to have real life social interaction and not rely on screens. You have to limit this technology hard. My adult son has massive social anxiety because of this. Now he an adult and not under our control.
  • pixi30

    This is a wonderful article. I have a 13 year old just starting out with the technology that we, as adults have been using for years. I am hoping to make the best possible choices as far as boundaries and accountability for my son, so this article makes it easier to navigate.

    Thank you!

  • Elle59
    #heyponcha, that is similar to my experience with my 15 y/o daughter. Her friends locally are fewer each year and rarely do I hear the same name more than 2 months before they are "out." I hear that only online does she connect with people. I've tried to explain thatMore they could be 60 y/o men, ex-convicts, who knows? She is very good about protecting her privacy, I've googled her name, searched apps I know she maintains a profile. Not sure if that's a good thing, but it can't be entirely bad. Ask.fm is the worst, IMHO. I have also declared "consequences" for failing to prepare for exams or missed homework, resulting in new behavior she describes as adding to her "depression" and giving her new "anxiety." I once put her elec in e-jail for 2 weeks, and she adapted, simply waited out the time. Starting fall, I intend to make all electronics off limits from 6pm. Period, no exceptions. Eat dinner, help with cleanup, shower and do her hair, do homework, study or read, plenty of activity to get done until 10pm bedtime. I have only basic cable, but Hulu and Netflix are available unless I have to confiscate the remote. That's my plan.
  • heyponcha

    Wanted to see if I could get any feedback regarding technology. I have a 15 year old son that has had multiple instances where he has abused technology. This is on a computer, phone, game, and tablet. We are constantly having to tighten parental controls on all of our devices, set passwords, and install software that tracks what he does. We have taken technology away, had him earn things back, and our next step is to give his game away as opposed to returning it to him. Kids now have so many ways of manipulating technology that it makes it difficult for a parent to keep them accountable. We talk to him and try to make him understand that we want him to have the freedoms of a phone and computer – but every time he is given these freedoms he abuses them (deleted messages, nude photos (GF), porn). We get the constant excuse that “everyone looks at (porn) or does these types of things” – “I’m just being a normal kid”. We try to instill some type of respect that he needs to have for himself, his parents, and friends (girlfriends) – but he just see’s it as us trying to control his life. I know it is hard at times for our teens to manage the temptation of so many things they can access through technology. If you have any suggestions on managing technology back into this situation it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

    • Darlene EP

      heyponcha 

      It sounds like you have really

      been on top of establishing what is and is not okay regarding technology usage

      with your son. You have also been holding him accountable when you find that he

      is not meeting your expectations. You really are doing what you can here.

      Unfortunately, doing everything you can does not ensure that your son will make

      the right choice. As long as you continue to be consistent with giving http://www.empoweringparents.com/Consequences-Dont-Work-for-My-Teen-Here-Why-and-How-to-Fix-It.php and continue to discuss what he can do to resist temptation,

      you are managing what you can control in the situation. Beyond that, your son

      is the only one that can make the right choice. I know this is a frustrating

      situation. We appreciate you reaching out to us for guidance. Take care.

    • Tamo

      We also have a 15 yr old son that cannot keep any of his technological devices like he'd like because we have to keep taking them away.

      He abuses them also but mostly linked to drugs and substance abuse but also always deleting texts so we can't see.

      Social media is so dangerous for our son due to his self-destructive behaviors.

      He is very angry and defiant about us controlling his social media and always asking questions. He claims he will just use others iPhones and iPads etc. We can't control that but we can control social media in our home.

      He also tells us we shouldn't be in "his business!" It's a constant battle we are very weary of fighting. Would love to hear any advice from parents with same experiences too. Sometimes I wished the earth would just open up and swallow all forms of social media. It's hurting so many of our teens!

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