We all know there are very real dangers waiting for teenagers online, yet most of us think those will never happen to our kids. Cyber-bullying? My 13-year-old son streaming adult content or sending the pictures of his groin to some girl he met on line just two hours ago? Nope, that’s not us. How about your daughter posting innocently looking pictures of herself wearing not much more than her long school socks and a t-shirt on Facebook or Instagram? Still not your problem? Unless you live somewhere with no access to the internet, you better read on.

The online world is a social realm for teens, even preteens these days. Their mobile is their diary, but unlike fifteen, twenty years ago, when the only diary we could possibly write had a pretty pink cover and a small padlock, now everyone has got access to it. Back then, we could only be judged by our mothers, who snooped inside the journal whenever they were picking washing from the floor of our room. Today it’s not quite the case.

The internet is used by teens to identify themselves and to experiment in a completely different light. What virtually none of the youngsters realize is the repercussions of the digital footprint they are creating today and the fact this stamp in the cyberspace will haunt them for years to come. In the days of instant gratification even adults, acting on impulse, forget this regularly, complaining about work colleagues or using swear words in our posts. If we don’t pay attention to what information about us is passed to the world and what picture of ourselves we are painting on the social canvas, how can we expect our kids to do so?

The internet is virtually the life of a teen of today. Just like adults, they want to be seen doing things, having things, living life. The need for it is embedded in our psyche and setting yourself free from this vicious circle of proving yourself to others is a struggle, no matter what age. When asked about the key qualities he would like to see in his 14 year old daughter, when she grows up, Shane Robinson, the CEO of Targeted Media Ltd  said: “I hope to raise a kid who doesn’t look for social approval from others. It won’t make you popular at school, you may be considered a weirdo, but at least you will be a weirdo on your terms”.

Confidence is the key to this puzzle. We need to build this into our kids from a young age. Lets not confuse this trait with arrogance. We are talking about a ground belief in core values and having balls to stick with it regardless of the situation they find themselves in.

It takes courage but that should come from understanding the reasons behind certain actions in the first place. Kids, unlike most adults, tend to be very logical. If we take cyber bulling as an example. It’s comparable to a real life bulling, except on line we are dealing with a situation that is magnified due to the scope of audience we may have. Kids who are on the receiving end may end up being introverts, and suffer with depression that in time may affect all areas of their life, because they didn’t have the confidence to speak up, share their problems with you, the parent, and stand up for themselves.

We can all blame society for the hardship it brings to being a parent in XXI century, but we can also try and create a microclimate in our own home. Make it a safe place encouraging kids to come back and share their life with you.

We can be their friends, but to gain this level of trust, we need to earn it. Unfortunately, to know the most intimate details of your kids life, it is going to take ten times more effort than if you were to be their peer. As cool and hip as you think you may be, you are still a “parent”, and that’s in itself uncool from their point of view. They still love you, they just don’t look up to you for advice.

teens online

When did all this happen?!

We get sucked in the spiral of our own problems. The cost of living is getting higher, parents paddle like mad to stay afloat and there is less time for kids than ever before. We cannot blame them if they turn to the internet for a bit of human interaction and reassurance. It becomes the hub for everything we really need: entertainment, instant gratification and friendships. The disturbing part about of it is the fact most parents have no idea what is really going on.

The majority of parents, because they didn’t grow up with the internet, are completely in the dark regarding their child’s online behavior. The fact is nearly 75 per cent of all teens hide their online activity from their parents, and it is not hard.

The internet evolves and teenagers keep up with it. Don’t ever underestimate the capabilities of your child; they have expanded beyond clearing the browser history a long time ago.

They can now utilize private browsing, hide their adult content access and whilst you are blissfully unaware, they can carry on their alternate life from the comfort of their second Facebook account, that you didn’t expect existed.

According to a recent study from McAfee, over 60 per cent of teens are confident in their ability to hide what they do online from their parents.

With a smartphone being an essential gadget in their pockets now, they are more likely to forget their homework and school books than they are to forget their mobile.

With not even half of the teens hiding their online behavior from their parents in 2010, we are now up to three quarters, according to McAfee studies.

Unfortunately, parents believe they are in control of what their children are sharing on line, who they are interacting with and what messages they are passing to their peers. It is a fact, however, that we don’t have a clue what is being passed through our kid’s phones and computers.

 

What’s the solution?

It’s our responsibility to protect them, and it extends beyond building walls and keeping them warm in winter. We cannot suffocate their social life, but just like teaching them table manners, we need to teach them basics of online do’s and don’ts and how to navigate through the online spaces without damaging their reputation or other people’s feelings:

- Remind them that online actions have real life consequences. It’s best done on examples.  Reiterate the point regularly, if you think your kids forgot about it. Don’t nag though, it gets you nowhere. Every time you hear about a scandal relating to a post on social network, make sure you get your child’s attention. Ask them about their opinion.

- Encourage them to adjust their settings to a narrower audience and to never add anyone they haven’t met in real life. Currently Facebook does not allow having “Followers” option (where your kids can expand their group of subscribers beyond 5000 friends) for anyone under 18, which I think is a wise move on their part. However, according to the recent changes, now anyone can send messages to your kids. Make sure you ask them to change those setting in Other > Edit Preferences.

- Make kids aware, that once they post something via social media, be it a photo or a status, they cannot take it back. They may argue that it can all be deleted, but an old version that may exist on other people’s computers, or even a screen shot, may circulate online and it will be impossible to remove it. Beyonce proved it beyond any doubt.

- Discourage kids from discussing sex online. Yes, it’s almost as hard as getting them to eat Brussels’ sprouts during Christmas dinner, but it’s important if you want to limit the chances of your child coming across an online predator or a pedophile.

- Explain to your kids what can be the side effects of being hacked, if you suspect they may store explicit pictures of themselves on their computers or phones. Use examples.

- Discourage them from using suggestive and explicit screen names, revealing their gender, age or location.

- Discourage your kids from using location-based applications on their mobiles (or in worst case scenario, suggest they should check-in whilst they are leaving). If there is someone who is after your child (call me paranoid, but it’s enough if it only happens once), they are giving those psychopaths literally direct access.

- Encourage online manners. You expect your kids to be polite offline; talk to them about being courteous online and via text as well. “Please” and “Thank you” may take another 2 seconds to type, but it can make all the difference.

- Last but definitely not least, use parental control software. There is a huge choice on the market and depending on your needs and your child’s age, software from very basic, to the spy grade is available.

The latest one that caught my attention was ABeanStalk, since it doesn’t infringe on your child’s privacy, but picks up on trigger phrases from simple text to social media. It also filters new contacts on platforms like Facebook, according to age.

If you feel like there is a serious problem and your child turns from a bubbly teen into an introverted shadow of their former self, Mobile Spy  (http://www.mobile-spy.com/ ) may be the answer. There won’t be anything left to say after installing this app, as it’s very “thorough”. I would call this the last resort. It allows you to monitor your child’s iPhone in real time by providing reports of incoming and outgoing calls, SMS, GPS locations, contact list, e-mails, website URLs, photos and videos. It costs $99.97/year but may just be worth it if you fancy playing a detective.

It should all however be used alongside all the points above, not instead of. Software will not replace good online habits or manage your child’s online reputation. It will also not protect your kids from engaging in risky behavior as much as quality parenting. It is however necessary, because as much as you may trust your kids, you cannot possibly be responsible for the rest of the internet.

My 14 year old girl has now got parental control set up on all her devices, and she is aware of it. Not happy about it, but in the know. It’s not there to monitor who she is dating or for me to be in the loop regarding the current school gossips, but it’s there to help prevent situations like cyber-bullying (giving and receiving end) or online pedophilia. She is aware of it.

The question is not whether we should install it, but which one. Should you tell the kids about it or not? I will leave this up to your discretion.

You may have noticed, that in most cases above I used words like “encourage” or “discourage”, not “tell them”. Well, forcing anything on kids, no matter what age, usually works in perfectly reversed way, but if you manage to win at most of the above, I salute you. You get brownie parental points for doing a great job.

You can always try bribing them,  the result is what we are after.

Don’t get discouraged if the conversation doesn’t go according to plan. The first one is most likely going to end with: “You are invading my privacy, leave me alone!”, but as they say: no one said it’s going to be easy, but this time I can guarantee you: it will be worth it.