Family communication has been forever changed with technology, in both positive and negative ways. Previously, I shared ideas on how to use the technology already in your daily lives to increase and improve communication in your family. This article focuses more on some danger zones and challenges parents are faced with through our children’s access to technology.
Readily available information 24/7 online: This can be a very positive thing if a school report is due tomorrow morning and it is 8:45 pm. However, it can also be dangerous at times. Kid have ready access to lots of information, such as depression symptoms, but when searching for depression symptoms or ways to decrease it they are also likely to come across sites discussing suicide and possibly even ways to commit suicide. Some of the teens I have worked with have regular conversations with other teens across the country who they have never met in person to discuss their depression. If one of the internet friends decides suicide is their best option this could negatively impact your child or lead them in that direction also. If you have no idea what sites your children or teens are accessing, this could be a discussion you want to have to avoid future problems or surprises. On a positive note, you will probably also learn of some interesting websites you might also enjoy on hobbies or interests your child is engaged in.
Increased intimacy of relationships: Teen romantic relationships are getting significantly more intense and intimate than in the past due to technology. If a teenage girl or boy is constantly in contact with their boyfriend/girlfriend all day and all night they feel they know that person well very quickly. Some teens actually use certain apps such as Skype or Facetime to “sleep together.” They fall asleep and wake up with each other and this can quickly lead to sexual intimacy which they wouldn’t jump into as quickly if they only talked to each other at school and after school events. Controlling behavior patterns emerge quickly as well since one partner in the relationship may demand instant response to texts or calls or use these to track where the other person is at all times.
Access to inappropriate material: Everyone is aware that pornography is readily available online. What you may not know is that even kids in elementary school are hearing about this and learn what words to google or what sites to go to through conversations at school or on the bus. I actually worked with a 5th grader who had been watching 5-6 porn videos a day in the afternoons before the parents got home from work. The parents learned of it about 4 months after it started. That is a scary amount of exposure to that type of material. Parents need to be ready to have conversations with your kids about sexual activity and porn earlier than in the past due to this open access to the information online. It is a good idea to randomly ask about conversations at school or on the bus that may have confused or embarrassed them. If you ask them, they will tell you, but be prepared to respond in a calm way with age appropriate answers instead of getting upset or agitated, which they will interpret as getting in trouble. Make sure you have parental controls set to block inappropriate content on any device your child has access to in order to minimize their exposure to these types of websites.
Camera access 24/7: Most parents believe that sexting and inappropriate pictures only happens when kids get to be teenagers. However, on school buses and playgrounds some kids have cell phones and will ask girls to take pictures of themselves in the bathroom or boys will be trying to get pictures under girls’ skirts or dresses with their device. Most of the young teens I have worked with who are coming in after parents learned they are sexting or sending inappropriate pictures have never had a conversation with an adult about that issue. In each situation the parent(s) said “Well, I didn’t think I had to tell her/him not to do that” or “they should have known better.” This leads to huge conflicts and hurt feelings on both sides. If we don’t tell them it is not appropriate and all of their friends seem to think it is normal, why do we think they will know it is wrong? I recommend that parents have discussions with any child who will be independently using a cell phone or device that connects to the internet about appropriate sites; regularly check their history online; and have a technology curfew. The curfew means no phones or devices in the bedrooms after a certain time, usually close to bedtime. For obvious reasons, this is the most common time these types of activities are occurring. (It might be a good idea to implement a technology curfew even in parents’ bedrooms. Think of the increase in communication with your spouse or partner if the phones and iPads were not in the bedroom. Just a thought.)
Perpetrators have ready access to our kids: My daughter is 10 years old and last year during a winter storm I took her to my office since school was closed for the day. She was playing Minecraft online with her cousin and suddenly gasped and said, “I can’t believe he said that to me.” Evidently, when you play Minecraft and have the chat feature turned on, other people online can chat with you. Someone had asked her, “Do you want to have sex?” She was literally 2 feet from me at the time! My niece was totally not surprised and her statement back to my daughter was, “Oh yeah, if you don’t turn off chat they do that all the time.” She was not at all shocked or surprised. I didn’t even know there was a chat feature in Minecraft! Other apps and video games have similar features, such as Xbox online games. Some kids I worked with in the past had gotten in trouble with their parents after gifts started arriving in the mail that were not appropriate and parents’ learned they had given out their address to people they were talking to while playing video games online. If your child is going to have access to these games and apps, you need to be prepared to have a discussion with them about safety, not sharing personal information, and when to seek you out if someone approaches them about inappropriate things such as sex or meeting in person somewhere. It would not be a bad idea to occasionally hang out in the room they are playing in and listen to some of the conversations they are having to make sure they are safe.
Dangerous websites: Some of the websites that teens locally find funny or interesting are treasure troves for sexual perpetrators. Kids go online to look at sexual pictures and content and a lot of them see it as funny or gross rather than inappropriate. I have worked with young teen girls who met people on these websites pretending to be teen boys and asking for inappropriate pictures. This escalates into threats against the girl’s family if they don’t continue the behaviors and follow the offenders directions, only to get into serious trouble with their parents when it is discovered. When the parents have gone to the police to try to press charges on the perpetrator in those instances, they have been told there is no guarantee the girl will not also be charged with distribution of porn so none of the families have moved forward with prosecution because of that. This is emboldening the offenders to reach out even more because there are rarely consequences for them.
In short, technology is advancing quickly and is very useful and make parts of our lives much easier. However, it can also be a dangerous tool in the hands of the wrong people. To protect your kids, you need to be aware of the dangers and prepared to have open conversations with your children about internet safety on a regular basis. There are some programs in the area that go to schools or churches to teach kids about internet safety, such as the Morgan Nick Foundation. Check with your school counselor or google internet safety for kids to find programs to use with your child or just so you can learn the information and then educate your children yourself.
I hope this information is helpful and starts some meaningful discussions in your family that will open communication and keep everyone safely connected to one another at home and online. Please feel free to contact us about an appointment if you learn your child has been involved in some of these activities or even if you just aren’t sure about how to approach the subject with your kids and need some pointers.
By Paula Coleman, LCSW – Pinnacle Counseling NWA
Mental Health and Relationship Counselor