Watch Children Online and Be the “Best Voice”
Parents must know what their children and teens are saying and doing online. Those that believe their children are protected from the evils that lurk behind screens could be fooling themselves. Recent events in Virginia show just how dangerous online activity can be for young people.
A child named Nicole survived a liver transplant and other medical challenges, but through online activity she became a murder victim. Details of the crime are sketchy, but how a Virginia Tech college freshman from Maryland first gained access to the girl is clear by tracking her online history. At least one of the students used a social media site or sites to “meet” Nicole, and later lured the thirteen-year-old girl into sneaking out of her home in the middle of the night. An 18-year old male and a 19-year-old female student are charged with various crimes resulting in the January murder of Nicole, a Blacksburg, Virginia middle school girl.
The child’s “death has heightened scrutiny around certain social media apps, where adults with inappropriate intentions can have ready access to children online.” Nicole used the instant messaging app Kik, along with Facebook and Instagram. “In many social media posts, [Nicole] projected a girl who was heartbroken, suicidal, and deeply vulnerable.”
Nicole was a frequent poster whose friends were concerned about her online activity. One allegedly alerted a school resource officer about her interaction with adult males, but the police say they received no such report. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2-6-16)
Nicole’s father says she’d been given her phone back after being “grounded” from it because her parents found out she’d been “chatting inappropriately online with older men.” (Associated Press, 2-9-16)
No motive for the murder has been revealed and certainly nothing will ever adequately explain it. This isn’t the only horror story about depraved young people that one can find. Schools no longer teach morals, many children don’t attend church or have any spiritual foundation. Many find themselves floating in a universe of nihilistic angst. Parents must be ever vigilant to guide their own children and to protect them from the lost and from predators.
A Cautionary Tale
For the first time since her son went on a killing spree at Columbine High School in Colorado, Dylan Klebold’s mother has spoken. In an interview on ABC “20/20,” she said she thought she was “a good mom,” and that she knew what was going on in her son’s life. She ignored warning signs, writing them off as normal adolescent behavior. She says, “I think we like to believe that our love and our understanding is protective, and that ‘If anything were wrong with my kids, I would know.’ But I didn’t know, and it’s very hard to live with that.”
Dylan Klebold played computer games and made movies about which his mother knew nothing. In the years since the Columbine killings, it has gotten even more complicated for parents to know what children are doing, with online activity having become ubiquitous.
Children and teens who go completely off the rails and either commit or become victims of crimes are the exception. But parents who want children to grow into stable and healthy adults must be aware that dangers to their safety and to their innocence lurk behind screens.
Parents should be prepared to know what actions children and teens take online. They must stop worrying that they are bothersome. Children have plenty of friends. What they need from their parents is guidance.
Experts interviewed on the 20/20 show offered suggestions that might be helpful for parents wishing to monitor their children.
- “Parents know their child’s behavior patterns better than anyone, so parents should look out for changes in their kid’s mood or behavior that seem out of place.” President of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Gregory Fritz, M.D. says to watch for changes, like sleeping late that becomes staying in bed all day, or complaints about food that become a refusal to eat.
- Parents should pay attention to their instincts and not ignore feelings that something is going wrong with a child, whether it’s something [seeming] to be bothering them or they seem to be shutting down.
- “It’s important for parents to talk to their child from a place of love instead of demanding their child to tell them what’s wrong.” Use active listening techniques. Psychologist Dr. Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI profiler, gives one example of inquiry: “The reason I’m talking to you is because I love you, and I don’t want anything ever in the world to hurt you, and I know you’re sad and I know . . . your world is very dark right now, but I love you this much, that whatever we need to do, we’re going to do.”
- “For parents, normal rules of privacy don’t always apply.” Have children’s and teens’ passwords and use them. Don’t be afraid to monitor their online and social media activity. (ABC, 2-12-16)
Work on Communication
A critical part of keeping children safe online is open communication. Experts stress the importance of speaking to children about internet dangers and making sure that they would tell you if they see disturbing images online or if anyone contacts them in a suspicious or too familiar manner. Parents often discover potentially dangerous situations just by asking questions and by engaging their children in conversations about computer and cell phone use.
Kids use computers and cell phones to facilitate communication. It’s important that parents keep lines of communication with their children open. Knowing that their parents want to know what troubles them goes a long way toward keeping children and teens safe. Parent who offer assurance that they are willing to know what’s really happening in kids’ lives offer security and validation when they are approached with concerns, even when what children say is disturbing.
Don’t expect children who don’t regularly communicate with parents to all of a sudden open up about online activity. Good communication is the result of years of preparation and groundwork. Family dinners during which parents and children share events of their day and admit challenges they’ve faced are important. Casually spending time together, whether playing games, on commutes, or coming alongside to do chores, allows quiet time for communication to happen. Just asking “How was your day?” will rarely get any response except “Fine.”
Computers should be located in a communal area where adults can read what’s posted. There are ways to know which websites children visit and what they are writing online. If parents choose to allow young people to have cell phones with data, there are ways to track what they do.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation Cyber Division offers important tips in “A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety,” which can be found at FBI.gov. As the introduction to this pamphlet says, “While online computer exploration opens a world of possibilities for children, expanding their horizons and exposing them to different cultures and ways of life, they can be exposed to dangers as they hit the road exploring the information highway.”
Other specific guidelines and solutions can be found at NetSmartz411.org, which is operated by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Parents might also consider monitoring services, such as uKnowKids, CreepSquash, NetNanny, or MinorMonitor. Some parents use controls and content blocking such as that offered by OpenDNS Family Shield or a web browser such as that available at CovenantEyes.com. Keep in mind that some security measures don’t work when children visit other homes.
Adults should be familiar with cell phone apps like Kik, SnapChat, Poof, YikYak, Whisper, Vine, and Tinder. Those who hope to protect innocence warn parents not to be nave or uninformed because there’s a good possibility that their children are not. In this technology-savvy age, parents must stay ahead of the game and know more about what is going on than their children do. It’s a challenge worth the effort.
Nicole’s father said in a television interview with Dr. Phil McGraw, “I wasn’t there for her when she needed me.” (2-10-16) This grieving father is now on a mission to warn other parents. He says:
It’s not spying on your children. It’s not being intrusive to plug-in and know what’s going on. These days you have to know where your children are all the time. If they’re back in their bedroom, you think they’re doing their homework and in fact they’re online talking to people that they may not know. You’re not the only voice in your child’s ear so you need to make sure you are the best voice in your child’s ear.