I attended a wonderful presentation on cyberbullying and sexting by an officer from a local police department. The question came up about spying on our teenagers’ phones and computers: “Do our teenagers have a right to privacy?” That was followed by the question: “If we spy on our teens, how can they consider us friends? They’ll never open up to us. Won’t that thwart our efforts?” Let’s distinguish between two types of threats to our teenagers:
- Adult predators who lure them and groom them – whether to exploit them or to gain personal, family information to use against their parents.
- Other teens who will slam them, cyberbully them and share sexted pictures.
Although most parents worry about the first situation, most kids worry about the second or will blow it off as “Drama.” But the answer is the same in either case.
My answers to the big questions about privacy are essentially the same as that officer’s:
- Teenagers have no privacy. I want us to know what our kids are doing so we can help them. We’ve been there and done that and have more wisdom, even though they don’t think so. If we don’t have wisdom, we should make learning a first priority.
- As long as they’re dependent on us and we’re responsible for them, we must know. They may be more technically savvy but we can learn enough. That’s what our friends are for.
- There are values more important than that they like us. Some of these are that we protect them (even from themselves) as best we can and that they know there are limitations and boundaries they must obey. Of course, I hope they understand. But even if they don’t understand – especially when they think it’s not fair or they can take care of themselves – those are the “house rules.”
We hope that much of this can be preventative. Wouldn’t we like to stop our daughter before she sends a nude photo to a boyfriend? We can say, “How many of your friends’ parents are still with the boyfriends they loved forever way back in middle and high school?” How many of your friends’ parents were viciously attacked by their ex’s when they broke up? How many of your friends’ parents were harassed, taunted, bullied, abused and mobbed by people they used to be friends with?
Wouldn’t we like to know if our kids are being pressured to be bystanders instead of witnesses? Or if they know there’s mobbing and they’re being tempted or pressured to pile on?
In addition, of course, we can be alert to the first signs of cyberbullying. Have they withdrawn or stopped eating, being with friends, or wanting to go to school? Have they become emotionally labile (mood swings, happy, crying, excited, depressed, angry, hysterical all in 10 seconds)? Do they engage in negative self-talk and put-downs? Do they lack self-confidence and self-esteem? Are they changing everything in order to get friends or please boy or girlfriends? Are they anxious, stressed, not sleeping?
When they accuse us of not trusting them, we already know the answers:
- It’s not about trust; it’s about experience, wisdom and safety.
- They’ve hidden, lied and deceived us before and will do so again. Of course we don’t trust them, just like our parents shouldn’t have trusted us.
- It’s about which risks we’ll allow them to take and which we won’t.
When they insist that they’re old enough to make their own decisions, we also know the answer to that: “When you’re capable of supporting yourself and living independently, then you’re old enough to be responsible for yourself.
As for their opening up because we’re their friends; how many of us opened up to our parents – or would have if they tried to be our friends? We thought we could or had to solve things on our own or we knew better than to open up.
Whether we physically check phone and computer logs or we also use spyware, we must take the initiative. If they don’t like it, they don’t need a phone. Also, we should take steps to find out about their friends and what their friends’ parents allow or encourage.
Unfortunately, too many examples can be found in the headlines of what happen when parents don’t know what their teens are doing.
I’m not suggesting we become the thought-police or “Big Brother.” There’s no need to go overboard.
How many cyberbullying-caused suicides does it take before we start acting like responsible parents and ferret out what’s going on? We can’t force reluctant principals to act unless we know what’s going on. We can’t get law enforcement to act unless we know what’s going on.
You might also check the Verizon cyberbullying site for more information: Verizon Expert Panel, #1, “Understanding and Preventing Cyberbullying:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeXCT8I4uFU&feature=relmfu
Verizon Expert Panel, #2, “When does rude cross the line, online:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzuguaf-hlU&feature=channel_video_title
Verizon Expert Panel, #3, “Is your child being cyberbullied?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZKNgh3_ZjA&feature=relmfu