Archives for category: Useful links

Texting. Talking on the phone. Eating. Searching for a new song. We are so accustomed to our car culture that it’s easy to forget how dangerous driving really can be. A single moment’s distraction is all it takes to turn the family minivan into a deadly weapon.

And it’s only going to get worse. According to the Canadian Automobile Association, texting recently overtook impaired driving as the No. 1 safety concern among drivers. And since 95% of Canadians between 14 and 17 send or receive text messages (according to a poll quoted in the Globe & Mail), this is a problem that is only likely to grow.

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To read the rest of this post and to learn more about the riskwithinreason workshops offered to parents, educators and teens, click here.

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Did you know your exact location can be pinpointed from pictures you post online? That with a simple, free, downloadable software, anyone can determine your address, your kids’ daycare, their favourite ice cream spot, even where their bedrooms are in your house or apartment?

If that sounds like the rumblings of paranoia, think again. Watch this news segment to see exactly how experts were able to simply and effectively plot all this information based on the pictures parents took on their smartphone cameras and posted online.

It’s pretty scary stuff. Although I would normally assume this kind of thing was another Internet hoax, the link was forwarded to me by a trusted source at Ometz, an organization in which I have enormous trust and respect. I know they checked this out very carefully.

Immediately after watching the segment, I checked out the site they recommend (www.Icanstalku.com) to learn more. This explained how this cyberstalking is even possible. The answer is metadata, which means the extra information typically embedded in a data file, but hidden from casual viewing. Turns out when we take pictures on our smartphones, we are generally also recording information about the photographer, camera settings (like ISO, aperture or processing software). Since many of today’s smartphones are also GPS-enabled, and since the default setting is to allow location recording, it also embeds information about where the picture was taken. This is also called Geotagging.

Take a deep breath. You can easily change this. The same website offers a useful series of steps for changing this default setting on most smartphones.  Click here and find your smartphone (and your kids’ smartphones) on the list. Follow the steps and make the changes.

Be aware that changing the default will affect your abilities to use GPS and mapping apps on your phone. When you want to use those, you can change the settings back temporarily.

Of course, making these changes affects all future pictures taken and posted. I can’t offer you too much in the way of reassurance about the pictures you’ve already snapped and uploaded to the Internet. You can try and retrace your steps and remove them, but there’s no guarantee they haven’t been copied and reposted in other places.

Like many things online, we learn as we go. It’s an admittedly uncomfortable feeling for parents.

I’m really excited to be a featured speaker this Sunday at Montreal Families Magazine’s first ever Parenting Workshop, along with study skills and homework expert Carolyn Melmed. Space is filling up fast, so if you’ll be in Montreal this weekend, click on the link above and reserve your seat now.

I thought it might be useful to offer readers a quick overview of what I’ll be covering. Called “The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviours,” I’ll be talking about why it’s never too early to prepare your child to deal with the many confusing and conflicting messages they get concerning high-risk activities. What does smoking have to do with your preschooler? Why would you worry about Facebook or drinking alcohol if your kid is in grade 2? And if you already have a high schooler, I’ll talk about why it’s not too late to put prevention strategies into play.

To better understand the answers to these questions, I’ll be offering an overview of what high-risk activities are, and providing surprising information on when kids first start experimenting with them. I’ll be talking about the current research on children’s and adolescent’s brain development, and how understanding how their minds work can help us better tailor our prevention strategies. I’ll provide specific, concrete and practical age-based strategies for how to prepare your kids, so that they are better able to resist peer and media influence and develop important coping strategies. Worried your teen is already in trouble? I will tell you what your options are for seeking help. I will also point parents towards online resources for more specific information on different risk activities.

Please pass this on to anyone you know who might be interested in learning more about thinking ahead.

Can’t make it this Sunday? Not in Montreal? Interested in bringing me in to speak to parents or teachers at your child’s school or community centre? Email me at alissasklar@hotmail.com to discuss the range of workshops I can offer for parents, educators and students on high risk behaviours, Internet safety and more.

This evening I’ll spend some time talking to a group of parents of students entering Grade 8. Their principal specifically wanted me to spend some time addressing the topic of cyberbullying. It’s a real hot button topic, a trigger word that brings to mind the spectre of antisocial, angry schoolyard bullies further emboldened by their Internet connections to extend their victims’ torment to a much larger audience. Modern day trolls. Problem cases.

This concern isn’t too surprising, given the prevalence of the problem. One 2008 University of Toronto study found over half of respondents reported being cyberbullied.

The funny thing is that cyberbullies don’t always fit into that mold. They don’t always fit the same profile as the old-fashioned bullies who might have tormented our peers when we were in school. Their parents rarely suspect what their kids are up to. Sometimes their friends are surprised to learn about it. Sometimes they say they were just joking, and didn’t think what they were doing was really bullying. Occasionally they are just naive or unsophisticated enough to not be aware of how their comments or actions constitute bullying.

They could be my kids. Or yours.

When parents worry about cyberbullies, they almost always approach the subject from the perspective of potential victims. They worry about how other kids — mean antisocial kids — might hurt their children. They don’t realize how easily their kids, good kids, can do something online that proves deeply hurtful to someone else. One recent study of 1,500 parents found that not a single one of them believed their kids could be cyberbullies. But cyberbullies clearly exist, and they have moms and dads too.

A whispered not-so-nice comment in the school cafeteria may vanish from memory a few minutes later, but the same comment texted, or posted on someone’s Facebook wall, or sent off in an email, is a profoundly public, often irrevocable damaging blow. Kids don’t always get that the Internet is written in ink (hell, a lot of adults don’t realize this either, so what can we expect?).

Truth is, our culture tends to treat the subject of online reputations in very cavalier ways (check out this Roger cellphone commercial and this T-Mobile one). On the one hand we tell them how important this is, on the other we fill magazines, gossip columns and websites with celebrity gossip and intrusive speculation about the private lives of others.

But the acid test for cyberbullying must always be the end result. If someone is hurt by it, then it is wrong, even if we “just thought it was a joke.” It is little consolation to any teenager that their “friends'” comments about their weight or sexuality wasn’t meant to get forwarded to the whole school. It makes no difference to a teacher secretly taped in class and photoshopped for ridicule that their students were just having a laugh. It is damaging and destructive and can ruin reputations. It can result in depression, health problems, drop in grades, violations of personal privacy and even suicide (including, just last Thursday, that of a 17-year-old boy in Hamilton, Ontario).

McGill professor Dr. Shaheen Sharif has put together a fabulous website on this subject, called Define the Line. A slide show on the topic traces the legal evolution of cyberbullying, with one key Quebec case involving a 17-year-old (Aubry vs. Editions Vice Versa) finding that a teenager’s sensitivity to teasing by her friends counts as foreseeable harm: the right to privacy trumps freedom of expression.

And while most cyberbullying is persistent and sustained and involves ongoing violations and threats using social media, cellphones and the Internet, it is also important to understand that sometimes they are one-off occurrences perpetuated by teens lacking the sophistication, judgement and tech savvy to understand what the consequences are for someone else. I have seen this happen on several occasions among my own daughters’ groups of online friends. It doesn’t matter. The harm done is exactly the same.

And as parents it is our jobs to make sure our kids are properly supervised and held accountable for their actions. Schools need to be part of the education and awareness, particularly since a lot of cyberbullying happens on the ground within school environments and communities. Article 1460 of the Quebec Civil Code stipulates that even non-parents “entrusted with the custody, supervision or education of a minor can be held liable for the act or fault of this minor.” Similar legislation has been introduced in the United States (although still subject to dispute).

Freedom is a privilege to be earned trough the consistent demonstration of good judgment. Despite what many people think, privacy is not a sacred right for a 13-year-old with a Facebook account. As a parent, you should have passwords to your children’s accounts. You should regular review their online activity with them. There should be ongoing discussions about permissible behaviour, both at home and in school. Schools should have clear social media policies in place. There should be clear, consistent consequences (at home and in school) for inappropriate use, including withdrawal of online privileges.

For more information and resources:

Stop a Bully (Canada-wide antibullying program) – http://stopabully.ca/resources/anti-bullying-materials

Stand up to Bullying (Red Cross program) – http://www.redcross.ca/article.asp?id=24700&tid=108

Cyberbullying pioneer researcher Bill Belsey’s – www.cyberbullying.ca

Media Awareness Network (Be WebAware) – http://www.bewebaware.ca/english/aboutus.html

Thinking a lot about transitions lately. Kids starting high school. Friends and family members sending their little ones off to kindergarten for the first time. Everyone dealing with change in their own particular ways, sometimes with sentiment, sometimes with stoicism.

There’s a particular kind of energy at the start of the school year. Maybe it’s the new shoes, freshly pressed uniforms, shiny new notebooks and clean lunchboxes. No one has been overloaded with homework yet, or received a low mark on a test, or forgotten an assignment. Teachers are still rested from their summer breaks, exercising patience in the face of disruption or sloth. Students are still trying hard to fit in, follow the rules, organize all those lovely new binders and stiff-tipped markers. Taking the bus home is still a novelty, not a chore.

But these changes also bring a kind of stress with them, particularly the ones that involve new schools, new routines, new friends. Students can find it exhausting to hold it together all day, and then fall apart a bit at home at the end of the day, where they feel safe. Parents are trying to deal with their own issues, whether they are work-related or the bittersweet business of watching your child grow up just a little bit more.

Teens tend to process these stresses in much more emotional ways. We can’t just blame this one hormones either. Researchers studying brain scans of adolescents have demonstrated repeatedly that adolescent responses to difficult decisions are guided primarily by the limbic system (responsible for emotion) and not the prefrontal cortex (responsible for judgement and decision-making). Teens are at the mercy of their emotions.

Which explains why they might burst into tears if you ask them whether they’ve decided to try out for the school basketball team. Or why they stomp off in a huff if you suggest their skirt might be a bit short.

As parents it can be hard not to mix our own emotions about the milestones in our children’s lives. We try to stay on an even keel emotionally, exercise logic where they cannot. But when they show their unhappiness, their worry or stress, it’s hard to stay rational. My aunt once told me that parents are only as happy as their least happy child, and I believe that is mostly true.

Turns out, there’s now scientific justification for this. A professor at the University of Austin in Texas has looked at the health and happiness of middle aged parents (40-60 years old) based on the happiness of their children, and found that the distress of one child can have a marked effect on the parent’s well-being.

Parents said that the distress of one child makes them empathize with their problems, question their parenting ability, place excessive demands on their child, or cause strain in the family’s relationships. They also found that the success of one child isn’t enough to overshadow the problems of another – people don’t just write the problems off as a fluke, but tend to focus in one them.

They also found that having more than one child can make parents happier – provided no one is dealing with any substantive problems. In which case, the parents are more miserable. Child successes didn’t have to be major either – just being generally happy personally and professionally was enough.

So what does this mean for us as parents of teens? On the one hand, it’s important to recognize our kids’ emotional responses to things are partly the result of biology, and not necessarily accurate gauges for their overall happiness. On the other hand, it means we need to maintain open links of communication with them, to help them negotiate any real problems or issues in their lives. And finally, it means we have to help them — and us — focus on the things that make us happy: a hobby, a friend, a sport, a new skill acquired.

Not always easy to do, but worth remembering. Because when the new shoes are scuffed, and the new notebooks are dog-eared and covered in doodles, we need to reach back and hold on to the enthusiasm and energy of these first bright days.

It’s easy — and a little unfair — to prepare a stereotypical list of unpleasant teen behaviours: moodiness, surliness, disrespect, dramatic changes in sleeping patterns, eating patterns and relationships with other family members. We expect them to blow off their chores, roll their eyes at family activities, spend all their time online and on cellphones and listen to music we parents find discordant, inappropriate or offensive. It’s almost as if in steeling ourselves for battles to come, we expect them to fight us on the clothes they wear, the friends they chose, and how late they get to stay out at night.

But not all teens are like that. Most of them (most of the time) are loving parts of their families, good big sisters and brothers and concerned about their communities and the world around them. But the caricatures of teenagers tend to dominate in the popular imagination, and can blind us to all of the wonderful ways our teens enrich our lives.

That’s my standard response whenever I discuss signs and symptoms of real teen problems with groups of parents. The lists of red flags can sound a lot like the behaviours described above. Has your teen gained weight? Lost weight? Been listless? Have their friends changed? Have they withdrawn into their rooms? There’s always one parent who voices the concern that these sound like pretty typical teen behaviours.

And they are.

But a teen at serious risk for depression, drug or alcohol problems tends to have more than one of these things, and there is a pattern of marked decline, and usually more than one or two instances of emotional outbursts or slammed doors.

So when should you worry? Sometimes things do go wrong. The following types of behaviours warrant immediate investigation:

*money going missing around the house without satisfactory explanation;

*pattern of lying about whereabouts and activities;

*aggression, hostility, irritability;

*pattern of withdrawal;

*rapid weight loss;

*wearing of long sleeves in warm weather (a sign of non-suicidal self-mutilation);

*sudden drop in grades (not just one lousy mark);

*unexplained absences at school/ work;

*sudden trouble with headaches;

*rapid increase in muscle definition or sudden dramatic increase in acne (a sign of steroid use);

*loss of interest in activities;

*extreme, persistent fatigue lasting more than a couple of days;

*sudden change in personal hygiene – unkempt appearance, lack of washing;

*sudden use of new slang or jargon related to drugs or gambling;

*speculation or fascination with death/ suicide.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it does cover some of the more worrisome signs, particularly if there are more than one.

So what do you do as a parent? First, speak to your child. If you are still concerned, speak to their doctor. Call the school guidance counsellor. Call a therapist who specializes in teens. Call your CLSC if you live in Quebec.

If you are concerned your teen might be an immediate danger to yourself or others, take them right away to the emergency department of a children’s hospital. Here in Montreal, there is a psychiatrist on call at the Montreal Children’s Hospital 24 hours a day who can do an emergency assessment. Be aware that in Quebec the age of medical consent is 14, so you may not be privy to their discussion.

Some other excellent resources:

http://teens.drugabuse.gov/index.php

http://www.adolescent-substance-abuse.com/signs-drug-use.html

www.youthgambling.com

http://www.cmha.ca/bins/content_page.asp?cid=3-1036

http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx

 

 

 

 

 

Parenting in the new millenium – these is the kind of question no one needed to ask ten years ago.

There were fewer grey areas in the student-teacher relationship back then. Exchanging telephone numbers was clearly inappropriate. A thank you note dropped in the office mailbox was fine, as was waving hello in the local shopping mall food court. Aside from the occasional incident or rumour, it was pretty straightforward.

Social media changed things. It blurred the conventional methods of communication, making everything seem much less formal.  These new rules weren’t written yet, and relying on common sense wasn’t always particularly helpful but people mostly seemed to figure it out. Or maybe not.

A new law passed in Missouri makes it illegal for teachers to be friends with their students on any social network that allows private communication. This would include Facebook or Twitter. The idea behind the law, quite predictably, is to protect children and teens from predatory adults, but critics worry the law might actually prevent kids at risk from reaching out to trusted adults who could actually offer support.

It seems to me this is actually a much more complicated issue than the panicky rhetoric indicates. I never friended my students when I was a university faculty member, not because I worried about any risk I might pose to them or they to me, but because there are still meaningful divides between our private lives and our public lives. I didn’t need them to see my posts and photos of my kids any more than I wanted to know more than they cared to share in class or in conversation about their relationship woes, parties or trips to New York.

As my kids would say, it’s a case of TMI (too much information).

I don’t think I’m being naive or old-fashioned when I say that line between public and private is still meaningful. The line itself may shift with the times, but it’s still important, whether it’s between adults in a college classroom or kids and teachers in a high school. I had no issues with being contacts on LinkedIn (they were young adults counting on me for professional references, after all) or using email and the telephone to keep in touch. And after the semesters ended and students moved on, there were always a few who kept in touch and gradually crossed the line towards friendship.

But I don’t know many teachers of children and teens who cross that line. And I worry about making these things into confusing new laws. The Missouri bill specifically bans teachers from friending current and former students – does that mean students who’ve graduated are always off-limits? Can’t we just assume that most teachers and most parents will be on top of this? We never legislated teachers phoning their students’ cell phones. We haven’t worried about them texting each other. We didn’t make it illegal for them to send each other holiday cards (though I’m guessing few ever do).

So no, I don’t think your teen should be Facebook friends with their teachers, for all of these reasons and more. This should be a part of every school and school board’s media policy.  And general common sense about this would benefit from discussion and awareness-raising. This is a case where the adults involved really should know better. After all, they are protecting both themselves and their students.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, whatever your perspective. Feel free to comment here or message me directly.

There’s a lot of sex to be found on the Internet.

Pretty much everything you’ve ever thought of, and lots of things you’ve never dreamed of, have their own dark, sweaty corner in a website somewhere. And teens are pretty good at finding these places. So are adults, for that matter, but at least they are comfortably over the age of consent and have (hopefully) developed the good judgment to process what they see.

What you don’t always find online — or in most places in Western culture — is frank, honest discussion of human sexuality, with all its permutations, challenges and pleasures. French theorist Michel Foucault noted that despite all the constant buzz about sex, we actually are quite repressed since we never really talk about sex.

Which is why I really love this site for teens: www.scarleteen.com

Scarleteen is an independent, grassroots sexuality education and support organization and website, facilitated and staffed by a wide diversity of adult and teen writers and educators. They offer an amazing set of resources in their static content, hundreds of up-to-date articles on all sorts of issues.  They have an opt-in/ opt-out policy on information, so it’s all there, from abortion to contraception to LGBTQ; that means users are independently able to seek out what they want to know more about, and steer clear of material they might find offensive.

They provide ongoing mentoring and guidance for their volunteers, many of whom help moderate the interactive portion of the site, offer offline teen outreach and support, primarily through sexual/reproductive health clinics, community and school groups and teen homeless/transitional shelters in and around Seattle, Washington.

They’ve published a book, called S.E.X.: The Scarleteen Book by Heather Corinna (also available through Amazon), the description of which reads:

Covering everything from STIs to sexual orientation, body image to birth control, masturbation to misogyny, the anatomy of the clitoris to considering cohabitation, and written for you whether you’re male, female or genderqueer; straight, gay or somewhere in between, this is the everything-you-need, comprehensive, progressive sexuality guide to get you through high school, college and maybe even the rest of your sex life.

There are so many cool, interesting, informative and helpful sections to this website that every teen and parent should have it bookmarked. The fact that the information is put out there without moral judgment or hidden agenda is pretty awesome, since teens are really good at tuning out when the lecturing and moralizing begins. And since the whole point is keeping them (and ourselves) informed so we can make healthy choices at difficult times, Scarleteen.org is an example of how the Internet can work for the forces of good.

Check it out.