Archives for posts with tag: Internet

On Monday evening, I was invited to speak about digital safety to a group of parents of 8th graders at a local high school. It was a great group of people, energetic, informed and enthusiastic about keeping their kids safe. They had so many questions, we ended up staying some time after the session was supposed to end.

It was abundantly clear that many of them were concerned. And somewhat at a loss for how to implement some of my recommendations with their 13 and 14-year-olds.

I understand that. Ideally, we should begin introducing these rules when they log on to their first Club Penguin or Webkinz account in elementary school. I had a harsh lesson in setting up Internet safety rules early: my then 5-year-old typed “Elmo” into a YouTube search at a friend’s house three years ago, and saw some homemade video with a puppet murder scene that left her with nightmares for months.

It’s one thing if they grow up knowing that mom and/or dad need to give permission to set up accounts on websites, that parents need access to all passwords until it’s decided they are responsible and mature enough to earn their privacy, that they must never, ever clear the history from their Internet browsers. It’s all about leaving traces to prove where they’ve been and what they are doing.

But introducing this rule for the first time at 13? Yikes. I can only imagine the moaning and groaning. A number of parents in the room were clearly anticipating the battles that lay ahead of them when they went home to announce this new policy.

But there is no shortcut. It needs to be done.

I compared it to driving a car. We would never imagine handing the keys to our car to a 14-year-old. They are too young, too inexperienced, too immature to handle the responsibility. Possibly they are not even physiologically capable yet — their legs may be too short to reach the brake and gas pedals. They might hurt themselves or others, or cause damage. And yet we don’t always question the wisdom of allowing our kids to make use of the incredibly powerful, public communication tools that exist online, often without any adult supervision at all. There can still be damange; people can get very hurt.

This brings me to one particularly interesting question brought up at the meeting. One parent asked about spying software available to record keystrokes or copy the browser history, even if your devious teenager finds a way to erase it. Basically, he wanted to know if it’s OK to spy on your kids.

My answer? It depends.

Ideally, we don’t want to spy on them. But privacy is not a sacred right when you are 13 or 14 years old. It is a privilege that has to be earned by showing consistent responsibility. Possibly your 16 or 17-year-old has demonstrated they don’t need their Internet activity closely monitored anymore. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a single 12-year-old with the judgement skills to go it alone.

Instead of spying, start off by involving your kids in the supervision. Link their Facebook accounts to your email to start with, so that you get notifications of friend requests, pictures posted and messages. Instead of sitting around reading them, have your kid show you their home feed and profile every once in a while. Ask to look at their email in boxes. There are some fabulous conversations waiting to be had. This isn’t a lecture, it’s a discussion. Big difference. Ask them what they think of language being used, pictures being tagged. You’ll get some really interesting insights into their world.

You should check their browser histories from time to time, but you can do that with them too. I have no problem with a look at their histories without them, but that shouldn’t be the only way you do it.

Is it ever OK to spy? To log in using their passwords when they are not around? Absolutely. If you think your child is in trouble, if you are concerned about recent behaviour, possible depression, cyberbullying (whether they are victim or perpetrator), drugs, sexual health issues or violence. If your motivation is one of genuine concern for your minor child or someone they may be hurting, and your intrusion is as respectful as possible, then you should disregard the usual respect for privacy.

Has your child ever lied about their activity online? Have they set up a safe, dummy account for you to check, then surreptitiously set up another for them to engage freely with friends? That’s fraudulent. That’s a fast-track to having privileges revoked and strict rules put into place. That’s when you may need to do some poking around. Some benevolent monitoring.

What I’m saying is, that’s when you need to do some spying.

Moreover, this is a rule that should be established with them when they are young enough to listen, so if the day comes that you log in with their passwords to their account, they cannot say “How could you do this?”

Who am I kidding? They will definitely say that. Guaranteed. Probably quite loudly.  But now you have an iron-clad response: we may have to do this to keep them safe.

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Pop culture has adopted the language of addiction in very casual, offhand ways. We speak of people getting hooked, of going through withdrawal, of needing rehab for all sorts of things, whether it’s Blackberry cellphones, Angry Birds or sugary soft drinks. Addiction has become a shorthand for talking about all sorts of things, from pure laziness to real impulse control.

But for most of these things, we know where the joke ends, and the real addiction begins. A destructive inability to stop using alcohol, tobacco or drugs is no joke. These things ruin lives, kill people and destroy families.

Lately, we’ve seen an extension of the language of addiction into grey areas, like sex, gambling, video games and the Internet. Can people really be addicted to these things in the true, psychological sense of the term? This is a very contentious issue in psychiatric circles, and the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) — the bible of the field that establishes the parameters for diagnosis of mental health disorders — has been negotiating these questions for the 5th edition due to be published in May 2013.

The current draft replaces he category of substance abuse and dependence with “addiction and related disorders,” which offers more wiggle room for including other items. It also creates the new category of “behavoural addictions,” which names gambling as the sole disorder. They did consider adding Internet addiction, but the experts on the judging panel felt there was still insufficient research on the topic. The solution was to put it in the appendix and recommend future study.

So what does that mean for parents and teachers of teens, who may be worried that their kids’ use of the Internet interferes with their lives? The evidence seems to point to some disturbing parallels with addiction. A new study by a group called Intersperience in the UK (reported here in the Daily Mail) found that 53% of Britons felt upset when denied access to the Internet and 40% felt lonely when they couldn’t go online. One respondent said not being able to access the Internet was “like having my hand chopped off.”

A related experiment at the University of Maryland  earlier this year (called The World Unplugged) challenged 1,000 college students in 37 countries to unplug completely from communication technologies, using only a landline and books for communication. Researchers recorded physical and physiologial symptoms comparable to withdrawal from a drug or smoking addiction. They reported feeling anxious, fidgety and isolated, saying that it felt like going “cold turkey” on a hard drug habit or being on a restrictive diet.

Interesting. The Mayo Clinic offers a list of symptoms of drug addiction, which we can adapt for our purposes here:

  • Do you feel the need to regularly use the Internet, daily or several times a day?
  • Do you fail in your attempts to stop using the Internet?
  • Do you make certain you maintain Internet access (wifi, smartphones, etc.)?
  • Do you ever spend money on Internet access even if you can’t afford it?
  • Do you ever do things you wouldn’t normally do to get access, like stealing? (For Internet, I would suggest adding missing significant amounts of sleep or meals.)
  • Do you use time on the Internet to avoid dealing with problems in your life?

They also suggest looking out for warning signs in teens related to drug abuse:

  • Neglecting schoolwork
  • Physical health problems – lack of attention to appearance, fitness, sleep, eating
  • Change in behaviour – becoming rude, insolent, withdrawn, closing themselves in their rooms for long periods
  • I would also add changes in social groups – Internet use can be isolating, especially when they are playing games that replace conventional forms of social interaction with virtual ones.

Now, I’m not a counsellor or psychologist, and these lists are intended to be thought-provoking and not used as checklists for diagnosis, but it seems to me that any activity that starts to interfere with our quality of life is a problem that needs to be dealt with.  The majority of our social interaction should be face to face, not online. There’s a fine line between making the most of technology, and becoming a slave to it.

If you think your teen’s time online is having a negative impact on their life, it’s OK to intervene. And if you have difficulty getting through to them, talk to a teacher, a guidance counsellor, their pediatrician or a social worker. Because our lives in the real world are ultimately the ones that count!