Archives for posts with tag: parents

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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Had a fabulous time at the Montreal Families Magazine Parenting Workshop this past Sunday. We were thrilled to see a capacity crowd of concerned moms (and some dads) come out to hear me and study skills expert Carolyn Melmed speak on a gorgeous, sunny September afternoon.

A number of great questions came out of the audience after my presentation, some of which I’ve heard from parents before. I figure if one parent is wondering or worrying about something, chances are there are plenty of others out there with the same question, so I’m going to focus on them one at a time in upcoming blog posts. Today’s subject is a really common question – what is the right age to let our kids get Facebook accounts?

The answer to this depends on a few things — your child’s interest, maturity levels, responsibility, readiness as well as your personal values and comfort with technology. Just as it would be impossible to answer a question about what is the right age for learning how to read or developing an interest in romantic relationships, knowing when to let your kids onto Facebook depends on a number of factors.

First of all, Facebook itself has determined that kids under 13 should not become members, and they state this on their registration page. Getting around that is as simple as fudging the birth year information (which is always a good idea for privacy and identity theft reasons anyway), but parents have to feel comfortable with breaking this simple rule. Some parents are not.

Next you have ask what they intend to do on the site. If it’s mostly for the gaming, well, there are plenty of other games on the Internet (and on gaming systems), but the truth is that Facebook games are a relatively harmless way to spend time on the site. Raising virtual potatoes on Farmville is no one’s definition of risky behaviour.

If they want it because “everyone else has it,” I’m sympathetic but skeptical. First of all, not everyone has it, but an awful lot of kids do. And it’s hard (but not impossible or even inadvisable) to resist the tremendous adolescent social pressure to be like everyone else. I’ve only recently forgiven my parents for banning television on school days when I was a kid. Missing the previous evening’s broadcast of Charlie’s Angels certainly had repercussions in the schoolyard the next day, but my grades steadily improved without the distraction. And I turned out mostly OK.

How do you think your kids will manage its addictive powers? If you will have to constantly negotiate their time on Facebook, if it will cut into homework, face-to-face socialization, school, family time or reading, then think this through carefully. You may need to set up strict rules for when and how long they can be on. You will need to establish consistent consequences for breaking these rules. You will need to stick to them.

Talk to them about cyberbullying. Talk about respecting others, handling themselves with dignity. Discuss the fact that stuff on the Internet is impossible to erase. That things can be copied and forwarded an infinite number of times. They should never, ever post anything they wouldn’t want their teacher to see. Or their grandmother. Or their future boss. Or their future children.

Talk about how nuance and irony don’t play out so well in typed comments. It’s easy to misunderstand something that was meant to be a joke. They need to understand how they can easily hurt someone else through ignorance.

Are you concerned about your kids’ privacy online? You should be. Consider getting them to creatively misspell their name or use a pseudonym their friends will know. Set up a Google alert with this name too. Inform yourself about Facebook’s many privacy controls and stay abreast of new developments. Configure them to the highest degree of privacy, which still allows friends to view their posts and picture: for “only friends” (not “friends of friends”). I’m working on a post about how to do this, in case you don’t feel comfortable figuring it out on your own, so stay tuned.

Link their account to your email and keep a record of their password. Many kids resist this, but it’s a basic requirement in my eyes. You will get all notifications of friend requests, posts and tagged pictures. You will not need to read the vast majority of them (which would be a chore), but you will be able to monitor their activity quite easily.

Insist they friend you. And never, ever comment on their walls or posts. Having a parent is just too embarrassing for words when you are 12 or 14, so respect that.

Occasionally review their home feeds (also called news feeds) with them. Not as a punishment or lecture, but as a conversation. What are their friends talking about? What kind of language is used? Does anything make them or you uncomfortable? Talk about that.

As time goes on, and they demonstrate consistent responsibility, they can earn more and freedom. You will need to do these things less often. They can earn their privacy, their passwords, the right to link their account to their own email. Don’t abuse the freedom you are given, but keep a close eye until you feel confident they are capable of handling themselves appropriately.

All of this begs the question: “What is risky behaviour?” In a nutshell, it’s activities that could potentially lead to harm, both for your child or those around them. It can interfere with other normal activities in their lives. It can cause them to make poor choices. It can be immoral, illegal or unhealthy.

So where would Facebook fit into that definition?

One research study found that spending time on Facebook tends to lower kids’ grades, promote narcissistic tendencies and lead to anxiety and depression. But the same study also found that the social media site can help kids hone their empathetic tendencies by offering each other support online. They also found it could help introverted teens learn how to interact with others in a way that made them feel more comfortable.

There are a lot of reasons why parents might not want their kids on Facebook until they feel they are old enough. Some parents just try to delay it as long as possible. There is so simple pat answer to this question.

What did I do? Well, as I wrote in this Montreal Families Magazine article, I allowed my twins to sign on to Facebook when they were 11 years old. My husband and I felt we could use it as an opportunity to regularly monitor what they were up to (11-year-olds are far more compliant than 13-year-olds, as a general rule), and it would open many possibilities for discussion and dialogue. Which it has. We’ve been very happy with this decision. But our 8-year-old is a different kid, requiring a different set of parenting strategies, and we aren’t so sure the same approach will work for her down the line.

You need to find your own comfort zone. You need to explain your rational to your child. And you need to maintain a careful eye on how they are handling this tremendous responsibility.

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.

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

life is risky

A few weeks ago, I watched one of my daughters ride her bike with no hands. I thought “be careful!” and “keep your hands on the handlebars!” and “don’t do that!”

But I said nothing.

She was wearing a helmet, on a quiet path, with no obvious obstacles or cars nearby. If she fell, she might get a bad case of road rash, or need stitches. She might even break an arm. But that was unlikely — she was really good.

I remembered riding my own bike with no hands on the wheel, the rush of wind in my face, the front tire slightly wobbly on the cracked pavement, the exhiliration of learning to balance the bike with my weight, the adrenaline that surged through me. I knew I could fall and scrape myself on the road, but I don’t think I did (I have no memories of that, at any rate). For those few minutes, I felt incredibly competent. I was confident of my own abilities to keep my bike moving smoothly forward.

I wanted that experience for my daughter. It’s what we all want for our kids.

The world is a risky place – it’s one of the first lessons of contemporary parenting. Danger lurks in every unprotected electrical outlet, at the top of every flight of ungated stairs. We are called to assess those risks for our own children from the very beginning: natural birth or epidural? Breast or bottle? Crib or co-sleeping? Organic food or not? Re-mortgage the house to pay for private school or support the public system?

But a certain amount of risk is normal. It’s part of being human. In fact, a total aversion to risk would make life boring and unlivable. Creativity is the flip side of caution. We need to take chances to learn things about the world and about ourselves. We need to let our toddlers take their first hesitant steps on wobbly jello legs, gently push our 5-year-olds into the strange new kindergarten classroom, let our pre-teens ride the city bus. We can’t keep them in that beautiful bubble forever, and we need them to believe that we know they can do it (no matter what old episodes of Rescue 911 replay endless loops in our neurotic minds).

The challenge is to do so thoughtfully, picking and choosing the kinds of risk, assessing the degree of danger and possible consequences. Measuring this up against chances of success. That takes judgement, and we know that judgement is one of the last things to develop in the teenage brain. The wiring of brain circuitry is a work in progress, and the prefrontal cortex (where executive functions such as decision-making, organizing, impulse control and judgment happen) aren’t fully developed until around the age of 25.

Add to this another wrinkle of adolescence  – the increased propensity to take risks and seek intense sensations. All this can suddenly make a lot clearer seemingly inexplicable activities such as car surfing, the choking game and websites like The Honesty Box.

For parents and educators, that means tailoring expectations to abilities. Leaving your 16-year-old home alone for the weekend may not just be a bad idea, it may end with their party trending on Twitter. This is why close supervision of teens is so important – knowing your teenage child’s whereabouts after school is correlated with lower rates of drug and alcohol use, pregnancy and delinquency, as well as making them less susceptible to peer pressure.

As a blog, RiskWithinReason looks beyond the usual risky activities we worry about with teens (alcohol, drugs, sex) to the computer-related technology around (and through) which they increasingly converge — social media like Facebook or MySpace, texting, sites like YouTube, online gaming, online gambling and other virtual communities of influence that complement (and sometimes overshadow) the real world friends and family of today’s teens.

RiskWithinReason is designed to be an online resource for parents, educators and mental health professionals interested in teens, technology and risk. The blog is not anti-technology — in fact, the argument is that we adults need to know more about these resources in order to facilitate our teens’ use of them. In addition to regular postings about different issues, you will also find links to related articles presented along brief commentary about what makes them interesting or relevant.

I welcome your comments, stories, observations and suggestions for different topics and links. I know I’m not the only parent out there who knows what it’s like to bite your tongue from time to time and watch your kids learn to spread their wings. On this occasion, it was totally worth it, but I keep a box of band-aids on hand for the times they fall, even though I am fully aware there are some hurts no band-aid will be able to fix. Sometimes, it’s a chance we have to take, but it’s one we must take thoughtfully, with the information we can gather. After all, that’s what parenting is all about.