The trust factor in parenting online kids

Not only are tech parental controls Swiss-cheese-style solutions, they can send kids underground, making parental care – and thus safety – even more scarce.

By Anne Collier

A new study indicates that a lot of parents who monitor their kids online and on phones do so without their children knowing it. The study – “The Online Generation Gap,” just released by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) – found that 70% of parents check the text messages on their teens’ phones, while only 30% of the teens are aware they do, and 84% of parents monitor their teens’ Web use, but only 39% of teens are cognizant of such monitoring.

I suggest that parents seriously consider not monitoring in secret. Why? It can hurt or destroy the best “tool” there is for learning how to be not only safe but also successful online and offline: open, trustful communication between parent and child. In her blog, researcher Kris Gowen at Portland State University offers a little personal experience with that: “My parents would riffle through my backpack to get a sense of ‘what was going on’ when I was in high school (this was B.I., before internet). I had closed up, as some teens do, and I believe they were simply desperate for information. But as soon as I caught on to what they were doing, it only sent me further underground. I learned to better hide my secrets – my grades, my crushes, my hopes, fears, and desires. I felt betrayed and vowed not to tell them anything.”

Of course she’s “not saying my experience represents that of a typical youth today,” she adds, “but I do believe that there are some out there who are a lot like I was then.” Of course not all kids shut their parents out entirely – surely most don’t – but experts tell us that mutual trust is fundamental to all healthy relationships and, developmentally, teens have strong feelings about trust. Monitoring or “spying” behind their backs sends the message they’re not worthy of trust – a pretty discouraging message for anyone to hear – and there is no better, more efficient and compelling way to show respect for children and thus bring out the best in them than to define “trustworthy” for them and then show them you trust them. To maximize opportunities to do that defining and demonstrating, communication lines need to be wide open.

What does trust have to do with safety?

It seems there are as many ways for a determinedly secretive kid to avoid detection as there are monitoring tools – install one on a laptop and there’s always the phone; friend him on Facebook and he uses settings that enable scrutiny avoidance; use parental controls on the family’s game console and there’s always a friend’s house. So when we create these Swiss-cheese-style solutions and send our kids underground, we’re much less of a presence in their digital-media experiences – right at a time when they need to know we have their back more than ever. Not sending them underground means they’re safer because they’re not on their own in digital media (see what University of Southern California Prof. Henry Jenkins told a national task force about this in 2009).

Certainly in cases where parents sense an uncommunicative child is truly at risk there might be reason for secret monitoring, but even in those rare cases it would be better to inform the child (explaining the parent’s fears and need to protect the child) before he or she discovers the monitoring’s happening and defaults to the trust issue. Because in those cases it’s about safety, not distrust.

What does it have to do with success?

If we create trusting, communicative relationships with our children concerning technology, we’re a loving presence in the online part of their lives – and they in ours. We have unprecedented opportunity (much higher frequency than our parents had with us before there were social media) to demonstrate the respect and integrity that increase social and professional success. Just think – really – about all the opportunities we have, throughout the day, to show each other respect and love now in text messages, posts, comments, tweets, and social games than we ever had before – on top of the in-person, on-the-phone, and in-letters kind. But that’s when they don’t shut us out. [And when they do, parents can encourage an aunt, uncle, grandparent, or other loved one a child trusts to be a positive presence in her digital media experiences.]

The good news in the FOSI study is that there’s almost no gap between parents’ and teens’ perception about teens’ safety online. “Fully 95% of teens say they feel very (37%) or somewhat (58%) safe online, and … 94% of parents say they feel their teen is very (36%) or somewhat (58%) safe online,” and “just 5% of teens and 6% of parents” feel teens are unsafe. That’s an unexpected, unprecedented vote of confidence in teens’ online safety.

Related links

* In her thoughtful, thorough post on GPS-enabled child-tracking, parent and media literacy specialist Amy Jussel over at ShapingYouth.org touches on how this digital age demands as much honesty and self-examination of parents as we’re asking of our children. She writes, “Parents REALLY need to be brutally honest with themselves about their own motivations and expectations using LBS[location-based services]-apps. Family relationship dynamics run the gamut, and those trying to assuage their own fear, angst, or parenting insecurities need to be aware that apps like these can CREATE them as well.” And she quotes Booker T. Washington: “Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.”
* “Private vs. public parenting (& a Pew study)”

 

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