I was driving my daughter to camp earlier this week, both of us feeling excited about the days of outdoor fun that lay ahead of her, when she asked me something from the backseat that sent a chill through me.
"Mom, would it ever be okay to meet an online friend?"
Carefully, I said, "Do you mean meet a friend you know, or someone you met online?"
"Well, say, you made a friend online, and they wanted to meet you someday," she continued. "Would that be okay?"
Trying to stay calm, I told her, "No, honey. No, it would not...."
That was just the beginning of a long conversation—one we have had before—about some pretty terrible people in this world, who will pretend to be someone or something online that they aren't at all. And even though she assured me she has not talked to anyone she doesn't know online, that she was just curious, of course after I dropped her off, I did an exhaustive search of her iPod Touch and our home computers and tablets.
I have told my kids: no chatting with anyone they don't know online, ever. No posting or sharing photos of themselves, ever. And when I first gave them devices and thought I could set enough controls so they can't interact with strangers or sexual predators who lurk online where kids like to congregate, like games, I realize now how naive that was: Wherever there is Internet access, there's an opportunity to interact, and the ways and the platforms on which kids can "meet" other people keep on coming. Games, chat rooms, YouTube, and so on....
Then I happened to see this disturbing news this week, from a British study:
Nearly half of children ages 7 to 16 who make friends online go on to meet them in real life, and one in four go alone. The main route for establishing these stranger "friendships?" Online gaming.
Of course, I don't want my kids chatting with strangers online. (Yet how often do adults do this, in conversation threads on Instagram or Facebook, for instance?) But a generational divide may be hitting me in a few years, as a new Pew Center study has found a third of teens are meeting people in person who they "met" online first. In other words, their real and virtual worlds are more comfortably converged—much moreso for my comfort as a parent.
Recently, I had allowed my daughter, who's 10, to test the waters of messaging with one school friend, from her iPod Touch. She quickly broke every one of the firm guidelines I gave her, like not messaging in the morning before 9 or in the evening after 7 on school days, and not sending more than two messages in a row before patiently waiting for a response. ("You break that rule with me sometimes, Mom," she correctly pointed out.) Her messaging privileges were revoked, for months. And when I finally allowed her to message once more, she broke the rules, again.
It was a humbling lesson, and perplexing: This is a child who follows rules to the letter in real life. My takeaway is this: Just because I talk a good game of what she is/is not supposed to do with her device doesn't mean she has the maturity yet to handle all the temptations of modern technology. (Heck, I can barely keep myself from checking my own phone many times a day.) And this latest conversation and recent research has reminded me: I need to not only keep setting and checking privacy controls, but I must keep having this conversation with my kids, hoping good judgment will sink in, and continue to monitor their devices frequently. (I have their passwords, to their chagrin.) I'm in good company with these challenges: More than four in 10 seven-year-olds have their own devices, along with seven out of 10 kids aged 10.
I'd love to hear what's worked for you.
Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents and a mom of three.
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