A Child Therapist’s Trick for Helping a Teen Understand Cyber Safety

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I want to tell you a little story.

It happened last week when some friends arrived for a welcome visit. They have kids, one of whom is teetering perilously on the edge of girlie teen-dom so things are getting … interesting.

She’s a beautiful girl, through and through. One of those kids you instantly adore and you just know is going to grow into a special, warm funny person. I’m biased I know, but I’m pretty sure that if you met her you’d probably want to adopt her!

help your teen understand online safety

So anyway, we’re sitting around the table, grown-ups and kids, and I notice that she’s missing. Then I see her through the glass partition and she’s dancing. And she’s GOOD! She has all the moves, great rhythm (having super cool musician parents probably helping there …). She’s singing, working that lovely face, flicking that fab long hair and posing, into her phone.

And I get that small chill I always get when I see kids doing that posing thing. I guess it’s my job. I’m hyper aware of early sexualization, internet safety, all that stuff. I then wonder if I’m being overly cautious as I watch her – after all she’s just having fun, right?

So I catch her eye and call her in. I ask her to show me what she’s doing and she opens up her Musical.ly app. I do the whole “I’m-a-dumb-adult-I-know-nothing” thing and ask her who can actually see her videos. I also go on to ask if her “friends” can see her videos. Who are her friends? How many of them does she know in real life?

I brace myself for the answers and sure enough, they’re even more chilling. She starts by telling me how safe it is. That her account is private, no worries. OK, so far so good. Adults around table relieved. She says that she knows her (hundreds of) friends personally, or at least they are friends of friends. She knows this to be true because she can see their names and photos on her friends’ lists. She pats me on the hand to reassure me. So sweet.

So like, obviously they’re all just kids her own age…

OMG

But is there any chance any of these might be older people pretending to be younger people I ask? ‘God no!’ she says, and also ‘GROSS…!!’ She looks at me like I’ve offered her a dead rat for dessert. ‘Would you accept a friend request from a stranger?’  ‘No, no don’t worry.’ Silly Sally.

#rollseyesattheoldperson

I accept what she says and change the subject. Then I slip to the bathroom, make a fake profile with a fake girlie sounding name, and I use a pic of my super-cute cat as a profile pic. Then I send her a friend request because I can. I can see all her stuff and I can send her a request. Private it ain’t.

And she accepts.

By the time I’m back at the table I have a new profile and a new friend. I can see all her friends’ profiles too. I can see where they live, the inside of their houses and bedrooms. I know what music they like and what times they tend to make their videos. I know what routes they take when they’re out together.

I could friend them too if I wanted.

She is shocked when I tell her what I’ve done. She genuinely didn’t know. Her parents went suitably ballistic but in that caring way that they’re so good at. She gets it alright. She locks down her privacy there and then, deletes a pile of ‘friends’ and we all heave a sigh of relief.

I feel a little bad afterwards for tricking her like this. But I comfort myself that it was well intentioned. Simply asking her if she knew that “privacy” doesn’t actually work. She just said, “Yes, I know, and yes, everything is private”.

OMG again.

So I sent her an in-app message that evening:

keeps kids safe online

Her response echoed the sentiments of kids I see as clients or sex-ed students. They want independence and not to be monitored. And they want to be cared for and protected too, even if that means being monitored and not being independent. Their job is to be outwardly annoyed by our efforts. Our job is to press on and not take it personally.

Are they happy about being watched by us? Like she said – no, yes.

They don’t always know how to safely/fully/properly use the tech they’re using –  they often think they do, but they don’t. So we need to check. No generation of parents have ever had this complex a challenge. And no parent, no matter how young or up-to-date, like these friends of mine, can know everything.

If we don’t know what our kids are using, we can certainly ask. If they don’t know about the settings, Google will and we can learn together. There are new apps moving in and out of vogue all the time. (I also want to alert you to the new-ish  Yellow app.

So, it’s hard, but we need to keep up as best we can. If we cooperate with our friends and be clear that it’s OK to look out for/teach each others’ kids then all the better. It really does take a village to raise a child.

The payoff will be to have wiser, safer kids who knows all about boundaries and safety. Worth it, right?

education for safety