Can we know everything our kids do online?

by Erin Nelson- July 30, 2012 • 3:37 pm

“22% [of parents] live in denial, claiming that their kids can’t get in trouble online,” reports a recent study about how much parents know about their kids’ online activity.

Characterizing parents who don’t think their children can get in trouble online as “in denial” is harsh. But I think before we deem these 22% Good or Bad parents, we need to know why they think this. Do they have “good kids” (which may just mean they’ve been “good parents”)? Have they had Important Discussions with their children and instituted safeguards? Or does determining their status have more to do with what I find the most telling—and poignant—statistic in the report: “23% of parents admit they are overwhelmed by modern technology, so they can only hope for the best.”

“Hope for the best.” Sure, that does sound kind of like denial … or like choosing battles. Yes, sexting and cyberbullying, for starters, are serious problems with serious consequences. And yes, kids (who are honing their impulse control … aren’t we all, really?) don’t grasp the potential long-term effects on their reputation and development of what they consume and create online. But we parents (have to) admit to ourselves—way before our kids are tweens, and repeatedly, throughout our lives—that childrearing consists of gradually relinquishing control over and participation in our children’s experiences. (Which doesn’t happen smoothly and consistently, of course.) To think or do otherwise is to invite insanity.

Trouble is, there’s no way to know if the battle you choose is the right one, at the right time. We live with—and try not to be driven absolutely mad by—the fear that the one time we don’t chime in will be the time their mistake has disastrous consequences. “If only I had …,” we don’t ever want to wonder.

So, where is the line between letting kids learn from mistakes and protecting them from mistakes whose price is just too high? This question is as old as parenting itself. Perhaps a more accurate version would be: How do we as parents do a good enough job, given that we cannot do it all? What areas of our children’s experience do we focus on, knowing that we cannot be with them around the clock, nor would that actually be good for them?

I propose that one place to start is to give each other a break, and work together. Let’s spend time talking to other parents, sharing information, and helping each other through our worries, failures, and regrets. Somewhat ironically, the dangers we want to protect our children from and educate them about coexist with the support and camaraderie we need. Where? Online. One of the best things I think we can do for our kids, rather than spend all our energy researching What Can Go Wrong is to take a little time to become informed, responsible participants in the media available to us—and make sure they know we’re doing it. Share lessons or stories you value from a blog or community you follow (I’m a big fan of Momastery and Mamapedia). Demonstrate texting at its best: a way to share tidbits of our day-to-day lives with distant friends and relatives (my daughter loves the videos her cousins send, via messages from my sister-in-law to me).

Getting back to that study, and those “in denial” parents: more than 3 in 4 parents think they know everything their children do online, but two-thirds of teens say they’ve tried to hide their online activities from their parents. Is this really anything new? Granted, the consequences can be harsher and longer-lasting than the old-school versions of hiding activities (sneaking out of the house, for example). As one of my colleagues wisely pointed out, kids just don’t get that posting on Facebook is like standing up in front of their entire school, in the auditorium, shouting from the stage (something I’m imagining most kids wouldn’t care to do). But what do we gain from scaring ourselves and each other with Worst Case Scenarios? Being informed is good. Being alarmist is not.

We do need to give our kids the experience of privacy, so they can develop autonomy and learn to respect it in others. But what is the difference between craving privacy in order to forge your own identity, and craving privacy because you know that what you’re doing is wrong? And how do we instill in our kids the ability to sense—and act on—the difference? This is way harder to address than the degree to which we keep track of our kids’ online escapades, and I feel for parents who feel out of their depth, strapped for the time and energy to be as vigilant as they may like to be.

So maybe these 22% aren’t necessarily in denial. Maybe they know full well their kids can get in trouble online and have begun to resign themselves—as we all must—to the harsh truth that kids can always get in trouble, somewhere, somehow, despite our watchful eyes. But that can be an overwhelming truth to face, All the Time. On some days, “hoping for the best” is the best we can do.

Photo via misko13.

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