In some ways we are so much more protective of our children now. I remember walking to kindergarten by myself, and at the age of four, playing alone with my best friend in the woods behind her house. That wouldn’t happen now – I can’t imagine letting my kids go fishing for minnows in a creek with no adult supervision as my sisters and I did on a regular basis as youngsters.
Despite our watchful tendencies these days, in many ways navigating our children’s friendships is so much more complicated. When I was a kid, my parents usually knew who I was with and where, and if I was chatting with a friend on the phone, it was generally on the one telephone in the kitchen within earshot of my parents. Our friends were kids from our school and/or neighborhood, and as most of our mothers were stay-at-home, everybody pretty much knew what their kids were up to.
Between cell phones, texting, social media sites, and online games, these days it’s hard to know who your kids are associating with and what they may be sharing. And with more parents working outside the home it’s harder to keep tabs on your kids at all times. That’s why it’s so important to keep the lines of communications open with your children and make sure that they understand the dangers inherent to making friends on the internet and giving out personal information, even with people they know.
Your child may have dozens or even hundreds of friend on Facebook, but what constitutes a ‘friend’ today? What a social site defines as a friend may in reality be just a casual acquaintance, or a friend of a friend of a friend. Your children may play online games against people that they have never met and never will. They could join a forum and end up forging a bond with someone from the other side of the country.
All of these online friendships offer a potential for danger that needs to be navigated carefully. While we warn our children to be on guard against online predators, we also need to caution them against sharing too much, even with those closest to them. They may know not to share personal information with strangers online, but do they realize that sharing an embarrassing photo or funny anecdote with their best friends may come back to haunt them? Be sure to remind your children that what is posted on the internet stays there. Photos can be altered and stories are passed from friend to friend without any malice intended and the fallout for your child can be damaging.
The open, friendly nature of social media sites can lull them into a false sense of security, potentially lowering their defences. Seeing others post details and photos naturally invites your child to share info of their own, especially at an age when it is important for them to feel included. Remind your child that despite the fact that these people may be labelled ‘friends’, if it is someone with whom they have little or no contact on a regular basis, that person doesn’t necessarily feel any loyalty to your child. Even without meaning to hurt, they may unthinkingly share your child’s photos or information in an inappropriate setting.
If your child visits a forum or game, they will be associating with other like-minded individuals. Again, this can be a tricky road to travel as their shared interests will create a feeling of solidarity. It is important to remember that, although they may enjoy similar pastimes, it doesn’t put their online friends on the same level as, say, their school friends, and your child needs to approach these relationships with that in mind.
Of course, the most important way to help your children cope with the vast array of media and technology allowing them to communicate with the world is to be their guide. Make sure they fully understand and take advantage of privacy settings on social media sites and talk to them often about the dangers of sharing personal info. Reiterate that they shouldn’t make plans to meet online friends in person. But rather than forbidding it outright, which may encourage them to go behind your back, let them know that if they have a good reason for wanting to get together with an online friend, the meeting must take place under adult supervision so you have a chance to vet their new friend. Even after the initial meeting it’s a good idea to keep a close watch on a relationship formed online.
While communicating your concerns and taking an interest in their activities is key, you also need to play detective at times and keep tabs on what they are doing. You can check their browser history to see which sites they are visiting. Visit their Facebook page to ensure they are exercising good judgment. Keep their computer in a public space in your home, rather than a bedroom where they might engage in activities that may be inappropriate. I am not suggesting invading your children’s privacy, but rather creating an environment that promotes open discussion about online activity and reinforces for your children that what they put out on the World Wide Web is visible to everyone.
And, as with every aspect of parenting, the single best thing you can do is to communicate and listen. Keep an open door policy and let them know that if a situation arises that they are unsure how to handle, you will be there to offer guidance and help them through it.