Sue Scheff: Deciding when to be a Cyber-Parent

Great article for all parents with teens/tween on social networking sites.

Deciding when to be a cyber-parent

Finding out what your kids are up to in cyberspace can be touchy, but experts say parents must try

Julianne Doctor doesn't bother sneaking around cyberspace to see what her teenage daughter Hayley is doing.

Instead, in the cyber-parenting version of having all the kids welcome to hang out in your rec room, Doctor wanders in and out of her daughter's cyberspaces and knows who she is hanging around with and what they're up to.

At a time when the first reaction of adults to this week's story about the Facebook "hit list" is to unplug the modem, or at the very least rush off to buy the latest cyber-sleuthing software for parents, Doctor's approach probably isn't the norm.

In a week when news broke of a Templeton high school student accused of having a Facebook hit list naming 117 people, I've heard of a worried mother reading her youngster's cellphone text message history and reporting the results to other parents; of parents sneaking onto their teens' Facebook profiles to see what they're sharing with their friends; and in perhaps a more extreme example, the parents who hired a forensic computer specialist to search out their daughter's cyber-stalker.

The latest Facebook furor points to ethical and moral dilemmas that can test young people in a way that goes beyond their technical expertise -- expertise though that often far surpasses that of many techno-stymied parents.

It raises tough questions about finking on Facebook. Is it okay to spy on your kids online? For kids, when do you rat out pals' plans to kill or otherwise harm themselves or others?

"I think parents do have an obligation to find out what their kids are doing online. If they are minors, that is part of being a parent," said Doctor, who is chairwoman-elect of the Vancouver district parent advisory council. "My daughter is on Facebook, so I joined Facebook so I could see what she is doing.

"If I see any behaviour that I think is inappropriate or suspect, I'll tell her."

While that sounds about as appealing to the average teen as taking your mom along when you hang out with your friends, Doctor sees it as simply part of the parameters she sets as a parent.

"Every once in a while [Hayley] gets upset, but she realizes if she wants to be able to go online, she is going to have to accept the fact that mom is going to check up," Doctor said. "Not that I think she is evil, but they are teenagers and they don't always make appropriate choices."

'Sexting' by students

That's precisely the dilemma facing Cathy Lowenstein, principal of Vancouver Talmud Torah school, which recently invited the Safe Online Outreach Society (SOLO) to give a presentation to parents in the wake of the school's discovery that some Grade 7 students were "sexting."

A combo of sex and texting, the term refers to the practice of sending sexual messages or images via cellphones.

"These kids are fabulous kids, but they are making wrong decisions," Lowenstein said. "They are just becoming teenagers and they are not thinking about the ramifications of what they are doing."

The kids will make comments online or in text messages they would never share face to face.

"It was very vulgar and offensive," Lowenstein said of the sexting, adding that such online dialogue has no match in the real world. "I've watched some of those kids who are getting into significant trouble with sexting at bar mitzvahs, and they are very shy socially."

Beating the system

Filtering software on computers and other measures to rein in kids' online activities often don't work. For one, most kids know how to get around the systems better than their parents. Just ask any high school student how to bypass filters that are supposed to keep them off certain sites. If they don't know, the answer is only a mouse-click away.

Plus, many young people are carrying around cellphones that are actually powerful Internet-connected computers. And they can go online at friends' homes and on public Internet-connected computers.

"Their cellphones are powerful tools and they are no longer used for calling a friend," Lowenstein said. "They have much more sophisticated uses for them."

Lowenstein said such problems at her school are ones that every school faces. Her school works both to educate children and their parents, and this week's SOLO presentation drew an immediate and enthusiastic response.

"I don't want to say it's ignorance, but parents sometimes don't know what they are looking for," Lowenstein said. "They are not on Facebook, they don't text themselves."

Robert Schertzer, who with his wife Laura Rosenthal has a 12-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son, was among the parents at the SOLO presentation. But as a tech-savvy ophthalmologist who has his own Facebook profile, is on Twitter and other social media, he already knew much of the material that other parents were hearing for the first time.

"Neither our son or daughter is on Facebook and we are always grappling with how much screen time they should have," Schertzer said.

Their limit is one hour of screen time a day, which covers both television and computers, upped to an hour and a half on weekends, far below the British Columbia average of 17.4 hours a week among Internet users.

"My daughter e-mails a bit, but she knows we have her user name and password," Schertzer said.

It could be said that Hayley Doctor is more fortunate because, as she says, her mother, with a "hipper iPod and a better phone" than she has, is very up-to-date.

For Hayley, a Grade 10 student at Vancouver Technical secondary school, having her mom in her online world hasn't deterred others from joining her Facebook network.

"I don't really mind," she said. "It is kind of awkward when she comments on something I say. Like, I'd say, 'I had a delicious supper,' and she'd say, 'Wasn't that good?' and friends will say, 'Oh my God your mother is there.'

"I guess they don't expect it because their parents aren't really into what they are doing online."

But they should be, according to Merlyn Horton, executive director of Safe Online Outreach Society.

"As adults we have never had the opportunity to observe youth being youth as we do now when we observe them as friends on Facebook," Horton said. "I think parents should 'friend' their kids, but I don't think they should go through everything grilling them."

'We are losing our youth'

Just as parents go to soccer games, drive to music lessons and spend time in the many other real-life activities that fill children's lives, Horton said they should be prepared to spend time in their cyberspace world.

Pleading techno-ineptitude is no excuse, according to Horton, who points out that while many kids can get around any cyber-tracking attempts by parents and schools, they don't have the life experience to deal with the challenges of becoming a good cyber-citizen.

"We are losing our youth," she said. "Why would they trust us if we don't know anything about the Web?

"If we have youth in our lives, we need to be able to advise them about how to be safe, what is a good choice and what is a bad choice and why."

Trust is integral to that relationship, Horton said, and parents and educators who sneak around trying to spy on kids online are proving they are untrustworthy and destroying their own credibility as potential advisors on online behaviour.

"That's like reading someone's diary. It would be the equivalent of my parents hiding out in the dumpster at the back of the A&W when I was a teen hanging out with my friends," she said. "You have to be a trustworthy adult in order to build trusting relationships with your kids."

Those relationships can be particularly important when youth run into problems online.

"When I was growing up I used to be able to go to my aunt with questions and she'd have the answers," Horton said. "Now, if you go to auntie and say, 'What did you do the first time someone flashed you a penis on MSN?' she's liable to run out of the room and take the modem with her."

Which leads to key advice for parents and educators: Try to avoid the impulse to react by blocking every Internet connection in sight.

"I think with the issue at hand with the Templeton kid, people are overreacting and assuming everything on the Internet is bad and has to be monitored, but that is not really the case," Hayley Doctor said.

Just like the real world, the online world where youth spend time has some bad experiences. While the Templeton school case made the news for the scope of the threat and the discovery of weapons, threatening comments online are probably just as common as they are among youth in real life, but of the milder "I'm going to beat you up" variety.

Hayley said while she would report anything that would appear to be life-threatening, in her online world, the vitriol doesn't amount to much more than "I hate that teacher" comments.

"We have pretty innocent things going on in my world at least," she said.

While it hasn't happened to her, Hayley said in the past she has had friends whose online accounts were hacked.

"People would go on and delete their stuff or say things that were mean," she said.

The online impersonation can be part of cyber-bullying, a practice so distressing that it has caused some victims, such as 13-year-old Megan Meier, to commit suicide.

Deciding what to act on

David Colarusso, who taught high-school physics in a suburb of Boston, had a Facebook group for his class in addition to his own Facebook profile. Mostly students were on the class group but occasionally some would ask to be a Facebook friend on Colarusso's own profile.

"I said, 'I will friend you, but I am going to give you a limited profile and I suggest you do the same, because if I see something inappropriate I am going to have to deal with that,'" said Colarusso who gave up teaching this year to go to law school.

The online connection, Colarusso said, was no different in some ways from overhearing students' conversations in labs or chatting with them after class. Sometimes a teacher must decide whether overheard comments should be acted on or if their context suggests there is no problem.

One time, Colarusso said a status update by a student left him worried that the student needed help.

"I engaged with the student, just to touch base," he said. As it turned out, the comment wasn't an indication of a serious problem.

"If there really is a clear health and safety issue, the decision is clear and you simply do what is best for the student," he said. "But if there is some ambiguity, you don't want to violate that student's trust and have them sitting in your class every day fuming because you are a teacher who made a mountain out of a molehill."

Ryan Purita, forensic examiner and security specialist with Sherlock Forensics, is called in when the issues are indeed mountains. In one case, parents turned to him when their daughter's online identity was stolen by an angry ex-boyfriend.

"Their daughter had been going out with someone, she broke up with him and he broke into her Hotmail account and into her MSN and was impersonating her to find out information about what she was doing from her friends," Purita said.

He was able to track the man's Internet protocol address and through that, he said police were able to identify the ex-boyfriend as the culprit.


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