Double Take: Privacy issues or not, children still need parenting on the Internet

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dear Dr. Wes & Samantha: I read your Dec. 1 article, “Parents have right and responsibility to check Facebook accounts.” I have a 10-year-old daughter, and I feel like if she is given no privacy and no trust (I read your comment on that also) she will move heaven and earth to break every rule I give her. But I don’t want her getting in trouble online. She has Facebook and MySpace accounts and e-mail and is happy to tell me the passwords. However, where do you draw the line?

Wes: I think the words “privacy” and “Facebook” should never be used in the same sentence. Same with text messaging and e-mail. Yet I hear this all the time, from kids wanting electronic “privacy” and parents worried about giving it to them.

As teenagers get older, they must receive greater latitude in what they’re allowed to keep private. That’s not because growth and maturity make them more trustworthy. That generally doesn’t happen until they’re well past the age of majority. Some teens have better judgment than others, but even the wisest kids don’t want you knowing everything they do. You probably wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) approve. The reason you respect privacy more as they age is because they need to experience a reasonable degree of trial and error. Besides, you can’t follow a 17-year-old around 24/7 unless you have grave concerns.

The entire point of social networking is to post online whatever you want the world to see. Granted, that world is supposed to be limited to your friends list. But that’s like saying articles in The New York Times are limited to subscribers. Instead, pretend that once it’s posted, it’s pretty much on the front page of The New York Times. And it will never go away. So that leaves us with the big question: If your child wants to put her life online, why wouldn’t she want you to see it? Is it really that smart for a teen, or even a young adult, to post content they don’t want their mom to see? What about a future employer or perfect dating partner? Is that material any more appropriate for them than the old folks at home?

Finally, your child isn’t even a teenager yet. While it is arguable whether a 16- or 17-year-old must friend her mom and dad, any pre- or early teen should not be allowed free reign of Facebook. I don’t agree that the immediate threat is from a bunch of pervs in cyberspace. It’s from material and activity kids get straight from their peer group and what they put up themselves. So especially at this early stage it is imperative that you supervise her online activity. As she gets older, you can review those constraints to see if they are still age-appropriate.

The point of being a teen is to do teenager things. The point of being a parent is to do parent things. Pick your battles carefully, but set a structure for your child. Don’t get caught in the trap of trusting kids in ways they simply can’t handle. Good online habits between you and your 10-year-old now will pay off later when things get a lot rockier.

Samantha: As Wes notes, age 10 is pretty young to join Facebook and MySpace. Since your daughter is probably one of the youngest people on these sites, you really need to watch out for her. It’s OK to set limits. She’s only a child.

If she’s a bit of a rule breaker and she doesn’t respond well with being told what to do, you’ll need some new approaches to the problem.

Scare her. Remind her she’s a 10-year-old on Web sites that anyone from 8 to 80 could be using. Tell her that there are scary people online who pretend they are older or younger than they really are because they are trying to hurt her or make her do things she doesn’t want to do.

Look at her profile while she’s using it. Make a habit of being in the room while she’s on the Internet. Don’t let her take a laptop to her room. It’s easy to be involved in her Internet usage if you take genuine interest in the site. Help her pick out a profile image (maybe have her use an image of a favorite character on TV). Help her write her info box so you can limit personal information. Ask her to show you all her friends, and casually inquire where she knows each of them from. If she sees that you care what she’s putting up, she’s more likely to think it through the next time she posts something.

Protect your daughter by setting limits for her that she understands. Answer all her questions about rules you make, and she’ll feel less inclined to break them. Her safety is much more important than her privacy or her liking you.

Next week: College Choices. The time is coming.

— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to All correspondence is strictly confidential.