Point/counterpoint: Sarah Darer Littman on proactive parenting

When my daughter was in 5th grade, one of her friends, angry that she hadn’t been invited on a trip to the city, created a website called “Ihate_______”(insertmydaughter’sname). I didn’t find out what was going on until the situation had been going on for well over a month and a half, by which time my daughter had responded to the friend with a series of emails that became equally nasty in tone. Other girls in the class became involved and were just as nasty online.

One night, I asked my daughter what was bothering her and she finally broke down and told me. I had a long discussion with her with her about what had transpired. After investigating the facts, even though she had initially been the victim, I revoked her Internet privileges for several weeks. This might seem harsh, but my rationale – which I explained in our discussion – was as follows: the way she’d responded in those emails was not the way I’d brought her up to behave and by retaliating instead of coming to me, she hadn’t used good judgment.

I’d expected a fight when I took away her computer but she handed it over without an argument. To be honest, I think she was relieved.

What blew my mind, after talking to the parents of the other kids involved, was the level of denial. One mom said, “Oh, but they’re such good kids, I can’t believe they’d do anything nasty.” I was sorely tempted to forward her some of the emails her darling had been sending to the creator of the website. They contained words that would have made a sailor blush.

I’m not saying these aren’t good kids. They are all “good kids”. But what I’ve learned is that even good kids – the ones who are polite to their friends’ parents, make honor roll, volunteer for all the “right” causes – can behave badly online.

Unfortunately, many adults are no different, as you can see by reading the comments section on any newspaper website. But take, for instance, a teen girl who sends a sexy picture to her boyfriend – the consequences of that decision for both the sender and the recipient (and any future recipients if they break up and the picture is forwarded) are serious.

I never wanted to be blindsided by my kids’ online activities again. Back in 2003, I’d taken part in the Citizens Police Academy run by our local police department. After this incident, I called the detective in charge of cyber crime and asked him for advice. He recommended the monitoring software that I’ve been using ever since.

I told both my children I was putting the software on their laptops. It’s never been a matter of me being sneaky and conducting undercover surveillance. I respect my kids too much for that. I said that it was a condition of them being on the Internet until they were legally old enough to take responsibility for their own actions. Because let’s face it – I’m the Parent with a capital P. I’m the one who is legally and financially responsible for anything that they do until they reach majority.

My use of monitoring software has always been part of the wider conversation with my kids about online use, etiquette and safety. It’s helped prevent at least one potentially dangerous situation and created countless teachable moments about what is and is not appropriate to do online.

There’s controversy about the use of parental monitoring software. Cory Doctorow believes it is teaching kids to believe that surveillance in general – and thus government surveillance – is acceptable, in order to keep them safe.

I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, when I came home from the ALA Privacy and Youth Conference in Chicago, where Doctorow had put forth this argument in a Skype presentation, I told my son that apparently I was teaching him to accept government surveillance. He gave me that over-the-glasses look and said with the kind of snark that teens deliver best, “Oh yes! I believe Government Surveillance is Great!”

I’m a political columnist as well as a YA author, and have discussed the Patriot Act with him ad nauseum. I’ve read my kids the hate mail I’ve received from angry readers after some of my columns were published, the ones that called me an “America-hating Terrorist lover”, or telling me that I was “using the American Way of Life to Destroy the American Way of Life and the Rest of Western Civilization in the Process”. They’ve had to deal with us having an unlisted phone number after I started getting nasty letters at our house, and as a single mother I became nervous.

It all comes down to THE CONVERSATIONS. I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t have a respectful and open relationship with your children, no amount of technology is going to keep them safe. If you are a “helicopter parent” who worries about everything, then you should not be using this software, because the temptation to analyze every conversation will drive both you and your child crazy. It works in our family because the only time I talk about what I might have seen in the reports is if it is something unsafe or there has been a netiquette transgression.

At the Youth and Privacy Conference, someone asked if I’d ever read my daughter’s diary. “Of course not!” I replied. They couldn’t see the difference between reading my daughter’s diary and using monitoring software.

Here’s the difference and I think it’s REALLY important: My daughter’s diary is in a notebook somewhere in her disgustingly messy room. But that room is contained in my house, which is protected by a security system that is linked to our local police department, and I know personally everyone who comes in and out of that room.

But the moment she turns on her laptop the situation changes. The entire world gains access – any stranger can enter. And because my daughter feels safe because she is in her room, at home, she’ll feel more comfortable interacting with them than she would if she were at a shopping mall or on a city street or in a dark alley.

Hence the monitoring software. I view it as the online version of the burglar alarm I have to protect my home.

My son is turning 18 soon and he’s getting a new computer for college. He knows that the new computer will be free of monitoring software, and he also knows that he will now be legally accountable for himself and his actions. No Mom to fall back on.

There are plenty of fires happening offline when you have teenagers that you have to deal with reactively on a day-to-day basis – but the Internet is just too big of a risk to take. It’s like an elephant. It never forgets. And one little mistake can travel worldwide.

Being a pro-active parent online gives my kids the room to make their mistakes in their offline lives, where there is more privacy and the consequences for slipping up are more contained.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning author of books for young people. Learn more about Sarah and her writing at http://sarahdarerlittman.com

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