No language or words can express the power of the love a parent feels for their child. It’s indescribable and for many of us, it was an instant love. I remember being handed my first-born moments after he was born and being overwhelmed by the immense responsibility I immediately felt. I wanted to guide him, nurture him, raise him with values and morals, show him unconditional love, but most of all I wanted to protect him.
Like most parents “stranger danger” was a commonly used phrase in our home as our kids grew up. We taught them to be careful of people they didn’t know and warned them about dangerous situations like the man asking for help finding his puppy, needing directions, or offering free candy. I followed my children like the Secret Service the first time they rode their bikes to school and laid awake at night worried that they might encounter someone at school who would bully or be mean to them. I wanted to protect them from any situation that would cause them physical or emotional harm. I wore the badge of Mama-Bear proudly and protecting my cubs was my job.
When all three of my children were in middle school, we gave them a cell phone and stranger danger was somehow tossed out. Shame on us. Sure, we warned them about the dangers of having a phone but handing them a cell phone is like handing them access to the world: the good, the bad and the ugly. Our children, the most precious treasures we have, face tremendous danger every day, every time, they push the “on” button. We should worry less about the boogey man or the creeper in the windowless van and more about the person our child connects with on their cell phones, laptops, or gaming sites.
Many parents are under the misassumption that raising toddlers is the hardest time as a parent- that’s no longer true. Parenting teenagers in the age of the internet is confusing, exhausting, and challenging. It takes effort to keep up with what our teenagers are doing, who they are talking with and who is influencing their lives. A 2016 survey by Flagship Research estimates that this year 88% of 12- to 17-year-olds will have mobile phones and 84% will have smart phones.
Smart phones integrate all aspects of a teenager’s social life, such as friends’ phone numbers, social calendars, photos, music, games, and even the ability to shop. But most importantly, cell phones offer teenagers a social connection and social network that is mobile, portable, and instant. They have immediate access to their friends, where they are and what their friends are thinking or doing.
Here is where the real dangers lie: our kids are talking with people they think are their friends, think know their friends, think are their peers, or think like they do. They are being manipulated, violated, and extorted into doing things they know are wrong, either because they want to be liked and admired or because they are become afraid of who is on the other end of the phone. Our kids can switch from being naïve, innocent young people to fearful, exploited and threatened with the click of a button.
If you have somehow convinced yourself this is only happening in “bad homes” with neglectful or unconcerned parents, you are wrong. It’s happening all over, to good kids from good families who live in nice communities, and it’s epidemic.
Handing your teenager a cell phone that they can use constantly, without supervision, is like handing them an addictive substance and not monitoring it. Smart phones offer 24-hour access to serious dangers and seriously dangerous people. It’s unfortunate how much innocence can be lost via a cell phone. It’s like our kids have an X-rated movie theatre in their back pocket.
As parents we are left scrambling, panicking, and searching for answers. What are they doing? What can I do? What’s next? Who do I turn to? How can I protect them? How will I know? The questions are endless because so is the love we feel for our child.
If you have a teenager with a cell phone, I-pad, or laptop, it starts with open conversations. Set rules and boundaries to protect them like never reveal personal information about yourself; never respond to a threatening email or message – and tell a parent if you receive one; and no visiting chat rooms, since child predators frequent them to meet and it seems to be a breeding ground for exploitation. Make sure you have the passcode to their phone. This is a no brainer. As a therapist I am blown away when I hear parents say their kids “won’t give” them their passcode, as if it is a choice. Your teenager should be reminded that you own the phone, they are simply leasing it from you. Monitor the hours they are on electronics or gaming units and randomly ask to look at their phone to see who they are connecting with. Let them know that anytime you ask them to hand over their phone or lap top, they comply. Any hesitation or resistance will result in them losing it. Cell phones are a teenage privilege, not a right.
If they have a social media account, you should follow it and have the veto power over any pictures or tweets they think are inappropriate. Look at their list of followers and ask about people you don’t recognize. Make sure they are actual people your teenager has met, not just “friends of friends”. Be okay if your kid tells you that you are weird, calls you a stalker and tells you that no one else’s parents do this. Make decisions based on your child, not other parents.
Apps like Net Nanny or Teen Safe are used to monitor on-line activity and many parents find them helpful. Don’t think of it as spying, use it as a window into your child’s digital world. Be willing to go to the conversations that might make us feel awkward or uncomfortable such as sexual predators, pornography or sextortion. If you don’t talk about these with your kid, someone else will. Let your teenager know that they can come to you to talk, even if they make a mistake, and you will help them without being angry. Remind them that we all make mistakes and your job is to love them unconditionally, which means mistakes won’t change or diminish your love for them.
Finally, I have attached an audio message to my blog. I strongly encourage every parent of a pre-teen or teenager to listen to it. Boy or girl, middle or high school, it doesn’t matter. Trust me, it’s eight minutes every parent should hear. It is the true story of something that happened last year in my home town, a wholesome community, where people feel safe and assume their kids are safe as well. As much as we would like to think, none of us live in a bubble and none of us are immune to the dangers of the internet. If it can happen to a young girl, from a loving and supportive home, it can happen to anyone. Please take the time to listen, not just to her story, but to her powerful message that we must be pro-active parents who listen to our gut, tune into our kids, and set boundaries that protect them from difficult situations like her daughter experienced. Please use this mother’s painful true story as a wake-up call to anyone who thinks “not my kid”. The mother in the audio message is one of us, a present and caring parent– she could be your neighbor, your daughters best friend or even you.
Please re-post and share this powerful audio message. Let’s do our part to get the word out that it can happen to any of us, regardless of where we live. Let’s tell our teenagers that stranger danger still applies, regardless of how old they are. Let’s remind parents that teenagers still need guidance and boundaries to be emotionally healthy and safe. Let’s commit to raising responsible and respectful young people. Let’s be parents who warn other parents and live the concept “It takes a village”. Let’s protect our kids, their childhood, and their young spirits. Let’s take our job seriously. Let’s be the change our kids need.
Click A Mother’s Story to download the audio to email or re-post it.