I’d love to be more optimistic about this topic, but we need to stop fooling ourselves. Protecting children from the dangers of the Internet is far more impossible than we want to admit and the best way to protect your kids has nothing to do with any of their apps or devices.
I recently read a blog by a very well-meaning person who had techniques to protect children using the “three most popular” social media apps. I truly believe this person had nothing but good intentions, but their “three most popular” social media apps list was probably outdated two years ago. It didn’t mention Snapchat and didn’t seem to recognize that most teens have abandoned Facebook at this point.
It was the kind of advice that does enough to assuage most parents’ concerns without having to think critically or learn too much. And I think it unintentionally does more to hurt than help.
The Kids Are Smarter Than Us
When it comes to technology, younger generations are always going to be ahead of older ones. I believe this comes from technology being so intertwined and synonymous with pop culture.
Facebook became popular a dozen years ago because younger people were using it. Facebook got lame a few years ago because older people started. The youth migrated to Instagram and Snapchat, which are now slowly being infiltrated like Facebook was. What are the next hot social media apps going to be? It’s going to be up to a younger generation to decide and it will be some time before they let us know.
Technology development moves too fast for anybody to keep up with it, much less an adult who has an otherwise full life with a job, a home and children to raise.
You can use filters, firewalls, and other barricades on the apps or sites you know your children are using, but what about the ones you don’t know about?
I have an 18-year-old daughter who has filled me on so much of what is out there today that parents don’t realize. Protect your kid all you want on Instagram. They know how to make an account-within-an-account. While they know how to do that, we barely understand what it even means. She can rattle off the names of a dozen new apps and more come out every day.
Believing that you will ever know more or be one step ahead of your children when it comes to the evolution of technology is a dangerous assumption to make.
The Kids Are Not as Smart as Us
We have the benefit of life experience. We’ve been knocked down, lied to, cheated on, betrayed, conned and hurt plenty of times. By virtue of time, those negative experiences have happened far less to younger people. Lessons we may have learned that make us leery of people are ones they haven’t recognized yet.
At some point, you got that first “Nigerian Prince wants to leave you money” e-mail. While you’ve probably had so many fake, scam emails in the years since that they don’t even register as real now, do you remember that first time? Even if you quickly dismissed it as having to be false, for just a second, didn’t you want to believe?
When I was engaging in the nefarious online behavior that eventually led to my arrest, I was able to convince very smart women to do things online they would otherwise never do in real life. They met what they thought was a nice-looking guy in his early 20s who was sweet. That was a video. Nobody noticed when it looped and I had short clips of him smiling, waving, making the peace symbol, etc. that I could insert when needed. While the woman was talking to a video on one side of the screen, I’d be taking information from our chat, figuring out who they were and learning more about them.
I learned patterns of behavior in the women I engaged with and predicting what they would say or do became easier. I learned how to manipulate women who never thought they could be manipulated. Most still hadn’t realized when we were done. This behavior was disgusting, wrong and I deserved the jail sentence I got for it. You can read my book or other articles on this site if you want to learn more about what happened.
But for every guy like me who gets caught and addresses the issues that brought them to that point, there are probably 100 more who never do. They’re still out there and if those guys can manipulate educated adults (likely on websites you’ve never heard of, but your kids probably have) what chance does the younger generation have? Wisdom only comes with age.
The Kids Live in the Real World
You may be able to lull yourself into the false sense of security that you’ve got your child’s internet activity locked down at home, but what can you really do when they leave the house? If you’ve banned it at home, how can you find that Snapchat account they opened at the sleepover at their friend’s house? How can you prevent them from sitting at the lunch table and using another child’s account on that kid’s phone?
Here’s the truth we don’t want to face: We have far less control over our children than we tell ourselves. We’re not with them 24/7 and can’t monitor all of their actions. You’re not the magical parent who can say “Don’t ever do this” and the child always listens. Sure, they’re not going to put their hand on a hot stove, but looking at Instagram photos seems far less dangerous in their eyes.
The Kids Are Looking for Guidance
Thankfully, kids are hardwired to seek solutions from sources that seem safe and protective. Kids want to learn and that curiosity should not be feared. Yes, they want to learn about social media, but they also want to learn how to be safe, even if they don’t express it.
And they’re going to learn from somewhere…
If you run your home like a dictatorship and believe your positional authority as the parent gives you total control over your child’s mind and spirit, you’re in for a rocky road. Teaching your child how to think is far more important than teaching them what to think. Giving them the skills to make good decisions is far better than telling them what the good decisions are.
My kids are far better adjusted than I ever was because I grew up in a house where silence and avoidance of unpleasant things was the norm. My wife deserves all the credit for our kids.
I ended up where I did in life because I was taught to avoid negative thoughts and feelings (which helped me become an alcoholic and porn addict) and that actions don’t always have consequences (which helped me end up in jail.)
Here’s the rough part: you actually have to be an active parent. You need to build bridges of trust and communication. You need to help develop your child’s critical thinking skills around right vs. wrong and cause & effect. You need to help them understand the choices they make produce certain outcomes and if they can predict those outcomes in advance, they can make better decisions.
Right now, we’re in a world of parents who know their children don’t possess those skills, so instead of being proactive and building them, we are being reactive and trying to manipulate their behavior to very mixed results. You can’t instill the experience of wisdom, but you can teach critical thinking skills early on.
I don’t have a step-by-step guide of how to raise your specific kid or how to know they have developed the mental tools they need. Again, active parenting will help you figure that out.
We’re going to make our greatest strides against the evils of the Internet when we pour far more energy into teaching our kids how to protect themselves from danger than trying to do it for them. That just leaves them curious and less inhibited when they finally get online.