Spies Like Us: Facebook, Parents, and Teen Privacy

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I came across this graphic last week, and had a real guttural feeling about it.  But, I promised myself I’d take a full week to mull over what I was feeling, and why.  Click inside to find out why I think this graphic doesn’t bode well for our kids.

What Parents are Doing About What Their Kids are Doing

With our kids being on all kinds of social networks these days, I don’t disagree that it’s vitally important that we keep up with what they’re doing.  I am vehemently opposed to letting a child simply play on the computer, without the need to check up on them.  I get quite angry when parents brag about how much their child does on the computer or smartphone, and then also talks about how little they actually know about technology.  It’s akin to bragging about how much television your child watches, without knowing that the Spice channel is unlocked on your cable service.

Which Social Network is Your Teen On?

My problem with the graphic is not how many parents keep an eye on their child’s social networking activity.  I’m encouraged that 55% of parents say they keep an eye on their child’s social networking.  It’s the 41% who don’t just say “No,” but “No, I wouldn’t do that.”  Do what?  Not look at what they’re doing online?  Do these parents think it’s like a private journal?  It’s not.  Your kid’s friends are reading their wall, friends of their friends are reading their wall, stalkers are reading their walls, colleges are reading their wall, and so should you.

What Should I Do?

The more a parent treats a child’s social network as private, the more children will start to believe that it *is* private.  They’ll believe it’s their own, private corner of the world where they can express themselves and say what they want.  Social networks are corners of the world where children can express themselves, but they’re not private.  So, how should I keep an eye on my child’s online behavior?

It’s not an issue I have to deal with, quite yet.  My oldest son is 6, and isn’t on Facebook (more than letting him post vacation pictures), but he is on social gaming sites such as Club Penguin, Pop Tropica, and Clone Wars Adventures.  Even with those, we had to setup parameters:

  • You have to ask permission to log on;
  • The computer is in the hallway, a common area;
  • At any time, I could ask you what you’re doing (more out of genuine curiosity than checking up);
  • You only choose servers with constructed responses (meaning, no open chat, only “Hey!” and “Cool shot!” responses).

So, knowing that I have time to figure this out, but that it’s coming, what should I do?  Well, I shouldn’t do what 13% of parents do (logging in a friends account), or what the 35% of “Others” do (which, I’m assuming, is logging into their child’s account via stored passwords).  In fact, I shouldn’t “spy” at all.  Spying implies that I’m looking in on my son without him knowing.  That could dissolve trust between a him and me.  Additionally, it does nothing to teach him proper behavior online.  It’s a “GOTCHA!” tactic that will only build-up resentment between a my son and me, and more than likely won’t solve future occurrences.

The solution is actually pretty simple.  It’s honest.  It helps him know from the beginning what the expectations are, and that I’m watching.  It also helps me keep on the cutting edge of the ever-developing social networks:

Sign up for an account, and Friend your child.  That’s it.

Set up the expectation: As long as my child has a profile, I am one of his friends.  I tell him that I won’t be checking it everyday, and I probably won’t be checking it much at all, but that I need the ability to.

I need to be honest with myself: I’m going to be checking his Facebook anyway; at least this way I’m being open and honest.  Plus, just knowing that I could check at any time will make him second guess before he posts something.  Now, does this mean that he will simply post it somewhere else?  Possibly, and I’ll need to talk with him, and find out where else he’s networking (Twitter? Google+? Good ole’ chat rooms?).  Could it force him to be even more sneaky, and I’ve now lost one avenue of communication with your child?  Maybe.  But, the alternative is pure dishonesty and guerrilla tactics.

And, let’s say I catch him doing something on Facebook that I need to talk to him about; yet, I found out about it by “spying.”  How does that conversation go?  I can tell you what the teenager is thinking, “OMG! You’re spying on me?  I can never trust you!”  Now, I have two issues to deal with: what he posted on Facebook, and the fact that he now doesn’t want to listen to a single thing I have to say.

One more note.  To the 5% who said they would check on their child, if only they knew how?  Shame on you.  You’re letting ignorance (and, let’s face it, laziness) get in the way of you knowing what your child is doing online.  We don’t claim ignorance when faced with how to deal with a 1 year old with a fever.  Do your research!  Be a parent!

2 Responses

  1. Just wait until your son is a teenager! Today’s teens are smart about what they post (and don’t post) on Facebook. It’s Facebook messaging that is the real danger. Many experts urge parents to try and look at messages if they have any reason to believe kids are engaged in harmful behavior, especially drugs and alcohol. Trust goes both ways — if my son or daughter engages in harmful and illegal activity, he has no reason to expect privacy in our home. I will do anything that’s necessary to keep them safe.

  2. @Chris: I absolutely agree with you that you need to be able to check in with your child, no matter where they are posting. Many parents tell teenagers that they need to be able to read any and all text messages or instant messages (such as the Facebook one you mentioned) at any time. Of course, if your teen hands you his phone or logs into Facebook to show you their chat log, and it’s blank, you know something’s up.

    We ran a social network program in my 5th grade classroom, and even at the age of 11 and 12, those kids could be very clever about how they posted information. But, we had open dialogs about what was and wasn’t appropriate, and what the unintended outcomes could be from inappropriate messaging. I had 2 issues my first year, and not a single one since.

    What you’re suggesting, though, is more predicated upon previous behavior. If I already know my soon is drinking or using drugs, because he has previously been caught, then you can bet his privilege of privacy will drastically change from what I suggested above. However, if it is just a matter of being a proactive parent that wants to keep up on what their son or daughter is doing online, my personal opinion (and it is an opinion; I never would tell a parent how to raise their child) is that an open and honest conversation is better than sneaking into their account and pulling down information.

    As I stated in the article, how would you engage in a conversation with your child if the information you need to confront them with was accessed by you logging into their account?

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