Have you picked up your teen’s phone today? Because I—a woman in her forties—am in there.
Years ago I wrote a short piece on raising kids with kindness and personal responsibility, which some middle school and high school teachers like to review with their students. Apparently, this time it made such an impression that a student looked me up on social media, found my handles, typed up their thoughts about the piece, and private messaged them to me.
Before you start swooning over how nice it must feel to have a kid reach out to the writer of the work they are studying in school, please know that this message was not nice. Not nice at all. (Yes, I see the irony here.)
What was nice was that it was a handy-dandy teaching moment for my own teenager.
I handed him my phone to have him read the message.
Then I showed him how easy it was for me to look up this kid’s handle, find their real name, narrow down which school district, which town, which school they were in. See which class trips they went on, which extracurriculars they do. Where else they were on social media. Where they lived and who lived with them. A history of addresses, emails, phone numbers of all those people, too.
I showed him how easy it was for an adult to get a bunch of information on a kid who makes the decision to private message them. How powerful that makes the adult. How dangerous it could be for the kid, depending on the adult they reached out to.
In this case, I am a safe landing for this kid.
I am a parent who understands that teenagers make mistakes.
I am a person with thick skin and a lack of interest in revenge.
I am a woman who respects privacy, and would never share this kid’s name, handle, or personal information with anyone. (Not even my son saw it. I showed him a screenshot with the handle blacked out.)
I am someone who is not interested in connecting with children on the internet for any reason.
But what if I wasn’t?
What if I was someone who was unforgiving of a teenager’s mistake?
What if I was someone who was easily hurt by insults from strangers, someone who would quickly seek out revenge in a variety of ways that can touch very close to home?
What if I was someone who was fine with posting a screenshot of this kid’s message to me, allowing others to do the quick search to find their personal information online as well, publicizing this situation, making it a part of that kid’s permanent digital footprint for all to see when their name was looked up in the future by colleges, scholarship committees, potential employers, romantic interests, and beyond?
What if I was someone who was glad a kid went behind their parents’ backs to connect with me—an adult—and happily took advantage of the situation?
Your teenager might have thought they were being funny. Or maybe they were angry about something else, and this was their way to release that tension. Or maybe they just really don’t like my writing.
None of that matters, to be honest. But what you do next does.
You might want to go get your kid’s phone right now and take a look. Scroll their emails, texts, posts, DMs, snaps, photos, videos, contact lists, friends lists, etc. See who they are talking with, how they are talking with them, and why. Then keep doing this check-in at least twice a week.
You might want to make their having access to smartphones, tablets, computers, social media, the internet at large an open and ongoing conversation.
You might want to look into learning as much as possible about managing the responsibility of having kids with access to devices and social media: when and how to roll it out to them, how it all works, proper etiquette when using it, the good things about having it, the risks of having/using it, what every app is used for, how every game allows access to them by friends or strangers. There are books, loads of articles online and in magazines, online classes, and community classes or presentations through school districts, local police, libraries, and the like. (And if enough parents reach out locally, those outlets might just put something together in response.)
You might want to look into apps and programs that help manage and monitor your kids’ use of devices and social media, for their own sake, and use them to back up your regular hands-on scroll-throughs.
You might want to talk with them about interacting with people on the internet—whether they know them or not, whether they can see them or not. Make sure they understand what a digital footprint is. Make sure they understand what predators are. Make sure they know what sexting is. Make sure they know what cyberbullying is. Make sure they understand what mental health is. Make sure they know what being groomed or influenced looks like. Make sure they know how to avoid dangerous mistakes. Make sure they know that you will be there to help them get out of tricky situations.
You might want to remind them how much you love them and want them safe, so having this kind of access is something you need to better understand together, work together to get right, be willing to step away from if one is feeling a bit angry or at-risk or reckless or vulnerable or likely to blurt something that cannot be taken back.
Because this time you were both lucky. Your kid reached me. They are safe with me.
But next time? I cannot make any guarantees as to who will be on the other end.