During my visit to South Africa in February, I was chatting online with my husband one day when my mom passed by on her way to the kitchen. She caught a glimpse of the computer screen and asked me what “LOL” meant. The ensuing discussion about online communication morphed into a conversation about my Internet friendships. My mom was astounded to learn that there are people I regard as good friends without ever having met them in person.
When I was a kid, there was no such thing as an online friendship. We were best friends with the people we went to school with or lived next door to. When we met people our age on vacation, we exchanged addresses with them (not addresses of the email variety), wrote to them once or twice, and then relegated them to our collection of fond memories. We didn’t maintain friendships with people we didn’t see regularly because it just wasn’t practical.
By contrast, the vast majority of my friends today are online friends, and a number of my “real life” friendships originated on the Internet. Some people who would not be able to recognize me on the street have entrusted me with sensitive details about their lives. I have given and received advice, and shared all kinds of joys and sorrows with people I know only through the magic of technology. From time to time, I arrange to meet one of my online friends in real life, and it’s always worked out well.
When I was talking to my mom about this, she asked me that all-important question: how do I know it’s safe?
How indeed? And how will I teach my children how to make that judgement when they get older?
Fortunately, my children are still at an age where online communication does not feature in their lives. Their computer is connected to the Internet, but they don’t have things like email addresses or Instant Messenger ID’s. The reality, though, is that a few years from now, they will be wanting Facebook profiles. They will have Smartphones, and they will use them in much the same way I use mine: to connect with people in all kinds of ways.
As parents, we have two options: either we discourage our children from any form of online communication, citing the dangers and drawbacks, or we empower them by teaching them about online safety and how to recognize danger.
It’s a bit like sex education in some respects. I was educated at a girls-only Catholic school and raised by old-school (but absolutely awesome) parents. Their approach to sex education was to tell me not to do it. I had to watch awful abortion videos and endure talks about teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. At no time was safe sex ever discussed. It was just assumed that me and my classmates would be “good girls”, therefore we didn’t have to know anything about condoms or HIV tests or birth control pills.
My parents, and the parents of my peers, seemed to be in denial of the fact that many of us were going to do it anyway, so equipping us with the tools and knowledge to do it safely might have been a better approach.
In the same way, I don’t really see how I will able to prevent my kids from forming online friendships when they get older. Instead of telling them not to and then assuming that they won’t, I think I would be better advised to guide them and teach them how to be safe about it.
We are laying the groundwork for that now, by establishing open lines of communication, at any time of the day or night. If my boys feel that they can talk to us about anything that’s on their minds, they won’t feel the need to hide anything from us.
I’m not completely naive about this, of course. I remember what it was like to be a teenager. There will always be something that my kids don’t tell me. But it is my hope that they will let me in on the big stuff – the things that really matter, that have the potential to alter the course of their lives one way or another.
If I can foster a relationship of respect and openness with my kids, I believe they will be more likely to allow us to openly monitor and help them navigate their online communications without us having to resort to secretive methods, and without them feeling that we are invading their privacy.
That being said, if I have to resort to secretive methods to keep my kids safe, I absolutely will.
What is your approach to teaching your kids about online communications? Do you try to keep your kids away from that kind of thing, or do you allow them to make their online connections with your guidance?
This is an original post for World Moms Blog by Kirsten Doyle of Toronto, Canada. Kirsten can also be found on her blog, Running for Autism, or on Twitter @Running4autism. You can also connect with her on Facebook.
(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)