In the early 1980s, in the evening after dinner, you could often find my 11-year-old self looking for privacy under my father's desk -- the looped phone cord stretched taut -- talking to one of my girlfriends, Jenny, Amy, or Caitlin.
What we talked about -- crushes, clothes, classes -- is much like what our daughters are "talking" about today. But they're doing it with their fingers as they engage in text messaging, IMs, taking and sending photos, and online chatting. And, like many parents I know, I often feel intimidated by these tools, even a touch afraid. Who might be trying to communicate with my kid? Will my children's private texts and emails be forwarded? How exactly is IM used?
Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, says helping young people navigate these new social landscapes requires a rational head and engaged parenting. Willard is the author of Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly. The good news is she believes the risk of predators and other dangers is wildly overestimated in the public's imagination.
Teaching Your Kids Online Values
While it is true that many of today’s parents are "technological immigrants" -- accommodating but not fully at home with new communication methods -- Willard says the core values parents strive to teach children about social interactions remain the same: consideration, respect, and kindness.
Staying involved in your tween's communications is step one, Willard says. "If your daughter is texting, you need to be one of the people she's texting," she says. By being in the mix, you are better situated to know whom your kids are communicating with and what they're communicating about. And you will be more likely to be aware of a bullying text or an intrusive IM.
"It's all about teachable moments," Willard says. Help your children learn how to handle a bully's email, just as you would offer them strategies for dealing with a bully on the school bus.
Another important element is to avoid overreacting if something goes wrong – for instance, if your child forwards a gossipy email or posts an inappropriate picture. "Your child needs to know that he or she can come to you and you're going to work together to solve problems," Willard says.
Three Digital Do's for Parents
Think, then send. "The more embarrassing or damaging the material you post, the greater the likelihood it will spread widely," Willard says. Parents need to teach kids not to write or type anything they wouldn't say to someone face to face.
Face your own fear. Being hyper-concerned about kids' texting and instant messaging can be dangerous. "Fear is interfering with the positive relationship we need to have between parents and kids to protect them," Willard says. "It's causing kids not to report because parents overreact."
Get involved. "One time, some boys were sending my daughter sexually harassing messages," Willard says. "I told her, 'If you get a message from any of these people or about the situation, I need to see it so we can look at it and make sure you're resolving it.'" When your child needs help negotiating a situation, be there.