When a 13-year old Tacoma, Washington boy named Vito LaPinta, Jr. learned about the death of Osama Bin Laden he decided to help warn the president on Facebook about what might happen next regarding suicide bombers. A week later, Vito was called into the principal's office of his middle school and greeted by a suited up Secret Service agent wearing dark glasses.
Vito, admittedly terrified by the agent, was then told by the agent that his post was considered a 'threat towards the President.' When asked about how she felt about what had went down, Vito's mother Timi Robertson stated "My 13-year-old son is supposed to be safe and secure in his classroom and he's being interrogated without my knowledge or consent privately." As a parent I too would've been livid. I agree with Timi's reaction but I also wonder if she's doing everything she can to monitor what her son is doing and saying online.
The challenges for us parents
Being a parent in this day and age can be really tough. Back in the day, it was harder to keep track of our tweens and teens because we couldn't get ahold of them as easily. Now, while it's much easier to stay in touch via mobile phone, SMS, Facebook etc., there's a whole new set of challenges that really put our parenting skills to the test.
Nowadays, parents have a new job and it's in the field of online PR training. Tweens and teens biologically are not good at self-perception awareness and in tune with how the world sees them as individuals. They don't fully realize (and can't because of their age) that if they joke about murder, suicide, sex, drugs, alcohol, race, religion, etc. on a site like Facebook where they might be connected to parents, grandparents, parents of their friends, etc….it'll result in an inadvertent rippling storm of offensiveness to many people that they care a lot about. Something small and meant to be harmless could get them, and their parents into big trouble, not just legally, but in family and academic social circles.
An aversion to technology, the web, or Facebook is no excuse
With so much information, content and opinions being so easily shareable, therein lies the importance of your child's understanding of their potential audience AND their understanding of how what they say and do online is easily seen by so many. If you have a teenager online, watch how they interact with their friends, family members etc. You'll be able to see quickly how great of a job you are doing (or not) monitoring and preparing them for such a transparent and communicative world.
Believe or not, I still know quite a few people that don't even have an email address let alone a Facebook account. Many of them, out of fear of the unknown and stubbornness mostly, refuse to get on board. I'm fine with that if you don't have kids that are online. If you do have children that are on social networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, if you don't at least have an account on any of the sites that your child is on for monitoring purposes and also know what their personal login is, you are another failing parent in the digital age.
Another scary thing is that 7.5 million of the 20 million minors on Facebook are below the minimum age.
While I know that kids will always lie and experiment and push the envelope with us parents, it's important that we minimize the risk by communicating with them often and making sure to keep a close eye on those under 13 years old. It's our duty to monitor the appropriation of sites visited, content downloaded, and activity shared online.
Many teens also have an iPod Touch and a Foursquare or GoWalla account (I've deemed geo-location apps off limits to my teenagers). This also means they are able to plot their locations when Wi-Fi is available, sharing it with the world, not fully understanding what it really means to create database records of their movement, their most frequented hang out spots, and how it could be used against them.
As parents of children in one of the most fast-paced eras of information where API's make it possible for anyone to track our children's activities unless they're off the grid completely or have had help from their parents to lock down their privacy settings, our presence and involvement in their day-to-day is more important than ever. Even when you think you've done a great job with this, it never hurts to have regular discussions with them and remind them about the impact of their content and activity online. It's important for both their safety, and more importantly, their offline reputation.
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