Generally, parents don’t go snooping around in their kids’ laptops or phones. We want to respect our kids’ privacy. And yet, these devices are like mega-megaphones, capable of blasting our kids’ unbridled ideas and photos all over the Internet. Privacy in this realm is an illusion: even with peer-to-peer online communication, kids cannot prevent their supposedly private content from being posted publicly or forwarded. I describe here a way for parents to put much-needed limits on our kids’ online autonomy.
My community has been through a serious scandal. Some high school kids formed a secret Instagram group and, over a period of weeks, posted a lot of racist and misogynistic content (e.g., doctored photos and hateful sentiments). Only a couple of kids were actually contributing content, but 14 or 15 others followed along, on an ongoing basis, instead of leaving the group. What’s more, a number of these followers posted supporting comments and/or “likes.” (It is widely hoped, but impossible to establish, that peer pressure was a stronger force here than bigotry.) Finally one kid blew the whistle, and the whole thing unraveled, to the great shame of the students and families involved.
This episode has engendered a lot of soul searching among us parents. We like to think we are instilling proper values in our kids—that we really know these people—but how can we be sure? It’s easy to appraise the benefits of private music lessons, great schools, and organized sports teams, but how do we measure character and virtue? At a minimum, how can we feel confident that our own kids won’t be embroiled in the next Internet scandal?
In this post I describe a solution. It isn’t complicated, but it’s difficult. I propose that every family establish and enforce a family Internet use policy. The idea is to put limits on the secret online life that modern kids have, that gives them total freedom of expression with no parental supervision. If we fail to instill the values and character we’re looking for, at least we can safeguard our kids against shaming themselves, their families, and their community.
A sample family Internet use policy
My family Internet acceptable use policy is based on the one my employer uses. To wit, “[Company] monitors employees’ use of [Company’s] communications devices, computer systems and networks.” I have told my kids up front, “I know your computer password and network logins, and reserve the right to read any of your online correspondence. Consider nothing on your computer to be private.” (If my kids had phones, those would be fair game, too.)
The premise here is that kids are less likely to post or consume offensive content if they know their parents can see it. If this seems Orwellian to you, remember than in 1984 it was the government snooping, not parents. I have a right to know what my kid is doing on the Internet, just as my employer has a right to know what I’m doing with the tools they give me.
Your policy doesn’t have to be this restrictive, of course—but you should have a policy, and something with more teeth than “Do whatever you want and we’ll hope for the best,” or “If you do something bad we might take away your phone.”
Do my kids tolerate this? Yes, though of course they’re not thrilled. Fortunately, I got an early start with this policy. I introduced it before my kids were even online, so they were fine with it initially. In fact, as they hadn’t yet developed the recklessness of teenagers, they were rightly concerned about accidentally stumbling on gross stuff online. As they’ve reached their teens, their feelings have changed, but my wife and I won’t budge and they know it. At least they’re used to the constraint.
So is this a perfect fix? Probably not, but I’m sure it helps. Without parental oversight, a kid is bound to be more bold and less inhibited with his or her expression. I guarantee that the kids in my community who posted offensive photos to that Instagram account would not have printed hard copies and left them around the house.
Isn’t social media visible to parents anyway?
Kids might have you believe you can keep an eye on their virtual life via the public nature of social media. But this isn’t true anymore. Snapchat is all about messages and photos that are designed to be temporary. (Of course they’re actually not; your kid’s blunder can be captured for eternity by another kid’s screen grab. It’s true, though, that once that transmission leaves your kid’s device, it’s too late for you to see it.)
Do parents grasp this? Not always, as I learned from a workshop given by My Digital TAT2, a nonprofit organization seeking to promote responsibility in the digital era. The lecturer quoted a teen correspondent as saying, “My favorite thing about Snapchat is that my parents don’t understand it.” Most teens using Snapchat and Instagram have two accounts each: one that their parents know about, and one that they don’t. Many have a third account with which to assume a fictitious identity, which they use for retaliation and/or catfishing. With all this subterfuge about, doesn’t it make sense to have access to the source of our teens’ online content—that is, their devices?
Again, the point isn’t that you’re always snooping—it’s that your kids know you could, and behave accordingly. As I candidly told my older daughter, I have peeped at her online correspondence exactly twice so far. I explain to my kids that I generally don’t bother checking up, because I trust them—but I have to reserve the right to do so, or my policy goes up in smoke.
A kid’s right to privacy
Is my stance fair and reasonable? Or am I violating my kids’ right to privacy? That begs another question: do kids even have a right to privacy?
Of course they do! When one of my daughters was ten, she kept a diary. Although I was sorely tempted to read it (because it was surely very cute), I honored my promise not to. Likewise, I wouldn’t eavesdrop on my kids’ face-to-face conversations or phone calls, and I wouldn’t read a letter they got in the mail. But the Internet is a game-changer. It gives these kids the capability of broadcasting their ostensibly private communications to 3 billion people. Mistakes are made, due to these kids’ own poor judgment, that of their friends (or “friends”), and by sheer accident. I consider it irresponsible to give kids total autonomy online.
Setting limits isn’t just a parent’s right—it’s our job. Are adults allowed to keep loaded guns around the house? Unfortunately, they are. Is it a good idea to give kids access to those loaded guns? Of course not! But think about Internet platforms like Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter: they’re dangerous too, in their own way. You almost couldn’t devise a more efficient way of giving teens new ways to screw up; of catching them in the act of screwing up; of widely publicizing the screw-up; and of documenting, time-stamping, and definitively establishing the fact of the screw-up, and the identity of the perpetrator, for all time.
Consider this scenario: the year is 1980. Teen 1, who is stupid and ignorant, tells Teen 2 a racist or misogynist joke. Teen 2 laughs (maybe not because he even thinks the joke is funny; maybe because he’s uncomfortable). Teen 3 overhears this exchange, and tells Teens 4 through 20 how racist/misogynistic these two are. The damage is limited, because it’s all hearsay. Teen 1 denies telling the joke, Teen 2 denies hearing it, Teen 3 is largely ignored, and Teens 4 through 20 shrug and move on. Years later, Teen 1, who has become less ignorant, is privately ashamed of having told that joke, and Teen 2 is privately ashamed of having laughed. They were just stupid kids, and thank goodness they can put that joke in the past and move on. That’s pre-Internet.
Today, a couple dozen parents in my town—good, respected people, contributors to our community—are suffering deep shame because there is irrefutable evidence that their children consumed and in some cases “liked” racist and/or misogynist online content. There is no way to repudiate the evidence; about all these beleaguered parents can do is assert that their kids aren’t actually hateful, that they were just swept away by a hateful meme. That doesn’t go very far … not with the victims, and not with the community.
Of course this isn’t an isolated case; these scandals are popping up everywhere. And yet we parents have been standing back and allowing our teens unfettered access to these volatile Internet technologies.
The crux of the matter
Whether or not you agree about the non-sanctity of a teenager’s connected device, we need to help our kids understand something fundamental: there’s no such thing as Internet privacy. Once a photo or sentiment leaves your kid’s device, it’s a short step away from the great unwashed Internet. If copy-and-paste isn’t available on the app that was used, screen grabs always are. Any content that touches the Internet can be posted publicly and/or forwarded, whether by a recklessly playful or vindictive pal, or by mistake. And we’ve seen that the law does not uphold the anonymity of Internet haters; consider this landmark case. If a kid (or adult) thinks he or she can safely communicate his or her darkest thoughts via the Internet, even under some kind of shadow identity, he or she is mistaken.
Why isn’t it considered bad parenting to give these kids unfettered access to fun, easy, powerful online tools capable of permanently disgracing themselves and their families? Probably because the beloved tech companies behind this Internet revolution are having their way with us.
The Internet and FOMO
I can’t think of a parent who hasn’t complained about his or her kid being glued to a screen all day, but nobody seems to know what to do about it. In many cases parents are afraid of what would happen if they took away a kid’s phone or laptop. (Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt,” published in 1950, was eerily prescient in this regard.) The Internet and its addictive social media trappings weren’t dumped on us; they evolved so gradually we never saw the danger coming.
Meanwhile, to push back against technology is to seem backward, unsophisticated, and out of touch. Society expects all of us, including students, to use the Internet daily. As we adults suffer our own insecurity around keeping up with the rapidly evolving online culture, we are tempted to celebrate and emulate our kids’ prowess. We blithely accept this totally separate virtual world, which becomes a constantly growing blind spot, like a locked door between ourselves and our kids. In the process we lose touch with our kids’ morals, standards, and character. Kids are typing things online that we’d shudder to hear them say out loud, and sharing photos that might shock us.
So if parents aren’t policing this, who is? The Internet platforms themselves? Yeah, right. Remember, Mark Zuckerberg’s first online venture was a site where you rated your fellow students in terms of who was hotter than who. He and his ilk most certainly do not have your kids’ backs.
Consider this excerpt from a New Yorker article, which describes the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s misgivings about the Enlightenment, and how it threatened the idea of a universal moral code:
It becomes impossible to settle moral questions or to enforce moral rules; the best we can do is agree to disagree. Such a world falls into the hands of managers and technocrats, who excel at the perfection of means but lack the tools with which to think deeply about ends.
I don’t have strong opinions about the Enlightenment, and MacIntyre was writing in the ‘80s, but that last sentence fits social media companies to a T. The means of capturing and directing people’s attention are being perfected, but the impact on society is being largely ignored. Venture capitalists are backing the companies best poised to monetize this stuff; they’re not throwing money at watchdog outfits like Digital TAT2. Popularity—measured by the number of eyeballs on your app, the number of “likes,” and the number of links to your content—comprise the currency of our era. (We parents are somewhat complicit here. I’m sure many a parent dreams of his kid becoming the next Zuckerberg. I doubt many are hoping their kid becomes the next great moralizer.)
Platforms like Instagram and Snapchat have our kids’ attention. To an increasing degree we parents do not. The scale is tipping increasingly toward a peer orientation where our parental influence is marginalized. Only by reigning in the access to this virtual world can we hope to maintain our crucial role in guiding our children. Failing that, the least we can do is limit the damage they can do online.
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