What Your Child Knows But May Not Tell You
It was one of the worst moments of my life as a mom. My daughter was in 2nd grade–only 8 years old, or 96 months old (I was never the mom to tell my kids’ ages in months, but for this article, it seems fitting). I was asking her about her playdate at her friend Sam’s house. With some hesitation, she reluctantly told me that she saw something bad on Sam’s iPad. Immediately, my stomach dropped. What could it be? Was it violence? Sex? Drugs? Rock n’ roll? What was it?! But then again, how could a couple of 8-year-olds find something so bad?
Well, come to find out, Sam’s friend James had also been over. And, apparently, James had spoken into the voice-activated search bar in the Safari app: “Taylor Swift naked boyfriend.”
You can imagine what came up.
It was a horrific moment hearing my sweet baby girl describe in detail what she saw from one particular image that appeared in Google Images (which, FYI, images aren’t filtered as one would think even if you have a filter set up–it’s just near impossible as people uploading images can label them however you want. This is why if you’re searching for dog pictures, you may find other images that aren’t dogs.)
At first, I felt like such a failure as a parent. I had worked so hard to protect my daughter in life: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Was this image going to be ‘sticky’ in her brain (as most images are, according to brain research) forever? How do I approach this? What do I tell her? Do I ask her if she has any questions about what she saw? She’s only 8, for Pete’s sake! I’m not ready for this, I thought.
So why do I continue to relive this experience? Because it’s a good reminder for me as my other two young daughters approach that age to have conversations with them, AND it gives me the opportunity to share what I’ve learned with other parents.
By the time kids are turning 6, 7, 8 years old, they have already seen something inappropriate online, most of the time, unbeknownst to us the parents. A few years back, I was a tech coach giving a digital citizenship lesson in a first grade classroom. We talked about appropriate and inappropriate websites and compared them to the colors of the stoplight. Green sites were ok to use; yellow sites should be used with a parent near us, and red sites should be clicked out of immediately and then go see an adult. Red sites might include foul language, violence and ‘things our eyes shouldn’t see’ or ‘things that make us feel bad inside.’ I then proceeded to ask the kids to raise their hand if they had ever seen a red site. I was shocked (along with the homeroom teacher in the room) to see 19 of the 21 hands go up. Now, sure, they may have just raised their hand because their friend did. I wish this was the case, but from my own experience, I believe the contrary. Now, don’t get me wrong. The internet can be a beautiful, magical place–one where time, place and country borders no longer limit us. Just think about all the new things you learned how to do from watching a YouTube video, like how to install your water filter in your fridge or fix your hot water heater (man, being an adult is so fun;). Our kids are no different. Kids are learning new things at lightning speed thanks to YouTube, the #1 search engine for people under 30. My own kids have learned all sorts of things FROM OTHER KIDS who have their own YouTube channel! Think like tricks on Minecraft, gymnastics and how to open those surprise Kinder eggs (Seriously, why do kids love this??? Even my 2-year-old can’t get enough!). Even though the content of what they are learning may not be what you’d like them to learn, the skillset they’re also acquiring is what counts like persistence, attention to detail and following directions.
Going back to my original point, the internet can also be a scary place, ESPECIALLY if you’re the parent of a young child. Kids are on devices all the time and many have free range to do whatever they’d like to do on that device. At least when your child is at school, there is usually a pretty good filter on the device. At home, that’s not the case.
So, instead of trying to block and filter everything, knowing that it isn’t always 100% effective anyway, what can we do as parents (& educators) to protect and support our young learners in their curiosity and often times innocent online searches?
- Keep the lines of communication open. When a tough conversation needs to be had, some of the best advice I ever received as a parent was to throw your kid’s friends under the bus. I mean, instead of directing the question at your child (Have you ever found something inappropriate online?), put it on his/her friends: Have your friends ever found anything inappropriate online? What did they do?
- Play it cool. If you find out about something your child did or saw, don’t judge. Show empathy. As my friend Kim Cofino says, this is their first time being 8, 10, 15, or 18 years old. They are doing the best they can! If you want your child to tell you what’s going on in his/her life, it’s going to take trust. A lot of it. And the way to build that trust is by listening, not overreacting, and sometimes just biting your tongue.
- Do some research. CommonSense Media is a phenomenal resource for parents and educators. There are videos, lesson plans, app and movie recommendations, and the list goes on. Just go there. I promise you’ll find something useful! Another amazing resource is Eduro’s Parenting in the Digital Age e-book. It’s chock-full of tips, tricks, and wisdom from other parents who’ve been down this road with their own kids to get yourself through some of these tough parenting years.
Give yourself a break. Parenting is tough work. No one is perfect, and we just have to do the best we can. Find yourself a network of other parents going through similar issues, whether it be other parents at school or even an online group.