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Teens on Facebook - Where Does Supervision Stop and Privacy Start?

By Benison O'Reilly - 18th April 2012

‘Shutting the gate after the horse has bolted’ parenting - I don’t know about you, but I’m often guilty of it. I’d been meaning to put an Internet filter on my 11 year old son, Joe’s computer for ages. Joe is on the autism spectrum and approaching puberty so I knew it was only a matter of time before he became curious about sex.  "I must do it," I probably said half a dozen times, "but tomorrow."

Then, one evening recently he casually dropped the term "s*xy p*rn" into the conversation. Now where did that horse go?  Net Nanny was installed that night. I feel much happier now, knowing Joe is protected from the worst of Web’s perversions.  Nonetheless, when I started reading more about the features of Net Nanny, I did a little double take.

One such feature is called Social Media Monitoring. The promo blurb claims parents can:
•    View Facebook profiles created by your child to see their friends and profile details.
•    Monitor most popular sites, including Facebook.
•    Know what is being said in chats within social media sites.
•    See photos posted on a child’s wall and in their profile.
•    Parents can view the above items without needing to ‘friend’ or know your child’s password.

What?! Does anyone else have a problem with this? Yes, our kids require protection but aren’t they entitled to some privacy and respect, too? Recently I was involved in an incident that brought this all home to me.  

The mother of a teenage girl logged onto her daughter’s Facebook account  - without her daughter’s knowledge and consent - and found posts that suggested the sixteen year-old boyfriend of her daughter’s friend  was involved in some mid-range teen misbehaviour, such as underage drinking and smoking. The boy in question happens to be a school friend of my middle son, N, who became implicated to a lesser degree.
This mother then took it upon herself to email the incriminating Facebook posts to the principal of the boys’ school, again without her daughter’s knowledge and consent.  I was called by the principal one Monday, while N stood quaking with fear in his office - just the sort of phone call every parent looks forward to!

As it transpired, my son came out of it all rather well. In his Facebook posts he was the one urging caution, refusing to join some of the boys when they suggested wagging school one day. His actual words were: "I don’t want to turn into a delinquent."

None of the alleged activities took place within school hours or while the boys were in school uniform, and I got the distinct impression from the school principal, whom I’d generally describe as an overzealous disciplinarian, that he’d rather not have become involved. I’m not entirely sure what this mother intended to achieve by this little exercise, but I know one thing for sure, she would have damaged any trust her daughter had in her, perhaps irrevocably .

As parents we are charged with protecting our kids from danger, but when they become teenagers it can be difficult to know which line to tread. Teenagers expect, and indeed are entitled to, some independence. At the same time their neuronal wiring is scrambled and impetuousness can lead to risk taking behaviour, such as underage drinking, drug-taking, or unprotected sex. But - and this is a big but - parents still need to demonstrate respect for teens, their privacy and to a large extent their judgement, even if a few mistakes are made along the way. If we’ve brought our kids up well, they’ll probably (like my son N) turn out to be more sensible than we’d ever have given them credit for.

Facebook is the bogeyman for many parents. We read stories of young girls posting compromising photos of themselves, of sexual predators masquerading as kids, and of cyber bullying. But it’s not all bad; as I mentioned in an earlier post, Facebook can promote ‘pro-social’ behaviour, such as empathy and co-operation, and extend social networks (especially useful of your kids attend single-sex schools). It’s here to stay, anyway, so one way or another we have to get used to it.

I discussed my Facebook kerfuffle with those great arbiters of human behaviour, the school tuckshop mums.  One mum said that at her daughter’s high school orientation the parents were given a lecture by a policeman.  His advice was:
•    Don’t ban your kids from Facebook; they’ll resent you and set up a secret account behind your back anyway.  
•    Allow them to set up an account at a suitable age (13 years) but only if they agree to let you to become a ‘friend’.

Hmm, unfortunately, I let the horse bolt on this one, too. By the time I cottoned on, my older boys’ Facebook accounts were long established and my one forlorn attempt to become my eldest’s friend was resolutely ignored. However, I know of teens who, while banning their parents, have allowed a ‘cool’ aunt or godmother to become a Facebook friend:  someone they know has their best interests at heart but can be relied on to not be a complete wowser.  (And someone who, if they ever stumbled across a worrying photo or post, might actually think to bring it up with them [the teen] first, rather than running off to Mum and Dad to tell tales.) It’s an option worth considering.

It’s my firm belief that an emotionally attuned parent will pick up when their child is unhappy or in trouble. Wouldn’t it be ethical to ask them to their face first, before resorting to spying on them on Facebook? The makers of Net Nanny don’t seem to think, so maybe I’m out of step on this one. What do others think?

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