Too Much Too Young

You may have seen a recent story posted on the Medium website titled,  “I’m a 37-Year-Old Mom & I Spent Seven Days Online as an 11-Year-Old Girl. Here’s What I Learned.” This story was sent to me by numerous folks who support the mission of Shape The Sky. I have to admit, it’s a catchy headline, and I’m sure many people wanted to know what the 37-year-old mom learned.  I’m very hesitant to jump on the bandwagon with scary-titled articles like this one, but I wanted to be fair and see what the message was. So I read through it several times, pondered over the issues raised, and gathered some educated thoughts about the article. I have a feeling that this may be not well received by some, but I have to share my thoughts.

If you haven’t read the article, here is a brief summary: The writer of the article dresses like an 11-year-old girl on Instagram. She makes posts, and then she and her “team” wait the responses from online predators. The goal of this is to help parents “understand the new reality” about the presence of online predators and to turn the ones they find over to the authorities. It’s very reminiscent of the show “To Catch a Predator” with Chris Hanson from the 2000s.

My first concern was the title; it’s definitely aimed at goading you in to read. I was, as most likely you would be, pretty sure I knew what she would find posing as an 11-year-old girl online. My second observation was that this article was penned by Sloane Ryan, who, as stated in the article, “runs the Special Projects Team at Bark, a tech company committed to child safety.” Bark is mentioned nine times in the article and is the company “spearheading the project.” Sloane makes sure to cite how many kids they are “covering” with the Bark monitoring program and the categories of concerns they can “alert” parents to. She also gives the numbers of child predators Bark “alerted the FBI” of over the past two years.  No resources, suggestions, or “what to do’s” were mentioned in wrapping up the article; however, with Bark leading and financing this “project,” it’s implied that Bark can be part of the solution for your child.

Child predators are on the internet. This isn’t anything new. Since the advent of personal use of the internet, chat sites, and social media, predators have used this medium to connect with and groom children. We always knew this. That’s why the first generation of PC (personal computer) safety experts told parents to keep the family computer in a common area where a parent could see what their child was doing: we wanted to know who are kids are talking to online.  We’ve known that predators are online since the internet started taking off. What has changed is that the PC (personal computer) has evolved into the PPC (personal pocket computer).

In 2007, the first iPhone was launched, and all of a sudden, the computer was in the pockets of those willing to pay a large amount of money for a phone. The advice of “keep the family computer in a common area” started to falter. In 2007, it was not in vogue to give a child an expensive “smartphone” that had access to the internet and a world of social media debauchery. In 2007, there wasn’t Instagram, TikTok, or Snapchat with a huge user base of prepubescent kids full of budding hormones and pending mistakes. Flash forward to 2019, and a majority of 5th graders have smartphones with Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat in their backpacks at school. Do you remember 5th grade? Could you make responsible decisions based on years of trial, error, and acquired wisdom?

While parental monitoring services are a hopeful concept, they aren’t a solution. Older kids laugh when discussing them. They know how to work around them, and if they don’t, they have a friend who does. You can surely put a monitoring service on your child’s phone. However, other children may have multiple smartphones. These kids will be more than willing to lend or sell their extra device to your child. These devices will not have a monitoring service on them. I work with kids every day. Trust me when I tell you this. Marketing for parental monitoring services is competitive and omit the obvious ways around them. A monitoring service will be more effective with an 11-year-old than a 15-year-old, but we have to stop and think about why we are giving an 11-year-old an incredibly powerful device with access to the internet and countless apps. I would be concerned that a monitoring program can give a parent a false sense of security of their child on the internet and social media.

I was having a discussion with an elementary school teacher one day and he poignantly said that “kids haven’t changed, the world around them has.” We, the adults, are the ones changing the world for our kids. Shouldn’t we be changing it for the good? Does the benefit of giving an 11-year-old a smartphone outweigh the cost of them being exposed to pornography, drugs, explicit language, cyberbullying, aggressive marketing, tobacco, alcohol, sexualized content, promiscuous behaviors, violence, gore, videos of ISIS beheadings, gambling, vaping, and “internet predators”?

We shouldn’t be surprised that this 37-year-old posing as an 11-year-old girl found predators online. We shouldn’t be surprised that water is wet. What we should be concerned about is a society of adults that aren’t batting an eye at handing an 11-year-old the access to these online predators.

The Toyota method of problem solving looks at finding the root-cause of the problem and correcting it. Shouldn’t we be looking at the root-cause of this problem? Is the root-cause the fact that predators are shockingly trying to connect with 11-year-old girls online? Or is the root cause that 11-year-old girls are online and using technology in ways they are not psychologically prepared to. The iPhone was not researched and developed for your average 11-year-old. It was a technology created for adults. However, this technology fell out of the wisdom-filled hands of adults and into the prepubescent exploratory hands of 11-year-olds very quickly. Much more quickly than a monitoring program can fix. Yes, internet predators are a problem that needs to be addressed, but we as parents have more influence over our 11-year-olds than we do the internet. Let’s help our 11-year-olds.

Here are some suggestions and resources.

Have your child take the Pledge: This Pledge, developed by a 7th grader who wanted to help kids use technology responsibly, will help outline responsible behaviors when children use technology. This is a great starting point kids using technology in elementary and middle schools.

Learn the red flags for online grooming: Know what red flags to watch for and what processes an online predator will take to groom a child.

Use a Technology Contract: When a youth does get their own device (phone, tablet, laptop) there should be a contract agreed upon that goes with the device. You have a contract with your cell service provider, you should have a contract with your digitally-connected child. Use this contract as a guide. Adjust it to meet your needs.

Find legal resources: Know where you can report online abuse, sexual exploitation, revenge porn, and sextortion, and know what steps to take when your child has been a victim.

Know the apps: Learn about the apps your child may want and decide if they are appropriate for your child.

Deal with cyberbullying: Find the best researched-based resources on how to handle cyberbullying.

~ Ryan