Saturday, June 13, 2015

Privacy vs Safety: Which Prevails When It Comes to Teens Online?

 by Amy Williams

“Mom, what’s the difference between a glass that’s half full and one that’s half empty?”

My youngest child and I were cruising home in the afternoon traffic when this question came out of nowhere. I turned down the radio and contemplated his question as I slowed to a stop at a red light. Finally, I explained that it boils down to the perspective of the person holding the glass. This is actually an important concept, because a lot of heated issues are fueled by people’s viewpoint of a subject.

It’s all about perspective.

Take for instance, the divide between parents when we bring up the topic of cell phone monitoring. One faction believes whole heartedly this practice is spying and considers it a severe invasion of a teen’s privacy. While parents on the other side feel they are champions for their child’s safety.

This leaves us to question, “Is it right to invade a child’s privacy, even if it means protecting them from dangers in the digital age?” 

A Child’s Need For Privacy

It may come to a shock for many parents, but our children do need private time in their lives. For each stage of development the privacy requirements are different, but experts in child development advocate that young teens need solitude and their own space to help cement their self-identity. As a child transitions into adulthood, their bodies are seized with hormones, emotions, and the desire to find where they fit in on this big planet.

Privacy is crucial in this process, because it allows children to separate from their parents and seek their autonomy. Alone time allows adolescents an opportunity to ponder life’s big questions, figure out their goals, develop their beliefs, while making sense of their emotions.

For teens in particular, this desire to retreat can lead parents to question what activities their son or daughter is taking part in. Like it or not, we are raising digital natives who have developed a strong reliance on technology. This love of social media and all things digital has led many teens to open themselves up to a new world with adult content away from a parent’s watchful eye.

The Need For Online Awareness

This increasing need for privacy often leaves parents scrambling for information about their child’s activities. Parents need to keep open the lines of communication, but understand that teens are individuating and need the alone time. A teen’s withdrawing from mom and dad can debilitate open communication lines, which cause parents to seek information about their child by different means. Children need to understand parents don’t have overactive imaginations and do have a reason to be concerned when it comes to their teen’s online conduct.

Here are five legitimate safety concerns children face online everyday:

   Cyberbullying has happened to 52 percent of all teens.

   Only one out of ten cyberbullying victims seek help.

   One out of every four teens admit to sexting.

   Sexting, even if it is consensual, can lead to serious legal consequences. These can range from one or more of the following: being categorized as a felon, charged with distributing or possessing child pornography, and requiring to register as a sex offender.

  Social media sites have the potential to increase a child’s exposure to predators and strangers. Many anonymous apps use geographic location to pair up strangers or sort them into groups.

Six Strategies To Keep Children Safe And Respect Privacy

It’s easy for parents to read the statistics and begin to panic in fear. However, we need to realize that technology can provide great learning opportunities to teach self-management and personal growth. We need to retool our process of reacting to situations and begin looking for ways to embrace technology rather than be afraid.

Listed below are six methods to empower teens with the cyber skills needed to thrive in our technological society while respecting a child’s need for privacy:

   Start social media etiquette when a child is young and grow on this foundation. If you wait until there is a problem, you are too late! A good rule of thumb is to only post items Grandma would be comfortable stumbling across. It is called SOCIAL media for a reason and anything they post is never truly private.

   Inform a child about the possible reasons to be alert with their favorite apps. Awareness will help children develop skills to avoid common pitfalls like security or tracking settings.

 Strive to create open communication that doesn’t include blaming, shaming, or lecturing. Be honest and encourage teens to share his or her concerns. Focus on listening and being there for support.

   It sounds simple, but follow a site’s recommendations for age guidelines. A lot of trouble stems from children who are not mature enough to handle the responsibility of social media.

  Restrict devices to common living areas and limit data plans. One study found that the greatest deterrent to sexting wasn’t parental monitoring, but limiting the amount of data available to teens. Everything in moderation, right?

  Introduce the privilege of using social media slowly and in line with a child’s level of responsibility as a child shows mature judgment skills. This will avoid the need to snoop through emails, texts, and stalk Facebook pages while still allowing age appropriate access to learn social media skills. Many parents develop a social media contract to help with this process.

Privacy is more than slammed bedroom doors or hidden diaries, it is an essential part of children becoming their own person. This allows them the chance to reflect on the person they are becoming. As much as parents don’t want to admit it, this need for privacy is signalling emotional and social maturation.

Even with technology thrown into the mix, online dangers are only a matter of perspective and can be used to encourage life lessons ultimately setting a child up for future success.

Amy Williams is a free-lance journalist based in Southern California and mother of two. As a parent, she enjoys spreading the word on positive parenting techniques in the digital age and raising awareness on issues like cyberbullying and online safety.