Welcome, Mamma Crew! Today is Kiddos Tuesdays when I discuss issues related to the kids.
If you listened to episode 103: The Dating Game, part 1, you know that Emmi was the first of our girls to enter the adolescent rite of passage that is dating. Her adventure was totally conventional or at least what my generation considers to be conventional dating. Andy, well, there’s nothing conventional about Andy. Andy took a very different approach. Now, this isn’t a surprise. As I said, there’s nothing conventional about her. She never takes the road most traveled. So not surprisingly, we learned about online dating from her. Since our girls have been using the internet to some degree or another for the last two years, our conversation about online usage is a 3 parter: rules, discussions about online predation, and how easily it is to make a serious dent in your reputation if you make a mistake online.
I think our rules are common to most parents dealing with this internet issue but worth touching on them:
- You will not give your personal information such as an address, telephone number, or family information to anyone online.
- You will tell us, the parents, right away if you come across something that makes you feel uncomfortable.
- You will never agree to get together with someone you met online, and you will tell us immediately if someone asked to meet you privately.
- You will not share a picture of yourself, your family, or your home with anyone online. Come on! Google makes reverse image search very easy. So an image could lead right to your home.
- You will not respond to any message that is mean or in any way demeaning or makes you feel uncomfortable. You will tell us, your parents right away.
- You will not share passwords with anyone (even your best friends). In fact, the reality is only us, the parents, have our children’s passwords. We don’t ever let them have their own passwords or create their own usernames or accounts. If they do, they know that they will lose the privilege of having electronics.
- You will check with us before downloading or installing software or doing anything that could jeopardize your computer or mobile device or the family’s privacy. We’ve never run into any problems with viruses or malware so far.
- You will be a good online citizen and do nothing that hurts other people or is against the law. And bullying, in any form, is definitely against the law.
- You will abide by electronic time limits agreed upon by us as a family; finally,
- You understand that we as your parents will do spot checks on all of your electronics. You can assume that there is no “privacy,” and the electronic doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to us. It is your privilege to use it, it is not a right.
Of course, the girls wanted to know the reasons for the rules. And we always, ALWAYS, are willing to discuss the reasons. Since they had been talking Taekwondo classes for several years, and during the classes, there had been extensive discussions regarding stranger danger, the next step felt pretty natural for us.
It was easy for our family to talk with them about online predation. We talked about how predators often take advantage of the teen’s trusting nature. A person who claims to be a 16-year-old football star in a neighboring town may actually be an adult looking to prey on an unsuspecting teenager that lives in a different state.
Teens may also get tricked into giving out personal information that will lead to their identities being stolen. Or, in more serious cases, they may be lured into in-person meetings that could be dangerous. This was inadvertently driven home to the girls when they learned about amber alerts and the reasons for them.
I have to admit that while talking about these things was the right thing to do, I felt myself die just a little. I could literally feel their innocence ebbing away and with it their childhood. Yes, of course I know it’s part of growing up. And, I know it’s part of my mother’s responsibility to make them aware of the ugly realities of life. No, not all at once. But, it needs to be done. In just six years they will go off to college and start dealing with a lot of these realities without me to guide them or to protect them. They need to learn how to make good decisions to be able to protect themselves. Yet I have spent so much of their lives protecting their childhood that it’s hard for me to let go. I mean, I’m a human being. I’m a mom. But I am forcing myself to do just that — let go, little by little. So we continue on our path through adolescence and young adulthood.
We often remind the girls that in social media, there is no difference between public and private lives. Your online and offline selves might not be identical, but they’re sure joined at the hip. If you damage your online self, your private self will be hurt as well. Sometimes, teens are tempted to comply with someone that they think they can trust and share information or photos with that become public all too quickly. We also remind them that just because you can post something it doesn’t mean you should. This is especially true when you are upset, crying or angry, whatever the case might be. Emotions are not good advisers. Once you post something, you can’t take it back even if you delete it because it will be forever part of the great wide web. And finally, the golden rule applies. Post about others as you would have them post about you.
As you might have been able to tell, our conversation about online use has been extensive and often revisited. This isn’t something we could put out there once and hope that it sticks. Oh no! These are teenagers! And they forget everything. So, since they continue to use the internet, we continue to refresh their memory and always keep the discussion going.
The cyber-world offers Andy, our daughter, who is an introvert and has ADHD, a safe place to make new friends when face-to-face conversations with new people can be really difficult for her. Andy doesn’t like change and can be a little shy and often awkward. She prefers the term dork and takes this label with the same pride that I did when I was a kid. So an online community is a safe place for her to explore new friendships, a place to create special friendships, that help her deal with the turbulence of an ever-changing adolescent world. Not surprising this type of situation can lead to online romances, and of course, it did for Andy.
Andy’s online gaming led to Z. They spent months playing together online and getting to know each other. Slowly they came to care for one another as friends and then as special friends. They began spending more and more time playing together and that led Andy to ask us if she could speak with Z on the telephone. We agreed as long as we were present. It did indeed sound like a young boy so we allowed the call to become a video call. It was a boy — a boy her age who lives in Canada. We continued to monitor the relationship closely by keeping tabs on her video calls and keeping the lines of communication with Andy always open. She is more private than our daughter Emmi but even so, Andy is always willing to discuss her relationship when I approach her. And, I make a point of approaching her about it daily. It’s puppy love and as such, she is full of excitement that she wants to share with a willing ear. And I always have a willing ear. The reality is that it’s a sweet little crush more about gaming and talking than anything else.
In fact, as their romance has progressed, so has their gaming. They’ve gone from Minecraft to Roblox, to Discord — it’s an ever-changing world. And they do discuss the normal things that teenagers in a relationship discuss, such as homework, their lame parents, their annoying sisters — you know, the normal, everyday, humdrum things that are part of life.
However, as innocent as it might be, we have some clear-cut time limits on it. During the school week, she’s only allowed to be online for 15 minutes a day. Fridays, she’s allowed more time, and Saturdays, more time. Sundays, nope. We don’t do video games or the internet on Sundays.
And, just because we allow her to have this relationship online, doesn’t mean that she can close herself off to the rest of the world. She still participates in all her extracurricular activities and maintains a very loyal circle of friends. Her online romance does not mean that she gets to forgo her social events either. She goes to parties, and playdates and sleepovers.
Social interaction skills require daily practice, especially for introverted girls. I know this better than most because I was extremely extroverted when I was her age. It took me a long time to feel comfortable in my own skin while socializing with others. So while Andy is allowed to enjoy her crush she is also expected to engage with other teenagers and practice those social skills that can take a lifetime to master, especially when you are an introvert. After all, human connection is the most important asset that we develop in our lifetime, don’t you agree?
So just as I was getting comfortable, we bumped into an ugly word — EXCLUSIVITY. Andy really felt that her relationship with Z should be exclusive, and of course, Z agreed. I, however, did not! At this age, I characterize exclusiveness in a very negative way. I feel it establishes rigid boundaries. It entails the “not permitting,” the “restricting.” Ugh. I mean, studies have shown that early and exclusive and serious dating before the age of fifteen can have a somewhat stunting effect on adolescents’ psychological development. By getting involved in serious relationships, spending all their time on one person, teens run the risk of missing out on other types of social interactions that can lead to meeting different people, having different experiences. And I don’t want Andy to live with herself that way.
But of course, I know better than to say “Nope! You cannot be exclusive!” I do the dance-around like any good mom and I come at it from a different direction. Instead of telling Andy that she was not allowed to be exclusive with Z, I focused on giving her the opportunity to build as many other types of relationships that would allow her to practice intimacy and gain different perspectives, or simply have fun with others as much as I possibly could. And, as it often happens at this age, Z eventually lost the magical hold that he had over Andy. It wasn’t anything that Andy did, or that Z did. It was just natural growth. And in growing, they grew apart. They are still good friends, but Andy has moved on to K. Yes, another online boyfriend.
Ah, young love. The stuff that makes the world go ’round, leaves us swooning, creates that feeling of walking on air with butterflies in our stomachs, barely able to catch our breath. I mean I get it, especially in the teenage years it’s so important to have those feelings. Hmm, simultaneously, it’s the same stuff that makes us want to pull our hair out, and scream at the top of our lungs and declare our emotional warfare on someone. And I see it with Andy. She has her ups and downs with K, who is also a nice kid. Thankfully, he lives several hours of flight away from us.
Even as I sigh, I understand that yes, it’s complicated. But it’s also beautiful allowing Andy to explore romantic relationships. Just as with Emmi, I remind myself that these are the first steps for them to grow and develop into the well-rounded, caring people, who will be able to build and maintain long-term, loving relationships later in their lives.
So, as the girls like to say, bring it on! Teen love, despite its ups, downs, and unpredictability, is a good thing in the long run. So I’m here to help them navigate through that interesting and exciting journey.