One family's quest to learn together
I can’t believe we were so stupid! I can’t believe we were so completely naive to believe that talking to our daughter about internet safety was enough to keep her safe. But the truth is, we buggered up, and we buggered up big time.
I don’t know why we never installed a Net Nanny on our home computers, we’d talked about it a few times, but that’s as far as it got. I guess we thought the kids were too young to go looking for nasties, (stupid!) or that it would be a pain in the ass for our internet use. I taught in a school that had YouTube blocked, I can’t imagine not accessing YouTube for our unschooling at home, we’ve watched so many valuable videos. Perhaps it was just lazy parenting on our behalf, we’d not invested any time into researching the different Internet Safety Software available, and we thought that our basic precautions were enough. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Back when I was teaching, I went to a presentation given by a Police Officer, aimed at teachers and parents, on the topic of keeping children safe on the internet. At the time our children were very young, and barely using the internet, but I came home and discussed what I’d learnt with Simon with plans to do all that we could to protect our children. The Police Officer said that computers should be in a family area of the house, not in children’s bedrooms. He said that it was important to have an open relationship with our children, whereby they’d feel safe discussing their concerns with us. And he said that we should be using Net Nanny style software, but still remain on alert for changes in our children’s behaviour, such as lack of interest in other activities, or secrecy.
We have a family study area. With desktop PC’s in a shared space. We have had many discussions with our children, (especially our oldest) about keeping themselves safe. There are some excellent videos that I will post at the bottom of the page, that helped us get the conversations started. When they first got Ipods and Tablets, each night I would insist that they be put on the kitchen bench, but to be honest, my main motivation for this was not wanting the devices to deter them from sleeping! I don’t know when we got less diligent about these things, but without any fuss, the devices ended up in their bedrooms.
The first warning shot across the bough came about a month ago. The kids were staying at Mum and Dad’s for the night, and after they’d been put to bed, Grandad began to have a play with our youngest’s tablet. He wasn’t looking for trouble, (Oscar is only 7) just checking out the apps and so on. Imagine his surprise then when he discovered a couple of pictures of bikini girls saved in the gallery. Pretty low level stuff really, girls draped over sports cars and so on, but completely inappropriate for a seven year old boy. After Grandad alerted us to the pictures we had a conversation with Oscar about the pictures, where they came from, did he like them, had he searched for them? He said he hated them there, and began to cry because apparently he’d tried to delete them, but they wouldn’t go away.
As we went through the history of Oscar’s Internet searches, it became clear what had happened. He’d been searching for StarWars pictures, then been led to a ‘wallpaper’ site. Once on the site, harmless key words led to collections of pictures, and things started to go all pear shaped. The site installed pictures in the gallery that he wasn’t able to remove, and he was too embarrassed to tell us they were there. We cleared up the gallery, uninstalled the wallpaper program, and had a chat with him about coming to us in the future if anything like this happened again. He wouldn’t get in trouble, we’d be there to help. And yet, stupidly WE DIDN’T INSTALL A NET NANNY!
Moving on to child number 2, our oldest. To say that Lucy has recently become a little bit obsessed with Minecraft is a huge understatement. She began by playing solo, mining, building, creating in her own little worlds. She watched YouTube videos on how to improve her skills and learnt that kids played with each other on servers on the Internet. It all seemed pretty harmless, so we agreed to her doing this, with the warning to remember what we’d told her about keeping herself safe. People are sometimes not who they say they are on the internet, and she shouldn’t give away too much information about herself and so on.
The hard part about talking with your kids about staying safe, is that as parents, we’re so busy trying to protect them, that we don’t go into specifics about WHO or WHAT the badies are. We talked to to our kids about internet safety without using the words pedophile, pornography or even sex because we were so concerned that we’d be the ones to shatter their innocence. Sound familiar? But guess what we learnt? Allusive conversations go in one ear and out the other, and sooner or later you’ll spend a sleepless night wondering how you are going to discuss your worst fears with your 12 year old daughter.
Alarm bells began ringing recently when Lucy would play Minecraft all day every day. Initially her online world included a 10 year old boy and his younger sister, but then as she got braver she joined other worlds, with more kids, and some of the ‘chat’ on the screen stared to catch my attention. Kids asking each other if they used Kik, the messaging app, and a bit of swearing. I chatted with Lucy about being mindful of other’s language, not engaging in it herself because it was unlikely to make any difference to whether or not they played with her. I warned her it was safest to keep the ‘chat’ on Minecraft, and not to take it to other platforms.
A couple of times I noticed that during play she would disappear into her room, door open, for a few minutes, hop on her tablet for a bit, and then return to the game. I kept telling myself not to be neurotic, not to worry, it’s just kids stuff right? Then the other day Lucy went into her room, and I could hear her chatting on skype briefly. I didn’t eavesdrop, she has a couple of friends that she chats with, but since those girls were at school at the time, it did catch my interest.
And then the bedroom door closed.
Telling my self to stay calm, when she emerged about five minutes later, I asked her as casually as my beating heart would allow, “Who were you chatting to honey?” “No one” she replied. Lied to my face. Holy crap. Full blown panic attack imminent! “Yes you were, I heard you. I’m only worried if you think that you need to hide it”. “OK, fine” she replied “I was talking to some kids from Minecraft, I couldn’t see them, it was just voice chat”.
Later that night when the kids were in bed, I had a chat with Simon about the Skype conversation. Neither of us felt comfortable with it. I poured out my concerns, the things that I noticed in the few days prior, and we agreed that I’d have a chat with her in the morning about Skype with people she’d met in the real world, as opposed to Skype with virtual friends. I don’t know what made me do what came next, I’m not in the habit of spying on my kids, but I picked up the Ipod she’d left on the desk and checked out her Kik app, I suppose I wanted to see if there were other conversations that had moved off of Minecraft.
We saw sillyiness, some swearing, and a question about having sex. OH MY GOD! Straight into the browser history I headed, I wanted to know what was going on, and I wanted to know NOW. Yup, you guessed it, my worst fears confirmed. She’d accessed free porn sites and read inappropriate Fan Fiction stories. So now close to tears and feeling like the shittest parent ever for not protecting her, and invading her privacy, I spent a sleepless night preparing for the hardest conversation I’ve ever had with my daughter.
The next morning, with tears, we spoke about sex (beyond reproduction), pornography, and pedophiles. We spoke about the worst fears that a parent has for their kids, even if the odds are a thousand to one, how we’d never forgive ourselves if she or her brother became one of those statistics. We talked about how curiosity about sex is natural, but pornography is different, it’s not the way that kids should learn about sex, and it is illegal viewing for a minor.
I asked her how she’d ended up in the most unsavory corners of the internet. Apparently a couple of kids (presumably?) on Minecraft had mentioned the Porn site. Not to her specifically, but she wanted to know what they were talking about, and so she looked it up. The Fan Fiction she’d found all by herself, the result of searching for Harry Potter related stuff on the internet. And all of this was easily accessible because we’d not installed the Net Nanny software as discussed years ago.
As I type this, (blogging is quite therapeutic) Simon is sitting behind me installing Internet Safety Software on every computer, tablet, and Ipod in the house. We’ve chosen Mobicip, as it seems to have all the features we’re looking for. Yes, it’s reactive, and we’ve learnt our lesson the hard way. We learnt that allusive warnings and educational videos just aren’t enough. Follow that Police Officer’s advice, to the full. Don’t be a fool like us.
If there is a silver lining to our crappy parenting experience, then I guess it’s that now I’ve had a proper conversation with Lucy about who, and what the dangers are. We’ve discussed the difference between sex in a loving relationship versus pornography. I’ve had reason to discuss how girls (and boys) are at risk, and the sexual exploitation that occurs barely below the surface of polite human interactions. You don’t need to dig very deep to find ugly, that’s for sure.
Help me out here parents. How do you draw the line in the sand between protecting your children, and scaring the bajeebies out of them by opening their eyes prematurely? What tactics/software do you use to keep your kids safe on the Internet?