Being a smart and caring parent in the age of the internet is complicated.
Most of us who are parenting school-aged kids today didn't grow up with the internet. Cyberbullying didn't happen to us. Porn at the push of a button didn't exist for us. Social media wasn't a thing we had to figure out until we were well into adulthood.
Still, when Anastasia Basil's 10-year-old daughter asked if she could get the app Musical.ly so she could make fun lip sync videos on her phone, Basil told her she had to check it out first, just in case.
Basil dove in headfirst and what she found was a dark and disturbing reminder of what children can trip into on the internet. She'd recently read Nancy Jo Sales' "American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers" and followed Sales' advice to explore the app like a kid would, not like a mildly interested, impatient adult.
Musical.ly (now TikTok) basically looks like a bunch of short selfie videos, like the good old days of Vine but with users all lip-syncing to song excerpts. Like other social apps, users can like and comment on videos and use hashtags to categorize. There are stars in the platform, known as "musers," and the user base is extraordinarily young.
After exploring the app for about 15 minutes, however, Basil encountered her first pornographic livestream. She also found children making pro-anorexia, self-harm, and #killingstalking videos (in which a young boy holds a knife up to a young girl's throat), and she soon learned about the constantly changing hashtags that get around the filters designed to keep exactly this kind of stuff off the app.
Screen images via Anastasia Basil (left) and Annie Reneau (right).
Basil was so shocked by what she encountered from kids on the platform — hashtags like #suicide, #cutting, #selfhate, and more — that it took her months to write about it.
I checked out the app myself, and at first glance, it looked fairly benign. But it didn't take long to see what Basil was talking about. Within minutes, I'd seen enough pre-teen girls making cunnilingus gestures with their mouths and fingers to make me want to move my family to Amish country.
How do we protect our kids from the pitfalls of the internet while also preparing them for the eventuality of unlimited access to it?
In this brave new world, even the experts have a hard time figuring out the best ways to balance being internet-savvy with being internet-safe. As internet safety expert Frank Gallagher points out, "Multiple studies have shown that children often won't go to parents and caregivers when something bad happens online. That's because they think mom or dad won't understand, will take away their phone or computer, or will intervene but only make things worse. It's hard to keep kids safe when they're not letting you into their digital life."
With our own children, my spouse and I feel conflicted about this stuff every day. We try to take the approach of honesty combined with age-appropriate limitations — as much as we can anyway.
We held off on portable internet devices for as long as possible. Our kids are 17, 13, and 9. Our 17-year-old has had her own smartphone since she was 15, but we have to approve apps before she can download them.
We own tablets for the other two, but they only use them at home when we're around to monitor what's happening on them. We've always conveyed to our kids that we trust them, but we don't trust the internet — and neither should they.
Just a few months ago, my 13-year-old daughter came to me with a spam email she'd received from an online hook-up site with a photo of an erect penis in it. (Spam filter fail — big time. And mom fail, for not setting up her email account to not have images autoload. Seriously, being internet-savvy is hard.)
Ideally, I want my kids to not be exposed to horrible things online, but that's not always going to be realistic. They're going to have full access at some point.
Ultimately, I hope they'll feel secure enough in who they are and wise enough about what's out there to consciously avoid being sucked into the unsavory and unsafe corners of the internet. Most importantly, I want them to feel comfortable talking to me about all of it. One thing internet safety experts agree on is the importance of communication with our kids when it comes to the realities of the internet.
After she got that terrible email, my daughter showed it to me. I told her I was proud of her for sharing it with me, even though she felt embarrassed. We discussed how important it is to stay on top of filters and controls to keep out most of the stuff you don't want invading your space or your psyche.
So far, this approach seems to be working about as well as it can. My eldest avoids most social media of her own accord, which has saved a great deal of drama for everyone.
Basil says her approach of keeping her kids off the internet — and deeply exploring any apps they want to use — is working well for her kids, who are in the third and fifth grade. My oldest two are entering and exiting high school. Our kids are only a handful of years apart, but that difference is vast. As Basil tells me, "If you read books on child brain development, you'll see that each year is distinctly different, distinctly its own in terms of development. I don't have to prepare my 10-year-old for being 13. I'm just going to let her be 10."
She has a point. But those few years go by fast, and I think the more we communicate with our kids and prepare them — in age-appropriate ways — for what they might encounter, the more savvy and safe they will be in the online world when they enter it.