Parent alert: A middle schooler’s online ‘best friend’…

Do you know that I am who my profile says I am?

My middle school daughter came home from school recently and said she wanted to chat. Another girl at her lunch table had told the rest of the girls that she had two new best friends that didn’t go to that school. Naturally curious, the girls took the bait and asked her about who these best friends were. We’ll call this girl Darla (not her real name).

My parental antennas were at full alert.

It turns out that Darla met a boy from Denmark through a game she was playing online and had developed a relationship with him- online. However, the one who was her very best friend was a boy who is (supposedly) a sophomore in high school and lives in Michigan. He’s amazing. They discovered each other through Facebook. He understands her and talks to her all the time, tells her she’s beautiful. He’s her best friend in the world. But, she’s never met him. She wants to, though. This all coming from my own daughter.

I asked my daughter how she responded and got this, “I told her, you don’t know that he’s really a sophomore in high school! He might be a creeper old guy living in his mom’s basement!”

I was impressed that she challenged Darla and brought up the very real possibility that the human behind the supposed “sophomore boy” might not be who he says he is. For that matter, I would even question why a sophomore boy would be approaching to a 7th grade girl online! That aside, I asked my daughter if she thinks Darla’s parents have any idea about these new friends. Sadly, the answer was, “no way, Mom, I don’t think they even know she’s on Facebook.”

A few days went by and my daughter came home and asked me if I remembered her telling me about Darla’s new best friends. Of course I did. Well, now the “sophomore boy from Michigan” is her boyfriend! And, she still has never met him. But, she really wants to meet him in person!!

A month ago, the middle school had an assembly where a person from ICAC (Center for Internet Crimes Against Children) spoke about appropriate online behavior. Apparently, Darla was either absent or assumed it didn’t apply to her.

As parents, this is yet another wake up call. We have to step up to the plate. We can’t bury our heads in the sand, or ignore social media if we don’t understand it and hope it goes away. Not being “tech savvy” or “good with my phone” is not ok anymore. Not only is social media not going away, it’s becoming more and more woven into the fabric of our lives. Social media is the virtual social world our kids are living in. And, if we aren’t in that world with them, they are writing the rules as they go. Or learning to follow someone else’s rules – someone who may not have the best intentions for them.

Where do you start?

…Remember that the device(s) your child has belongs to you.

…You need to know where your kids are hanging out. What apps are on their phones? Are you ok with them? If not, don’t allow it. Do you know what they are and what they do? Find out.  If you’re reading this, open up another tab and Google away…

…Do you know what your kids are posting? Who they are following or friending? Who’s following them? Who they are interacting with? If you don’t know who they are interacting with online, how is that any different than dropping them off at a perfect stranger’s house for the day?

We can’t afford for a single one of our children to be enticed online. Rather, we need to empower them to make smart decisions. It starts with us. Alert and engaged parents. Who take the time- as uncomfortable and potentially confrontational as it may be sometimes- to ask questions, have conversations, establish ground rules, and follow through to manage the devices we own and entrust to our kids.