We have rules when it comes to technology. Unfortunately, sometimes just knowing that leads to a bit of complacency on our part (the parents, I mean). And other times, even those limits aren’t enough to spare us some lessons.
Let me just say that we have two daughters, ages 9 and 12. We have one computer that lives in the kitchen where I spend most of my time, at least when the girls are home. There are parental controls on the computer, but they honestly aren’t clever enough to let the girls use certain sites that are perfectly safe, so from time to time I let them use my logon so they can get around the really dorky restrictions. But only when I’m in the kitchen.
Both girls have their own iTouch devices with a free texting app. Lola, my 9 year old, doesn’t have any other friends who have the ability to text, so she’s pretty much out of luck but it doesn’t seem to bother her. She’d rather play iPhyzzle or Angry Birds, anyway. Eve, the 12 year old, texts her friends all the time and knows that either Bubba or I will perform surprise spot-checks to read text messages on a whim. Neither of the girls is allowed to have their iTouch upstairs without express permission since we have wi-fi at home and these devices can let them surf the ‘net. At night, the iTouches live in the “technology box” on the kitchen counter.
So, yeah, I feel fairly secure.
Yesterday I had to run downtown to get the dog from the groomer. Both girls had just arrived home from school and Lola was changing for basketball practice. I decided to leave the girls at home to have a snack while I went out to get the dog – I would be gone for 20 minutes, maximum. The rules were this: no screen time (TV, computer, iTouch), no sweets. I was fairly certain that if either of those rules was violated, one of the girls would rat the other one out. As I was opening the garage door, Eve called out, “Mom, can I just check my email really quick? D was supposed to email me about the assignment we’re working on.”
I gave her permission to check her email. But only that. Again, Lola would take immense pleasure in throwing Eve under the bus if she strayed.
So imagine my surprise when, two hours later, Bubba calls and tells me that Eve has joined some social networking site. HUH? When? How?
It turns out that, while checking her email, Eve discovered a message from one of her school friends inviting her to join this group where they can all socialize. Seeing the email addresses of several other classmates, Eve clicks on the link to this site. She swears she didn’t go so far as to sign up, but somehow as soon as she enters the site, her entire email contact list is snagged by this site and emails go out to everyone she knows, telling them she has just joined this site (Zorpia.com) and would they like to, too?
Bubba and I have some questions about whether or not Eve signed up for the site, but that’s not the point. The point for us is that Eve didn’t really understand the implications of what she was doing. Bubba sat with her and showed her around the site, pointing out the advertisements for “Find Hot Local Singles” and “Work from Home” scams. He explained that there are many of these kinds of sites around who use you for your email contact list and are not safe places for kids to build profiles.
Ultimately I am grateful that this happened, if only so that we could refine our guidelines for the girls.
First of all, if you go to a site that asks for your entire birthdate, month/day/year, that’s a red flag.
If, upon determining that you are a minor, it doesn’t tell you to get parental permission, that’s a red flag. (The Terms of Service for this particular site says in teeny tiny letters that you have to be 16 to sign up, but even after Eve’s birth year was entered, it didn’t flag this or disable her account – hmmmm.)
If part of the registration process asks you what your sexual orientation is, that’s a red flag.
If the site offers, as part of its main objectives, matches or dates or connections with people you don’t already know, that’s a red flag.
Before you join any site for any reason, check with Mom and Dad.
Thank goodness this site actually did SPAM all of Eve’s contacts, or Bubba and I might not have discovered what was going on. It’s questionable whether Eve would have actually had the opportunity to use this site anyway, given that the computer is in the kitchen, but I wonder how many of Eve’s classmates have successfully created profiles on this site and opened themselves up to predators of all kinds.