The mother of three who reached out to Technocracy had an interesting dilemma. Her teenage son wanted more "privacy" on the Internet. In his father's presence he was using a handheld electronic device to browse the Internet. His mother's questions were simple enough: Was this direct enough supervision of her son's Internet activities? Should she be concerned? She had just learned that her son has a Facebook account. What should she do, if anything, to oversee his activities?
Given the degree to which Internet activity and social networking are taken for granted in contemporary society, these questions are understandable. The tendency among many parents is to treat their children, their young adults, as adults. We want our kids to be responsible and we want to trust them ... so what is the harm in trusting them? What are the risks? What these parents discover, only too frequently, is that the risks are much more real and much more immediate than they have imagined.
This is not to say that the Internet is a snarling monster waiting to catch and hold your youngsters in its toothy maw. The Web is nothing but a network of networks, neither good nor bad, possessing neither volition nor inherent morality. Using the Internet is exactly like using a phone book: Call a specific number, and you will receive precisely what you expect. Dial a number at random, and there is a small but finite probability that the person who picks up the phone is a dangerous predator.
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For this reason, you should have the passwords to all of your child's online accounts. You should be monitoring, on a regular basis, the messages your child sends and receives. If your child has a Facebook account, for example, you should create one and immediately friend your son or daughter (in addition to having their passwords and checking their accounts from the inside). If they refuse your online friendship, that's a sign that there is a problem. Do not accept excuses such as, "I want my privacy," either. A minor child has no expectation of privacy on the Internet – not from his or her parents. You may choose to give your child space by not commenting on everything they say or do, but you should be seeing it all. That oversight is your parental responsibility.
The proliferation of tablets, handheld Internet browsers and applications for smartphones makes the issue of Internet oversight that much more difficult for every parent. Where once your child's Internet time could be monitored largely by placing the family computer in a shared location in the home, your child may now browse the Web on the bus, walking home from school, standing in a hallway, or sitting in the food court at the mall. Most of you are already aware of this, however. The list of your concerns over your children's Internet use ranges from "cyber-bullying" to online dating or relationships to (most commonly) viewing inappropriate content such as pornography.
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This last should be your biggest concern because it's the most commonplace on the Web. Julie Rovolo, writing for Forbes, contends that pornography comprises fully 4 percent of all websites. That number may not impress you until you consider just how many websites there are. There are perhaps a trillion websites on the Internet (a number that is difficult to estimate). If just 4 percent of those are porn, that means your child is two or three mouse clicks or thumb taps away from 40,000,000,000 websites full of content inappropriate for minors. Most of those sites are not held behind passwords and pay walls, at least not entirely. Most "members only" porn sites permit access to at least a few samples or a "free tour" to entice members to buy in.
The dirty little secret where pornography and teens – especially teenage boys – are concerned is that you cannot stop a teenage boy from looking at pornography. Oh, you can try. You can monitor his access every moment he is home. You can and should install Web filtering software on every device that he uses (applications for your iPad, iPhone, Android tablet and wireless phone are widely available, many of them free). You should insist that his computer time take place in a common area where you may randomly watch what he is doing. But he's going to find pornography and he's going to look at it. There is no more common impulse in the hormone-swamped, testosterone-addled, puberty-fevered minds of young men.
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In the days before the Internet brought hot- and cold-running pornography into each room of the home, every teenage boy knew "that kid." That kid was the one who brought dirty magazines to school and showed them to your son at the bus stop or on the playground. Your teenager, 30 years ago, might well have stolen pornography from drug stores or gas stations because he was too young to buy it … when he wasn't finding his own father's stash of Playboy magazines or some comparable product. As soon as your child leaves your home, other kids will be sharing things you don't want your kids to see. Your child might also create online accounts you know nothing about. You can't stop that, either.
The solution is NOT to throw up your hands and decide that, if they're going to do it, they might as well do it in the safety of your home. That's weak parenting. It's the abdication of your responsibility. You MUST do everything you can to slow them down, to monitor as much as possible, even if you can't stop them completely and you can't see it all. In so doing, you send a clear message about what you will and will not accept. Defining in your child's mind what is wrong versus what is right is the most important lesson of all – even if they knowingly circumvent your efforts and do wrong. If you do your job, they will eventually learn, and they will thank you as adults for your commitment to their childhood.