This article could also be titled: "Why Your Kid is Can't Make Good Choices, So You Have to do it For Them."
Earlier this year, I got a call from Janet. She found some concerning text messages on her 12-year-old daughter’s phone. She talked to her daughter, Paige, about her concerns. Janet was met by a confused and resistant child. Paige claimed she was being alarmist and out of touch. Janet asked if she could bring Paige to my office to talk about it.
A couple days later, Paige and her mother were in my office. Paige looked noticeably uncomfortable sitting across the table from me. Janet explained that she looked on Paige’s smartphone and saw several text messages from an individual unknown to her. The person texting her was a male, possibly adult, living in Los Angeles, only an hours drive from their home. The text conversation was about possibly meeting in person, somewhere near their home. The text messages had not progressed past the planning stages, but the meeting seemed inevitable based on the conversation. It was just a matter of time.
Paige was able to fill in some context. Paige was a quiet, awkward, but intelligent 7th grader. She really liked the boy band, One Direction. Unfortunately, none of her friends did. In fact, her friends made fun of her. Alienated by her friends, Paige looked for others that could understand her, she went to a One Direction fan page on Instagram. On that fan page she connected with others, boys and girls, that shared her love on One Direction. These people understood her. They didn’t reject her. They were her friends. They were total strangers. These “friends” on Instagram played to Paige’s need to be excepted, understood, valued, and loved. She was the perfect victim of an online predator.
Paige refused to see her “friends” on Instagram as potential predators. I talked to Paige about how predators use these types of sites to meet kids and develop relationships with them. I asked her how a 7th grader from Los Angeles was going to drive to her city to meet her? She did not have an answer for me. I asked Paige if she remembered my cyber safety class I have taught at her school for the previous three years. She did not. I was surprised. For the last three years, I have been speaking to the students at her school about cyber safety. I specifically talk about online predators and how it is dangerous talking to strangers online. She had no recollection of me or the assembly. For the past three years, when she was pulled out of class and made to sit in the gym with three hundred of her classmates, she tuned me out and was probably gossiping with her friends in the bleachers.
I looked at Janet, Paige’s mom, and said, “You need to be her pre-frontal cortex.” The pre-frontal cortex or forebrain resides behind your forehead and is the executive decision making portion of your brain. Juvenile brain research has shown us that the pre-frontal cortex is developing throughout puberty and doesn’t completely finish developing until a person reaches their mid-twenties. At 12 years old, the prefrontal cortex is barely medium rare. It still has more cooking to do. Meanwhile, the teenager is using their mid-brain to make decisions. The mid-brain is used for basic primal decisions like fight-or-flight, pleasure, impulsiveness, and other instinctual behaviors. To be fair, I have met some teenagers with a pretty good forebrain on their shoulders, but this is far from common. Biologically, children are not able to make good decisions. Their decisions are largely based what feels good or what will immediately satisfy them. Long term consequences and weighing the pros and cons do not normally enter their decision making formulations.
This is why I tell parents, “You need to be your kid’s pre-frontal cortex.” Until your child can start making these vital judgment calls on their own, you need to step in and help them make the right choice. Online, this can largely be done by setting up boundaries, parental controls, and actively monitoring your child’s social media accounts.
The video below is a good illustration. The boys in the video saw the EXACT same thing happen to a group of girls in a video created by the same production company. Their parents talked to them about not talking or meeting strangers. After only being courted online for 12 hours by the fake girl, these boys left their homes when their parents were away, and met this total stranger. Did they “know” they shouldn’t meet strangers? I think they would say, “Yes.” But, they were not able to apply that knowledge to their decision making process. That knowledge got in the way of the pleasure center of their brain (mid-brain), and therefore was disregarded. I am not a neuro or behavioral scientist. This is my opinion based on the thousands of teenagers, like Paige, that I have worked with.
Does this mean we give up talking to our kids? The answers is a resounding, “NO.” The number one safety factor in a child’s life is a parent who loves them and will talk to them about what is going on in their lives, and will help them develop coping strategies. The take away is our children are still children. We give our children so much responsibility today, and they often rise to the occasion. But don’t forget they are still kids, not little adults. They still have a weak forebrain, undeveloped decision making skills, and little life experience. We need to be there for them, define safe boundaries, and help provide context to the often complicated situations they will run into online.
So what happened with Janet and Paige, you ask? Janet bought my book, "Parenting in a Digital World," even before we met. She is using the guidelines in my book to create a safer social media world for Paige. Janet worked with her school and scheduled me to teach my workshop for parents there. She opened the workshop with an emotional re-telling of her experience. It was amazing. Paige has been restricted from using a smartphone until Janet can get all the security pieces in place for her. Then they will start again. Cautiously.
My plan to safely parent and monitor children online can be found in my book, “Parenting in a Digital World.”
You can also find valuable information in the blog section of my website and free resources you can download.
As always, if you have further questions, feel free to contact me.