What Really Scares Me About Social Media

Last week , the below picture went viral all over the media, and I say media because it went beyond Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It was also on major network news and discussed on the radio.

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I am the first to admit that I rolled my eyes at this story. Here it is, yet again, a bunch of young girls more obsessed with taking a selfie than interacting with the real world. But then something stopped me dead in my tracks.

The picture seemed familiar. I stared at this photo a bit longer.The girls were in a group sitting together. I imagined they were all part of the same club or team. They looked young, maybe in their mid-teens.

It dawned on me then. I remembered snapping a photo of my daughter and her friends — just a few years younger than this group — at a women’s soccer game last year. I can picture their duck faces and the tiny hands making peace signs with the game happening right behind them.  We took it twice to get the look just right.

I imagined that picture showing up on millions of strangers’ news feeds, shaming them for being more interested in creating the perfect kissy face than watching the U.S. women’s soccer team. It was only a moment, but no one else knew that.

This group easily could have been my daughter and her friends. I wanted to vomit.

Yesterday, I came across this story clarifying the photo. It alleges that the girls were participating in a contest  broadcasted to the entire stadium to tweet selfies.

Participating. In a contest. Having fun. In that moment of a three hour game.

When Fox Sports and the Diamondbacks offered tickets to another game, the girls declined and requested the tickets be donated to an organization that supports families of domestic abuse. This bold move is in stark contrast to the shaming these girls received from the Interweb.

So. well. played.

I like to think that as adults we learned from this experience. I see people sharing the second article all over social media saying we shouldn’t judge or that there are two sides to every story.

But that isn’t what freaks me out the most.

What scares the bejeezus out of me is that someone else took this picture of them. Someone else decided to use this photo and tell their story. Someone else took control of their experience and plastered it all over the Internet.

And no one else seems to be bothered by this.

I passionately talk to my kids about social media. I show them how a text can be forwarded to a group with a single touch of a button, or a message misconstrued. I lecture them about how nothing is “private” and how people are not always who they say they are. I am waiting until I feel the time is right to let them have their own phone, Instagram or Facebook.

But there is one thing I cannot protect them from on social media, one thing even I can’t control.

You.

I can’t protect them from you and your ability to change their lives in an instant with your iPhone. Your taking pictures, your telling their stories, your providing the context.

And it scares the bejeezus out of me.

My daughters and I could never post a picture on social media again, and they could still end up the laughing stock of the World Wide Web without doing a single thing wrong. Just by being themselves. Having fun at an event where they didn’t even know someone was snapping their picture and deciding to hit “share.”

Because you sat behind them in the bleachers and saw their g-string sticking out. Because you thought their blue hair and nose ring were “funny.” Because you thought the way they danced during the seventh inning stretch was just like Elayne from Seinfeld.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, every embarrassing picture, every “funny” meme, every silly You Tube video we post and share on social media is somebody’s daughter or somebody’s son. It could be MY daughter. It could be YOUR son.

And we have more control than you believe. Simply by not hitting the share button, you are doing your part. Pausing, and imagining that it is your child in that shaming-selfie photo, your sister with her butt-crack hanging out in Wal Mart, your dad with the hair coming out of his ears and nose. Not posting or sharing that content  is doing your part.

Because if we don’t teach our kids better, they will never do better.

It’s hard enough raising kids who respect social media. We shouldn’t punish the ones who are just trying to live their lives.

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I remember seeing this poster in one of my daughters’ classrooms, except it was regarding thinking before speaking. Simon Clegg turned it into a thinking before posting poster, and I think it is pretty brilliant.

 

 

When I Got Called Out on the Internet

One evening in June, I googled my blog name “Playdates on Fridays” to see if any sites picked up my content. I took several months off from writing as a result of an eye disease I contracted that made it difficult for me to work on a computer screen, so I thought I would check if any other blogs picked up work I submitted prior to getting sick.

The fifth item down was a piece from Mommyish that included a reference to a post I wrote earlier in the year. Exciting, right?

Except then I read the title: “Self-Described ‘Good Mom’ Wants To Know Why You Hate Her For Being Better Than You.” Uh oh, this was not going to be good.

The woman who wrote the article lambasted me from the get-go. She called me out by name. In fact, she actually called me a few names. As I read through the post, my heart beat a little faster. My hands were sweating. I felt embarrassed and shamed and yes, even a little bit angry.

Then I hit the comments section. Well, let’s just say I read about three comments and then I closed my laptop because no good was going to come out of reading the disdain some of her readers felt for me.

The article in question was an impulse post I wrote back in January about why we give flak to the moms who go all-out with parenting, such as elaborate Bento box lunches, over-the-top parties or the overachiever volunteers, but also the snark we give moms whose houses are too clean or arrive at drop off line in full make up. My intent was to point out that we shouldn’t be so judgey about moms who are trying to better themselves or do something kind for their kids.

I wrote the article because a dear friend overheard a conversation between other moms about how she must not spend any time with her sons because she was always so well put together when she arrived at school each morning. At the time I did not want to use a reference to her situation because it was so personal for her, so I used some examples from my past to underscore my points.

Unfortunately, unless you read carefully, it appears that I wrote a post about how great I thought I was as a mother because I spent more time on Pinterest than everyone else, and if you did not do these things, you sucked as a mom. At least this is how this particular blogger and her viewers took it.

The blogger and some of her readers took my post to read that I was the purveyor of all things Pinterest and loved to create elaborate crafts and lunches for my kids. This mistake is laughable because I am missing the craft-gene and the only success I ever had on Pinterest was when I made Arnold Palmer jello shots for a friend’s party.

A few people went back and read my original post and defended me, but most took the blogger’s assessment as truth and formed their own opinions about what an awful person I am.

The post and the commenters stayed with me. I intellectually comprehended that the blogger took my thoughts in a different way than I intended, and I KNOW that as a writer you should try to stay away from reading the negative, but my heart just couldn’t stop itself. I went back and read through each one of the comments — all 183 of them. Here are a few of my favorites:

This woman is clearly very insecure and/or self absorbed to the point of being narcissistic.

This woman reads into everything and loves to be a victim. I know a few people like that IRL and they are tedious and annoying.

You’re a show-off Whitney, that’s why people don’t like you. You are a show-off and a narcissist.

These will be the kids that everyone hates because their mom is an a-hole.

It’s sad. Her kids will be so f-d up when she passes her insecurity and baggage on to them.

Let’s just say, ouch. My ego took a major punch to the gut, and to put it simply, I felt bad. Even though I knew that my words were spun into a context I did not intend, it rocked my world.  I felt professionally embarrassed and unfairly judged.

The people who wrote these things did not know I was recovering from a debilitating eye disease that caused me to lose the vision in my left eye. They must have not known I was struggling with my recovery and the depression that is often associated with chronic pain. They could not have known that my goal as a blogger is about empowering parents, not taking them down.

I repeated the words from the immortal poet Taylor Swift: “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, so shake it off,” but their words kept echoing in my ears.

I decided to just ignore it. I did not tell my husband or close friends about the post. I still haven’t. I did not highlight it to my blogger buddies. I would squash the negativity down by acting as if it didn’t exist. If I did not talk about it, it wasn’t an issue.

I tried to learn from the experience. I re-read the article several times and realized I could have changed the wording in some places or elaborated to ensure my point was clear. I needed to sound check for some sanctimonious language.  I should have slowed down and not rushed to post it.

I tried to move past it.

Except every time I would check Google, it was there, loud and proud for all the world to see.  A series of judgments based on one article I wrote, one small sliver of who I am.

I thought about how friends sometimes promote my blog by saying just Google “Playdates on Fridays!” What if they came across this article? My mom could read those comments or my fiends, and I knew they would feel bad for me. One day, my daughters could read those words and be heartbroken at what total strangers said about their mother.

And that’s when it hit me. I closed my eyes and imagined what my girls would feel like if they were the ones to read commentary like what was written about me. I understood in that moment what it must feel like to be bullied online, ridiculed in front of the world, and shamed by people you don’t even know.

I am a 42-year old mother who intellectually understands that the people who made those hurtful comments didn’t even know me. I can grasp that those words do not change who I am or what I have achieved. I comprehend that I am not defined by what others say or write about me. Yet, it still bothered me.

But what about my young daughters? Do they have the emotional capacity to understand this? Will they talk to me — or someone else — if they encountered a similar situation or will they think their world has come to an end? How would they respond if someone called them ugly on Instagram? Or a loser on Facebook? Or told to go kill themselves on Twitter? I know that the potential for something similar happening to them one day is very real.

I am a (mostly) self-confident, happy adult, and it was difficult for me to swallow or to even talk about some bad comments with anyone else. Can I expect more of them?

I often read the heartbreaking stories of kids who commit suicide from online bullying. I never understood it  — until now.

I am not trying to imply that for even one moment I contemplated taking my life, but I was surprised at the physical and emotional toll those comments put on me. I understand that what happened isn’t that big of a deal, but I was shocked that I couldn’t shake the disdain the other blogger felt for me. Despite my efforts at rationalizing the experience, it still affected me.  I have spoken to other bloggers who feel the same, as well as other adults who have experienced some bullying online.

A few year’s back there was a movement to shut Ask.FM down due to a slew of teen suicides associated with the site. One high-profile case was about Jessica Laney, who was slut-shamed to the point she took her own life.  One of the examples used by investigators to prove she was cyberbullied came from a fellow teen:

First of all. You’re life sucks. And second of all. NoOne cares about your life so stop posting it on Facebook. You just look like an attention whore: trying to make everyone feel bad for you. NOONE CARESSSS

And here’s the grown up version:

You’re a show-off Whitney, that’s why people don’t like you. You are a show-off and a narcissist. You know how many f***ks your kid gives that they get a painstakingly prepared bento box over a sandwich, some apple slices and a cookie? None. They don’t give ANY f***ks, Whitney. You make the bento boxes and the elaborate Valentine’s Day boxes, and the homemade playdate cookies because you are a show-off.

I am writing this today not for personal comments to boost my self-esteem or to lash out at the people who hurt my feelings; but instead, to help ensure that as parents we understand that what our kids read about themselves online can and will affect them. They may not share their experiences because of embarrassment or shame, or fear that we will step in to interfere in their personal relationships. We may not find out until it’s too late.

Although I am still embarrassed by the blog and wish the commenters knew the real me instead of the one projected in the post, I am thankful for this experience. I now realize that I probably will never grow the “thicker skin” I need for the blogging/writing world, but I can change some of my own personal behaviors to deal with the negativity. I know I am not the only writer to experience the roller coaster ride associated with reader comments.

I plan to sit down with my girls and discuss how the entire event played out from beginning to end. I will show them the comments and then let them read this post. We will have a frank discussion about the impact their words have on other people, as well as how we should handle it when unsavory comments appear about ourselves.

And here’s just a gentle reminder: Whitney, and the rest of the people who write online, are real people who most likely will read what you say about them. The Internet isn’t as big as you think.

A good rule of thumb may be if you wouldn’t want it said about your kid, maybe you shouldn’t write it about someone else.

Even if you think she deserves it for being a Pinterest-loving, bento box-making, volunteering narcissist.

So You Caught Your Kid Looking at Porn

Since my post “My 12 Year Old Was Blackmailed for Nude Photos” came out, I have had a lot of people comment and get in touch with me about issues their children — or children they know — have encountered online. For example, a friend got in touch about her nephew that was playing with another child that had a hand-me-down phone with the Wi-Fi code still on it and used it to access porn. They were six and eight.

And the woman who e-mailed me after reading the article to tell me that her 13-year-old daughter had been communicating with a sex offender for four months and was just about to meet with him when the mom found out. How did this happen when the child didn’t own a phone? Her daughter’s friend was kind enough to let her have access to SnapChat on her iPad, which her parents never monitored.

And the parent that contacted me telling me that her two sons had figured out how to connect their Xbox to the Internet and were innocently chatting with people all over the world. Based on the communication and the questions they were asking, she was convinced that these gaming players were certainly not the eleven-year-old boys they were pretending to be.

And the mother who told me the article prompted her to check out her daughter’s photo gallery where she found dozens of inappropriate pictures she had been sexting to some boys in her class. She had already blocked access to apps, but did not regularly monitor her phone.

And the grandmother who installed monitoring software — but did not set it up correctly — so her grandchildren were having unfettered access to the Internet. In her words: “Thank God I did not have a heart attack when I walked in and saw what that bull was doing to that goat.” Yes, I giggled at that one a little bit because I think I saw that video too, and I’m thankful that’s all that it was.

In today’s digital world where kids are often more savvy than the adults — and Internet access is everywhere — parents must use a combination of technology tools, conversations and education to protect our children.  If nothing else, the examples above underscored one thing to me: the Internet is a battlefield and it is taking good parents down.

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Our kids are on to us too. It’s not enough to just monitor, spy or control access. Don’t be fooled into thinking it won’t happen to your child.

According to McAfee’s 2014 study about Teens and The Screen, youth use social networking sites they believe their parents are not members of or are trolling. YouTube is the most frequented site, with 97% of respondents visiting the site or app on a weekly basis. YouTube was closely followed by Instagram, with 92% of respondents visiting the site or app on a weekly basis. That’s not counting that awful anonymous Ask.FM site or the Web-based messengers SnapChat and Kik.

So what should you do it you catch your child doing something inappropriate online?

  • Don’t freak out. When our kids get deep into trouble, they often make poor decisions because of the fear they have of facing the wrath of their parents. So, most kids don’t confide in their parents about cyberbullying, Internet stalking, sexting or seeing inappropriate content online for fear of losing Web access or worse yet, their phones. Treat using a cell phone or the Internet like you would approach drinking and driving – there is no instance about social media where they should be scared to tell you what they have done or contact you to help get them out of trouble. If you do find out that your daughter is communicating with someone they shouldn’t, or your son is watching something inappropriate, it’s not the best time to go bat crazy, because you don’t want them to be fearful of coming to you again — when it could be really important. Take the access or device away, take a deep breath, and think about it.
  • Make sure the punishment fits the crime. There is a difference between a nine-year old accessing porn and a young girl sending nude photos to a stranger. In the first example you may merely restrict access to the Net (or only allow access to Web-enabled devices when you are present) and the second obviously is much more serious with potential legal consequences. In any case, don’t overreact and say something like: “You aren’t allowed to go online until your 16!” We all know that’s never going to happen, so take your time to come up with a punishment that gets the message across. And remember, restricting access or taking a device away is not the only punishment option either. Treat it as any other broken trust issue. Regardless,I encourage you to sleep on it. Nothing makes a kid sweat like waiting to be punished.
  • Continue the conversations. You may think that your kid just broke the rules and didn’t listen to you, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes kids get themselves into trouble online without even realizing it, particularly when they are younger. It’s important to continue having the discussions about online safety even after you have restricted access and hopefully solved the issue. And keep the tone open and concerned, not shocked and angry.
  • Consider the overspill into “real life.” In the case of the young boy who was accessing porn, I think we can all agree that most kids are curious about sexuality and the body parts of the opposite sex. This is really no different from when a son finds his dad’s Playboy magazine hidden in a drawer. However, although we can’t quash their curiosity, we should channel it in more appropriate ways. When you catch your child doing something like this, use it as an opportunity to open a conversation, and more importantly communicate your opinions on the subject and values. “Do you have any questions you want to ask me about what you saw” or “I know you are curious, but I don’t believe that those sites treat women with respect.” In the case of finding out your child is sexting or communicating with a stranger, find out if she is trying to fill a void in her life or having problems socially. Predators often lure in kids who may be feeling insecure about something, such as their looks, social status or relationships.
  • Consider a third-party. It’s often a tough pill for us parents — especially those of us who think we have solid relationships with our children — to swallow, but sometimes our kids cannot believe that we understand what they are going through in today’s world. It’s often helpful to have someone other than you or your parenting partner discuss issues related to online safety with your son or daughter. It can be a younger teacher, aunt, cousin, clergy, neighbor or even a family therapist, should you need to go that route, but the most important thing to remember is to get the message through to your child.
  • Remember the point. There has to be a line between protecting our kids and teaching them to be responsible. It is irrational to think that restricting all access to the Internet will teach your kids how to be responsible digital citizens. Instead, we need to teach them how to be safe, demonstrate the dangers, communicate the rules and encourage responsibility. But these things do not have to be completed all at once. If your child runs into a problem online, consider going back a few steps. Allow them access to a cell phone that can only be used for phone communication (yes, they are still out there), put the computer in a central location, block access to apps and tell them you will be using monitoring tools until they earn your trust back.

Have you ever caught your child doing something inappropriate online? What advice can you give other parents?

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