By Denise Terry
March 31, 2011 -- Ask any parent of a teenage girl what their worst nightmare is, and it's likely you'll come up with something similar to the script for the new movie 'Trust'. Directed by David Schwimmer (formerly “Ross” from Friends), 'Trust' touches on the very serious topic of responsible use of social networks by children and how 'disconnected' parents can become from the inner life of their teenager. In the movie, fourteen-year-old teen Annie meets a boy on a social network who turns out to be not who he says he is. After months of communicating on the Internet and by phone, the two agree to meet in a public place without her parents’ knowledge. After the boy is revealed to be more than twice her age, a confused and shocked Annie becomes the victim of a sexual assault - a parent's worst nightmare. The fallout from the event includes the victim being harassed by her classmates, the pain and anger felt by her parents, and scrutiny of what others perceived to be bad parenting decisions.
The world has changed radically in the last ten years; the way children interact has changed, and children are often more savvy with technology than their parents are. Our teens are growing up with 24/7 access to Facebook, texting, and a widening technology gap between themselves and their not-always-tech-savvy parents. While technology like Facebook is not to blame for some of the dysfunction that teens display when socializing with each other online, it does behoove parents to get much more involved at a time when it's so easy for kids to 'check out' and not disclose just what's happening in their daily lives as teens. The movie drives this point home quite dramatically, since 'Annie' seems like a normal, happy teenage girl with a good relationship with her parents, and yet she still acts naively and without parental consent when she gets physically involved with the stranger she's been communicating with online.
The movie "Trust" reminds us that parenting is not a perfect science, and those of us who think 'It can't/won't happen to *my* kid' really need to wake up and pay attention. Here are some tips:
- Get involved in the online activity of your children, especially on social networking sites like Facebook where people aren’t always who they claim to be.
- Teens like to experiment and sometimes make mistakes, including on sites like Facebook where consequences are not easily 'erased' or forgotten. Make sure your child understands that Google and the Internet are their permanent record, so anything posted online can damage their reputation or endanger their safety if they aren't careful.
- Make sure you talk to your teen about appropriate behavior, before they make these common teen Facebook mistakes
- Know who your children are friends with online, especially over-age friends or friends you haven’t met.
- Just because your child is under Facebook's "legal age" of 13 years old, don't assume he or she isn't one of the millions of tweens sneaking onto Facebook in record numbers each year. (The parental control program SafetyWeb will tell you as soon as your child gets an account with any of over a hundred sites.)
- Get alerts on suspicious or risky content posted to your child or by your child so that you don't have to read *every single post*, but can still keep track of their safety.
- Familiarize yourself with teen issues that your child may eventually confront, such as sexting, Facebook stalking, cyberbullying and teen depression.
- If you or your child discover a Facebook imposter, such as someone impersonating your child online or claiming to be someone they are not (such as a teenage boy when they are a sex offender), report it to Facebook immediately and contact your local police department. Online impersonation is a crime in California, and may soon be if other states follow suit.
For parents, it’s crucial to have in place as early as possible rules and standards about a child’s online activity. The immediate knowledge of new friends, an open discussion of social network activity, and real-time alerts can contribute to a safer online environment for children, but they cannot solve the problem. Children must be responsible for the way they protect their privacy and their own safety on social networks, too.
The movie will be released on Friday, April 1st and is not overly graphic (despite the "R" rating), but does deal with some heavy issues. Parents with teenagers are especially encouraged to see the movie with or without their teenager and discuss topics like how to be safe on Facebook, appropriate social networking and texting etiquette, "house rules" for interacting with friends both online and offline, and why it’s important that parents stay in the loop.
Denise Terry is Chief Safety Mom for SafetyWeb and focuses on how to maintain open communication and a trust-based relationship with your child in the age of social networks and cellphones.