"I didn’t see it coming,” a mother we will call Becky for privacy reasons said to me.
Becky describes her 12-year-old as a “good girl, bright, creative, and responsible,” a home-schooled seventh grader who is working at a ninth grade level, a writer, a straight-A student, not the kind of kid who goes off the rails. They had had the conversation with her about internet safety. After all, Becky’s husband works in the information technology field.
“She knew the rules of being on the internet.”
They had installed parental controls on their daughter’s computer to block inappropriate content. They had their daughter’s passwords to her computer and cell phone. They thought they were doing everything right. Still, this happened.
One day Becky picked up her daughter’s phone to examine it and discovered 337 emails from potential suitors, men.
“Complete panic, a sinking feeling, of course, a betrayal of trust,” Becky tells me regarding the discovery. “She (her daughter) couldn’t even talk. She was just so upset when I confronted her.”
After speaking with her daughter, Becky discovered that she had created an online dating profile on a website called okcupid. It’s a perfectly legitimate online dating site for adults, but clearly not meant for children. Becky’s daughter used a fake name and photograph and portrayed herself as a college student. Because her computer blocked such websites, she used her phone to access the site. Apparently, she was writing a short story and wanted to create a real-life character as research for her project.
“She wanted to try out the character for her short story. She realized pretty quickly that she was in over her head given the nature of the emails,” Becky tells me. “She was very naïve about the dangers of this kind of exploration.”
“Her motives were not bad, she’s just young and she didn’t know.”
Becky insists her daughter wasn’t looking for love or any real connection with these men. She just wanted to know what it felt like to be a college girl so she could write about it.
Becky and her husband immediately took down the profile, deactivated their daughter’s account with the website and erased the emails, but that was the easy part. The hard part was figuring out why and how this happened and preventing anything like this from happening again. Becky also wants to let other parents know about her experience as a cautionary tale.
Becky now checks all of her daughter’s devices and accounts on a regular, but random basis. She makes sure she has all of the current passwords and checks her daughter’s history online. It’s a brave new world with new avenues for children to get into trouble in ways that our parents never had to deal with. While young people today are clearly more tech-astute than their parents, it behooves us to learn as much as we can to try and keep up with that they are doing online.
“As great as your children are, they’re still emerging teens who want to branch out, to see what the world’s like,” Becky says. “The technology is there and they’re going to use it. This has been a good lesson for all of us.”
Amanda is the mom of two, a reporter for WRAL-TV and the author of several books including some on motherhood. Find her here on Mondays.