This is a bit of a continuation of a discussion that has taken over the wall of my Facebook profile since yesterday. As usual I have more to say than is feasible on facebook so decided to move it over here.
The background story is that my husband discovered two days ago - by walking behind her and reading over her shoulder - that our eleven year old daughter was online and chatting with a stranger. She was on the website called "Sketchfu", which is basically a place where kids can draw pictures, post them, and share them with their "friends". I am shamed to admit that I thought that was all there was to it, so didn't investigate any further. Now we know it is a glorified chat room. The kids set up a profile page, add a picture and a short blurb about themselves and then they are open to chat with whoever happens to see their drawings and wants to comment. Sounds innocent enough, right? Well at the time that her father walked by and got curious, Morgan was chatting with a "15 year old boy" who was telling her how pretty she was and wanting to know her name and what school she attended. That still gives me the shivers to think about. Thankfully Morgan had the sense not to divulge anything personal, but she did enter the conversation willingly enough.
We, of course, took this very seriously and immediately began combing over the history of her usage of this site and then moved on to her email account to do the same. Unfortunately there were several conversations with people neither of us knew on that website, although none as alarming as the first. I told her she was very lucky I didn't email them all and tell them just what I thought about approaching strange girls on the Internet, but did make her tell me who all of her "friends" were and made a list of those I knew. Then I called their parents. Later, I felt a little guilty for that, like I was the cliche nagging parent who is no fun and rats everyone out the second I get dirt on them. But I know deep down it was the right thing to do; if the shoe was on the other foot I would have been furious if one of those mothers knew and didn't tell me. The scary thing is: none of those mothers had any idea it was a chat room either.
That account is currently in the process of being cancelled (apparently with that site it isn't as easy as just pressing a 'cancel my account' button), and all her Internet activity is being carefully reviewed by us. She had begged us for months for an MSN account and we flatly refused for a long time. Then came the posting message and the realization that it was a great way to keep in touch with her friends. I joined the messaging world first, in an effort to get a feel for the way it worked, its privacy settings and how easy it was to track the history. Her email account is linked to mine and I check it regularly, so recently we allowed her to sign in to Messenger. So far we have had no issues. Why I didn't do the same for Sketchfu, I couldn't tell you. Perhaps it was that I had no idea it was a chat room, or that they had no real privacy settings to speak of. But that would be an excuse. The reality is that in our busy lives it is far too easy to overlook the details and to assume that because our children are smart and have been lectured on Internet safety for years that they will know what to do when approached. I am shocked to find this is not true and scared enough to now explain to my child exactly WHY she needs to be aware of Internet stalkers.
Having said all this, I do not believe the answer is to ban the Internet altogether. The Internet is an integral part of today's society, it is an excellent research tool and will continue to be a large part of our future technology. Not allowing our children near the Internet creates a naivete that is dangerous and unfair. We are instead choosing to use this as a teaching opportunity and to make her and her siblings more aware of specific dangers they are not currently aware of. They have heard the words often, "the Internet can be a dangerous place", but clearly do not completely comprehend what they mean. I do not for a moment believe Morgan was deliberately trying to defy us - I think she truly didn't know the danger she was in. By now we have sat her down, given her details on what can and does happen to young girls who are lured in from chat rooms and my heart breaks remembering her face and the shock registered there. I feel like we have stolen a little bit of her innocence and pushed her into that realm of mistrust before she was ready. However, I know it was the right thing to do. This is the real world and I need her to be ready for it.
Most recently has been lobbying for a Facebook account. I am thinking that can wait for a little while longer; I have enough grey hairs at the moment!