How to Talk to Other Parents About Their Child: New Rules for the Digital Age

Looking out for each others’ kids is good for all of us as parents.

This is the first of a series dedicated to answering questions posed by you. If you have a question about digital citizenship, or about raising your own Digital Native, please send me an email!

FROM MY INBOX: These are questions from real parents in my community (though names have been changes to protect their privacy, of course).

Using Instagram Without Permission

Amanda: Reviewing my Instagram feed the other day, I saw a recommendation to follow one of my son’s classmates… she just turned 10. Her mom and I are friends, and I feel a little stuck in what to do next. If I tell her I followed her daughter on Instagram, she may not understand what the implications are. I’m not sure she even understands Instagram or the fact that her daughter should really be 13 to use it (according to the app’s own guidelines). I’m also worried about this harming her relationship with my son. Do I say anything?

My rule is, if I would want to know, then I should say something. In my work with families, I’ve seen how hard it is for parents to talk with other parents about these types of experiences. I realize that there is a lot of judgment and negativity when it comes to our kids’ use of technology, but it doesn’t have to be that way! If we strive for open communication about parenting and technology and take a community-minded approach when we are concerned about children’s behavior, we can all benefit.

I wouldn’t worry about being viewed as an informant. If the mom isn’t aware of what Instagram is then this would be the perfect opportunity for her to learn, and even for you to teach her. Instead of sounding the alarm bells, you can approach the topic lightly instead. Beginning with something like, “wow, I can’t believe our kids are on social media already, they are growing up so fast…” could open the door to a productive conversation.

You could then transition to asking the mom how she felt about you following her daughter or her daughter following you. This way, you aren’t ratting anyone out – the daughter made the first move, anyway.

Social Media Impersonation Accounts

David: My eleven-year-old daughter and I were looking at her e-mail and saw auto-responses from Twitter, Instagram, and several other social applications. I was angry because I thought we had an agreement that she would wait until she was 13 to set up these accounts. Upon further examination, it became clear that the accounts belong to her best friend, a kid I’ve known for years. She just used my daughter’s e-mail account to set them up, as her parents, who are generally stricter than I am, have not allowed her to have e-mail. What should I do?

As I mentioned in my last response, when it comes to digital citizenship, it truly takes a village, and I think that your question is the perfect example of that.

Since you have a relationship with your daughter’s friend, however, you may want to give her the chance to tell her parents directly so that they can have a conversation. If you’re close with her parents, they may also have questions for you about your choice to allow your child to have an email account. If you feel up to it, you can walk them through your approach to mentoring your child (you mentioned you were looking at your daughter’s email with her when you saw these messages), becoming a tech positive parent, and more!

This situation also presents an opportunity to talk to your daughter (and maybe also her friend) about the real-life dangers associated with sharing passwords, and why sharing emails isn’t a good idea. The goal isn’t to scare them, but instead to caution them – point to some real-world examples of times in which this would have been problematic.

Inappropriate Content on the Internet

Ruthie: My 10-year-old son had a friend over, and they were playing on the family tablet. After the friend went home, I noticed some graphic pop-ups left behind from the sites they visited, leaving me to think that they may have used it to view porn. What should I do?

First of all, don’t panic. Try to stay calm at least while you are talking with your child about it. We don’t want to scare them so much that they don’t come to us. These things happen, and is a good lesson to us all that no matter how aware you try to be of what your children are doing on their devices, there can be surprises. That being said, this situation may warrant a conversation about where in the house he is allowed to be on technology (perhaps especially) when his friends are over in the future.

While you aren’t happy to have this chat with your 10-year-old, you may feel particularly unhappy to have to let the other 10-year-old’s parents know this happened. But you would want to know if your kid had seen something like this, so you could help them deal with it. Remember that it is natural for kids to be curious, and they are learning boundaries. The positive thing is that you’ve stepped in to help them—at the right time.

Start by explaining why kids shouldn’t see pornography. “Adults make content for other adults,” and let them know that even many adults feel that such content is not positive, or that it demeans women, or that it depicts a narrow view of sexuality. Pick your own line – you likely have strong feelings about the subject, and it’s perfectly reasonable to let that show.

One woman reported that her nine-year-old searched “sexy naked ladies.” This is a kid who needs good information, to be told his interest is normal and not aberrant. But this is also a kid who – like all kids – does not need to be doing unsupervised Internet searches.

Deborah Roffman, an expert on childhood sexuality, advises that, if your children do see pornography, you talk to them about how different it is from real sex. She also advises that you talk with your kids about the possibility that they will see “naked people” on the computer, once they are old enough to search, and ask them to come and talk to you if they do. Also, be sure they have access to age-appropriate books, films, and other resources about puberty and sexuality.

If the kids are teens, it might make more sense to talk with the other kids directly and to share your concerns about pornography with him instead of his parents. But with elementary or middle school kids, a conversation with parents seems merited.

This is also an indication that your child could use some positive, age-appropriate information about these topics. Check out girlology, guyology, and scarlateen for some guidelines to sex-ed for emerging adults.

Let’s Work Together on Uncomfortable Topics

While learning to mentor and support your own kids is hard enough, it can be scary open up to potentially uncomfortable topics with other parents, at the risk of potential judgment and criticism. This is especially true when the catalyst for conversation feels like something you yourself would be unhappy to hear about.

But these situations come up for all of us, and we as parents need to stick together and look out for one another’s kids in a positive way. You have the power to use these conversations as an opportunity to overcome some of our tech-shaming and taboos around sharing about the challenges of raising kids in the digital age. The more conversations parents have, the more informed we’ll all be, and this can promote a more tech-positive mentality in your community.

Getting Your Child a Phone?

Are you ready? Are they ready? Join my Cell Phone Boot Camp to get ready to support them through this important transition. Already got your child a phone and now wishing you’d been more prepared? This class is also good for a family that has recently purchased a phone for their child (in the past year.)

For more stories from parents just like you – and what you can do to become a tech-positive parent, read Chapter 4 of my book:

Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.

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