High-tech mischief

You receive a text from the mother of your daughter’s friend, asking if she can sleep over at her family’s house that night.

You come home from work one day to find a message on your home answering message, from a man who sounds like your son’s physics teacher, requesting that the boy stay after school next week for extra help.

You check your kids’ cell phone and notice a significant number of calls to “Dad’s house.” 

If you would accept these communications at face value, it’s time, dear tech-age parent, to think again. While the examples shown above might honestly be messages from the friend’s mom and physics teacher, or calls to Dad’s house, they might also something much less innocent.

Here are some other, more chilling, scenarios: Your children could be accessing a “send a text” site to enter the sleepover request with the friend’s mom’s phone number in the “from” field. Or your more sophisticated kid might have found a “prank call” website that allows users to have their speech recorded and “filtered” to sound like their choice of adults, down to gender and accent. So that message from the elderly Asian teacher may just be your 13-year-old in disguise, figuring out a way to arrange some supervision-free after school time. And if your child suspects you of cell phone snooping, it’s easy enough to change contact names to headers like “Tutor” and “Dad’s house,” when the numbers are really those of people you’ve told your child to avoid.

Yes, you have to get on Facebook

To avoid these scenarios, or ones like them, it’s important to emphasize good, old-fashioned communication. “You need to go online with your kids and participate with them in the online culture. Talk with them regularly about sites they like and don’t like. Bring up discussions about online integrity, and about making good choices in the virtual world just as much as in the real one,” says Justin Patchin, Ph.D, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. Patchin’s most recent book, written with co-director Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D, is School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time. At speaking engagements all over the country, he tells parents that the days of saying, “I don’t do Facebook” should be over, since it’s just not something a parent can ignore.

But opening a Facebook account is just the beginning. It’s important to keep up-to-date with the latest trends, too, Patchin says. “The more adults are heading onto Facebook, the more kids are abandoning it for places like Tumblr and Twitter.” (And yes, you need to get set up on those sites if your kids are using them.)

Pulling the pixels over mom’s eyes

For Tammy Burns Woodhouse, a Southwest Minneapolis resident, it was a casual glance at the family computer that provided her with the disappointing news—after being forbidden to do so, her 11-year-old son had joined a social network site. A few more clicks led her to the realization that he’d set up a secret Gmail account to get on the site. Once her son had been punished (bye-bye iPod), she turned her attention to his friend, who had been in on the scheme. “Luckily, our group of parents have a mutual policing agreement, so my husband approached them during hockey practice, asked about social media rules in their household, and then told them what their son and ours had been up to.” 

As a result of the incident, the family has reinforced the importance of real interaction with live people, not mindless banter online. “He discovered that those online ‘conversations’ were really not worth making Mom and Dad that mad,” she says, adding, “Once I got over the initial combination of rage, disappointment, and fright, it reinforced some key things for me. We have a shared family computer in a public space, frequently check the browsing history, and compare notes with other parents.”

The night we lied to the babysitter

Leah Samler was finishing her doctorate in clinical psychology when she took a job with a high-end nanny service to help with tuition costs. Her elite customers, who lived in some of the biggest mansions in the city, paid her very well for supervising their children while they headed off to galas, charity functions, and front-row seats at the hottest shows in town. 

Observing all that privilege, Samler found that the number of toys (physical and virtual) in these households was staggering. She also discovered that her well-bred charges were some of the tech-savviest—and sneakiest—kids she’d ever encountered. She recalls, “One night, a 10-year-old had a group of friends visiting when I arrived. The Mom was very clear that everyone had to leave early, and the girl had to be in bed by ten. ‘She has an important tennis match tomorrow,’ the Mom said.”

Got it. Or maybe not. Around nine p.m., the girls approached Samler and pleaded to be allowed to sleep over. “‘Your Mom said no,’” I told the girl, and then she asked, ‘If I get my Mom to change her mind and say it’s okay, will you let us?’ Within minutes, my cell phone was buzzing with a text from the Mom’s number, which said: ‘I changed my mind. Let girls sleep over.’ When the woman got home at 11:30 and saw that the kids were still up, she was angry. ‘I told you she had to go to bed early,’ she said. I showed her the text I’d received, but she said she’d never sent it. We just stood there looking at each other, completely confused.”

Finally, they decided to round up the girls and grill them. The one with a techie older brother quickly confessed that her sib had showed her how to go online and send a text to any number (Samler’s, in this case), from any number the site user specifies (the Mom’s). They had sent a fake text to their sitter, and she had fallen for it.  

Samler, who is now a degreed psychologist specializing in adolescent issues, admits that she was punked. “When I saw the Mom’s telephone number on the text, I believed it was from her. Since that incident, I’m much more mistrustful of anything other than face-to-face communication.” She now works as a therapist at Allendale Association in the Chicago suburbs, and the incident was a catalyst for understanding that kids today have an arsenal of high-tech trickery at their fingertips. 

“My clients have the technical savvy to communicate in ways that do not even cross the minds of their often less technically inclined caregivers. Kids can get away with much more than in years past,” she says, adding, “Information delivered via smartphone or computer should not be taken at face value. It is normal developmental behavior for children to see what they can get away with and try to exert some power and control. Technology, however, adds another layer of intricacy and complexity that must be actively monitored.”

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Family cyber safety sites

Subscribe to updates from these sites to stay up-to-date on the latest trends

  • cyberbullying.us
  • connectsafely.org
  • netfamilynews.org

Staying one step ahead

  • Know your children's friends and meet their parents
  • Monitor children's internet and cell phone activity
  • A child who refuses to Facebook "friend" important adults (parents, friends of family, grandma, and grandpa) should not be allowed to have a Facebook page
  • It may seem old-fashioned, but pick up the phone and talk to parents to make sure an adult will be supervising at kids’ get-togethers
  • Try to stay current on what’s happening, and talk with other parents about what you learn
  • Access your child’s cell phone account online and review the text and phone numbers coming and going. Some phone plans (such as Verizon Wireless) allow you to assign names or codes to each number, for ease in recognition. This can be different than how the number might be named on your child’s phone.

Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local publications. She lives in Minneapolis and blogs at kendrickworks.blogspot.com.