Dr. Leonard Sax is a family physician and author, who recently published an article in the Wall Street Journal, which I found both compelling and convicting. Although I might have worded some thoughts differently, I agree with his conclusions. If you have a teen or pre-teen, do not fail to consider his advice.
Earlier this year I visited a school in turmoil. It began with two students: a sixth-grade girl who I’ll call Emily, and her 14-year-old boyfriend, who I’ll call Justin. Justin begged Emily to send him some photos. “Nothing raunchy,” he said. Their parents would never know, he promised.
Emily did as he asked in the privacy of her bedroom. She pulled down her shirt to reveal the curve of her breast. (Like many other 12-year-old girls nowadays, she could easily pass for 15.)
Justin promised Emily that nobody else would ever see the photos, and it seems he meant to keep that promise. But Justin left his phone unattended at a party, and another boy, we’ll call him Brett, picked up Justin’s phone, scrolled through the photos, and saw the ones Emily had sent. Brett forwarded the photos of Emily from Justin’s phone to his phone, and then posted the photos on Instagram, using an account with a fictitious name.
Within their suburban community, the photos went viral. Other girls began calling her “Emily the slut.” Boys came up to Emily and asked her to put on a show for them. She was uninvited from a ski weekend with friends when the parents of one of the other girls said they didn’t want their daughter to be around Emily’s bad influence.
Emily never had any psychological issues until this episode. But she crumbled—refusing to go to school, and cutting herself with a razorblade on her upper thigh where she didn’t think her parents would see. She began talking about suicide.
Who is to blame in this situation? Not Emily, in my judgment. Not Justin. Not even Brett. They’re just kids.
I blame their parents. The parents provided their kids with cellphones capable of taking, sending and receiving photographs, but they provided no oversight.
I go around the country talking about this issue, and I’m always surprised when parents express reluctance about deploying software to monitor all the devices their children use. There are widely available programs, such as My Mobile Watchdog, Mobile Spy and Net Nanny Mobile that send any photo your child takes or receives on her phone immediately to your phone and laptop, even before your child has sent the photo anywhere.
If Emily’s parents had had such software installed on her phone, she might not have taken the photos in the first place, since she could have explained to Justin that her parents could see all of her pictures, and that any such photo would result in her losing her phone for a month or longer.
As wretched as Emily’s story is, there are more horrific outcomes.
On Sept. 9, 2013, 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick committed suicide by leaping off a high platform at an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Fla. According to her mother, Rebecca was the victim of bullying, allegedly by a 12-year-old girl and 14-year-old girl, over the course of many months. According to published accounts, the 14-year-old was jealous because Rebecca had previously dated John Borgen, a boy that she was dating. The girls had told Rebecca to, among other things, “drink bleach and die.”
On Oct. 12, the 14-year-old posted a note about Rebecca’s death on Facebook. “I bullied Rebecca nd [sic] she killed her self [sic] but IDGAF [I don’t give a f—].” The triumphant tone of the note caught the attention of Sheriff Grady Judd. He directed police to question the girl and her parents.
On Oct. 14, Sheriff Judd dispatched two deputies to arrest both girls for aggravated stalking. The 12-year-old was released to her parents’ custody. The 14-year-old was taken into custody in the juvenile wing of the Polk County Jail. She and her parents insist her account was hacked.
At a news conference on Oct. 15, Sheriff Judd explained that he felt he needed to act quickly because the parents were incompetent. “Why does she even have a device? Parents, who instead of taking that device and smashing it into a thousand pieces in front of that child, say her account was hacked,” said Sheriff Judd. “Watch what your children do online. Pay attention. Quit being their best friend and be their best parent.”
The sheriff is right. If you buy a smartphone for your child, and your child is victimized by messages received on that phone, or uses the phone to bully another child, the person most responsible for that behavior is you, the parent.
I’m not saying it’s easy: There is no analogue in our own upbringing. But I’m amazed by how some parents push back, especially affluent parents who tell me they don’t want to violate their child’s privacy.
Here’s what I tell them: The most important thing you can teach your children about technology is that there is no privacy online. You must teach your kids that they should not send any photo to a friend’s cellphone, or post anything on social media, unless they are prepared for the whole world to see it. The best way to teach that message is not to preach it, but to enforce it—to let your child know that you will see every photo they take. That’s how you inculcate good habits.
Nearly eight months later, Emily is doing better. Transferring to a different school was a big help. Her parents have installed a monitoring app on her mobile device.
Dr. Sax is a family physician and the author, most recently, of “Girls on the Edge: the Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls” (Basic Books, 2011).