Gosh, y’all! Raising a teen today? Not. Easy. I mean, I didn’t think it would be, but there is literally a whole new world to navigate that we historically have little experience to call upon to help us identify the dangers and how to handle those dangers when they cross our young, impressionable teens’ paths.
Enter the Internet
You see, I am talking about the Internet. And social media. And apps. And cell phones. And all things technology. Not to sound like my grandmother, but back in my day, we had none of these and for that, I am forever grateful. I truly cannot even begin to imagine how I would have survived the complexities of adolescence in such a public forum. AND the vast amounts of information literally one click away would have been beyond confusing and frightening and overwhelming. And yet, now that I have a 13 and 12-year old, I am experiencing second hand how terrifying and life-threatening this brave new world can be.
My 13-year-old son has always been extremely compliant and trustworthy. This is the kid that never wants to get in trouble (and never really has), consistently and easily gets all A’s, would never tell a lie, and works hard to please everyone. And although he is 13 he is not the most mature and comes with a childlike innocence that makes it easy to believe he would never even dream of doing anything wrong. My husband and I completely trusted in his good nature. AND his extreme intellect. That he would never do anything to cause us grief and frustration.
But then…Discord. The communication app for gamers. Our boy was never the most athletic, so sports were never his thing. And all the clubs he did enjoy have vanished with Covid (robots and service clubs and frisbee) so Discord allowed him the opportunity to continue to connect with his friends while doing what he loved…playing video games.
When Covid first started, I was diligent about periodically reviewing who he was chatting with and the content. And it was literally the most mind-numbing conversations…how to build in Minecraft, which skin was best in Fortnight, tips for finding Pokemons. We had had several conversations over the years about online safety and only talking to people you know in real life and not going to “bad places”. And so, I trusted my most trustworthy boy to continue to follow those rules, even after he entered the rebellious teenage years.
Now, I consider myself a smart lady. I had read all the dangers of online conversations. I knew the warning signs for depression. Heck, I even knew the importance of constantly monitoring, but this was my never-do wrong child! So, up until about a month ago, if you had told me all the awful things occurring on Discord, I would have shrugged and said, “Not my child!”
And, I fear deep down, most of you reading this will say the same.
So what is Discord?
Discord advertises itself as “Your place to talk”. And, quite honestly, on the surface, it IS a convenient place to easily communicate with groups with similar interests. But we know how teens’ minds work. They like to take risks and they like to think they know it all. So, they can easily and quickly find rooms with topics ranging from suicide to drugs to severe bullying to cutting to exploring sexuality to not trusting your parents. Think of everything you would never want your 13 year old exposed to and they have the power to instantly find people talking about how to do it or where to go to get it or sharing sites that show images of it with one click of a button.
How do I know this? Because my super innocent son did not delete one single conversation from his computer. So I saw, with my own eyes, literally everything he was exposed to by complete strangers posing as teenagers. Why do I say posing? Well, because I am an adult and upon reading the texts I could quickly and easily see these people were not teenagers but adults using their power and influence to control young, impressionable minds. One person slipped up and talked about having to go to work (in the middle of the school day) and another mentioned sending my child money so he could come and visit them in Arkansas. Do you know teens that would say those things? Others very quickly and easily inserted language that showed their extreme knowledge of mind control by planting seeds of parental doubt in my child’s mind.
But you don’t have to take my word for this. If you visit the Discord website, you will see a page dedicated to mental health, emergency requests if you think a teen committed self-harm or was engaging in unsafe practices, and this:
“Child safety policy
- When we are made aware of potential Child Safety concerns on our platform, our Trust & Safety team reviews the content and reports the content to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) or Law Enforcement where appropriate. NCMEC will then work with local and international law enforcement as necessary.”
Oh and this:
“Discord works with law enforcement agencies in cases of immediate danger and/or self-harm. In particular, we swiftly report child abuse material and the users responsible to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”
There was no law enforcement notification for my child when the above was occurring. And not just in one conversation and not just in two. But in multiple chats over multiple weeks. Upon a conversation with a law enforcement agent following our experience, he said “Oh Discord? Yeah, NOTHING good is happening to kids on that site. We know FOR SURE that this site is being used to groom children for sex trafficking”.
So WHY is there a place that we KNOW child predators are using to lure children into situations continuing to operate as is and not doing more? WHY has this not been shut down?
I don’t know how anyone would allow their child (teen or not) to continue to use this site, after reading all this. But I know the answer. You will. Because……..not your child. They know better. OR that is all they have with Covid. OR they will hate me. OR teens will be teens. OR at least they are safe in my house. OR it is better than them running the streets. Yet in reality, it really isn’t. It is a world that can quickly consume their minds and their thoughts. And readily influence them to say and possibly do things they wouldn’t otherwise. Virtual peer pressure is just as real, if not more so than in the face-to-face world.
The steps we took
We took extremely hard steps with our son and took all technology away immediately. We quickly found him a therapist we all love who can help him work through some of the things he was exposed to. And we now monitor his every online interaction through parent monitoring apps. We are gradually allowing him to return to the technology world because we know it is not going away, but we are doing so slowly and with lots of guidance to help him make smart choices and learn how to avoid the dangers.
We have our good days and our bad days. He is a teen after all who is being left out of the app that all his friends are still using. But for the most part, he has quickly returned to the boy we knew before Discord. Happy, positive, trusting, loving, and compliant. I am not exaggerating when I say he was a completely different person when on the app and I am forever thankful that we found these conversations in the early stages and not after more had occurred.
We can’t shut down the internet in its entirety. Although believe me, I wanted to! And we all know there are huge benefits to technology (said I, as I write for a virtual publication). So the most important thing to tackle with our tweens and teens is internet safety and responsibility. Stranger danger is alive and well online. Sexual exploitation can literally happen 30 feet from where you sleep. Much like you would constantly talk to your teen about physical places and activities to avoid, so should you too constantly talk about the virtual counterparts. And much like our parents told us where we could and could not go in the real world, we too must set boundaries in the digital world.
It isn’t easy. There will be fights. And disagreements. And the unchanged-by-time teenage resentment. But these precautions can literally save your child’s life. So, don’t close your eyes to what could be happening literally feet from you. Don’t fool yourself into believing that if they are in your home, they are safe. Don’t assume your child knows appropriate virtual worlds to visit and those to avoid. Help them to navigate this brave new world together. For if you don’t, their lives could literally be changed forever in just one click.
Trust me. I know.