Watching your kids on the internet …

I was saddened to read of the deaths of two teenage girls in Melbourne, reported to be as a result of a suicide pact made online through MySpace. There has been a lot of mainstream media coverage of this tragedy, much of which is exhorting parents to monitor what their kids are doing online. There is an insidious element of implied criticism of the girls’ parents – seemingly suggesting that these parents were somehow negligent in not knowing what the kids were doing because they were doing it in secret on line rather than in the open spaces of the “real world”. There is a not-so-hidden implication that we are being irresponsible parents to allow our kids online for too long. As a mother of two adolescents (a girl and a boy) who each spend a reasonable amount of unsupervised time online, I am reading the coverage with some interest.

I am particularly bemused by the commentary by some of the supposed experts in adolescent psychology … adolescence is a tricky time, and one that we all hope our kids get through relatively unscathed … but I would have thought it is precisely the time when we should be allowing our kids room to explore the world. It is a world that has always had a dark side and has always involved kids exploring some of the things their parents told them not to do. Mostly they survive. Often, parental boundaries are set with the naive intention of avoiding their kids being exposed to the dangerous things they chose to do themselves as adolescents …

The thing about suicide is how unpredictable it can be – there is no way to predict what is the precursor to suicide, although there are many ways to see the evidence with 20/20 hindsight. Suicide leaves a devastating after-effect, including an increase of suicides among those affected. But surely drawing attention to the “likelihood” of copycat suicides is tantamount to giving permission to copycats to go ahead by normalising their action?

There is no doubt that when you are touched by someone’s death, it is a good time to hold your special people close and to remember to tell them that you love them. But it is not the right time to suffocate them and to stop trusting them because someone else has shown poor judgement.

The thing about the internet is how much opportunity it gives us to observe the things that would otherwise be transient and unobserved by anyone who wasn’t right there at the time. That is to say, in many ways we can see way more of what our kids are doing online than what they are doing offline … in our houses, we don’t monitor all the conversations our children have, and we don’t control who they interact with at school or elsewhere unless we take them everywhere … I even suspect there are quite a few grandparents whose main contact with their grandkids is online.

Which brings me back (in a somewhat rambling way) to the theme of watching your kids on the internet … my 15 yo son is an avid internet user and I drop by his website occasionally to see what he’s up to and who he’s “hanging out with”. My argument is that he is bringing these people “into my home” through the computer and I want to get a feel for who they are … I try not to hang around his site too much because, frankly, I don’t need to see the adolescent details of his life, just like I don’t need to sit with his friends in the school yard, or listen to the details of their conversations at parties, or read their “I’m bored” / “Me too” / “Me too me too” deep bonding (!!) … would I know if he was using drugs or deeply unhappy or doing evil and / or illegal things on the internet or in real life? I like to think so, but I suspect he could easily lead a double life without me knowing and vice versa if he were intent on so doing – he’s smart, and we just hope that he uses it for good not evil through the values we have offered him through our own example as family and friends.

For the past few days his Journal has had an “Emo” theme of “Going to die in 5 days” with something about it being his foray into attention-grabbing journal entries so he can say he’s tried out the genre … and his “mood” is listed as bored and, amongst other things on his profile, he watches “anything other than the news”. There were a whole string of fairly mundane comments and stuff from his friends associated with the journal entry – ie nothing other than the title to ring any alarm bells. He writes a bit of “dark” poetry occasionally along with lots of light creative things too. We talk sometimes, but not all the time, and we don’t share everything with each other although I like to think we have a healthy respect for each other.

So what is a responsible parent to do with something like that? Is it a joke? Is it a cry for help? Is it nothing? Is it something? Should I be reading his online journal (which is online and therefore presumably fair game for anyone to read including his mother (although I feel like I should knock first before entering as I would into his room if he had friends over))? And if it is something to worry about, how would confronting him be likely to help? Will it exacerbate his crisis or lead him to the sudden realisation that parental love solves everything? Should I put him on suicide watch, cancel all ground-leave, medicate him, take him to a psychiatrist, yell at him?

As it turned out (more than 5 days later … ;-)) – it was about as meaningful in terms of any imminent death as my saying “I’ll kill you if you eat my last chocolate teddy bear biscuit” … (and I leave it to the reader to ascertain the level of threat associated with eating the last chocolate biscuit in my household :-)). Since my son doesn’t watch the news or read the paper, he was completely unaware that it was an ‘insensitive’ journal entry to have made in terms of timing … It has since been edited to say “Going to HAVE A COOKIE in 5 days” … which shows just how inane the whole journal thing can be and why parents might tire of watching their children endlessly online …

So to make a long story even longer, I read the post a few days ago, raised my eyebrows, checked that my son didn’t seem too distressed or secretive and let it go at that. Then I started wondering whether I was being a bad parent, a lazy parent, too confident that I know my son, too insensitive to “see his pain” (ie see pain that is beyond what is bearable for any healthy adolescent) … and started asking myself the question of “how would I feel if I ‘missed the sign'”? … And if I be honest, I probably only asked my son about the entry because I was worried about how I would explain having “seen the sign” and ignored it … especially as a Registered Psychologist ™. But then again, maybe I should have trusted my instincts as a scientist a bit more – watching our kids too closely will also have effects, not all of which are straightforward or “good” no matter what our intent. Heisenberg or Einstein or Schroedinger or someone particularly clever with Quantum Physics said something about the nature of observations and how they relate to the longevity and well-being of cats, and I suspect, along with Kath and Kim, that it may also apply to humans …

I should now be smiling wryly and saying “better safe than sorry” but that actually misses an important point – if my son was seriously suicidal in a pre-meditated way, knew I was watching him, and did not want to talk to me about it, he would probably change his method not his mind. Sometimes we overestimate our power and influence as parents, and we misunderstand the value of our love – adolescents are not really ready to understand the nature of parental love – maybe they are completely used to it and do not actually understand its value, maybe they feel betrayed by some element of it that they don’t understand, maybe they feel smothered by it, maybe they have never experienced it … but many adolescents are betrayed or devastated or overwhelmed by relationships and experiences outside of the family which they feel they need to deal with outside of the family, and in these things we sometimes support our kids best by trusting them to be able to cope. We can not fix everything for our kids (or anyone else), bad stuff does happen, we are not responsible for other people’s happiness (although that’s not to say that we can aren’t sometimes responsible for their unhappiness …)

Suicide leaves a trail of devastation behind it, and loneliness and unhappiness can be relieved by people taking time to care for each other. But life does have ups and downs and perhaps we should embrace a broader range of life’s experience to become resilient to some of the bumps along the way. Perhaps rather than referring people to Lifeline too quickly, we can make it our own crusade to look after the people around us. I think I am understanding my grandmother’s saying “Charity begins at home” a little bit more …

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