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Ask an Expert: Handling my daughter's inappropriate online activity

Q. My daughter has taken to spending a lot of time on a site called Also, my husband and I recently banned her from another video chat site called chatroulette because she and her friends were participating in inappropriate conversations with people they did not know.

She became extremely defensive when we confronted her, as a teen might, stating it was only “funny,” and they would “never REALLY do anything.”

She posts pictures of herself and other pictures she finds online, some pretty, some really bloody and gory and frightening. She doesn’t know I can get into her blog on tumblr, and she doesn’t know I know she is able to go into this site when she is in class supposedly looking up research. She has posted also pictures of herself and her friends drinking. They are 15.

My daughter considers herself “socially awkward” but she is academically bright – although seems burned out with schoolwork. She has a close small circle of friends who are also high achievers.

Should I meet with her friends’ parents about their behavior? Should I meet with her counselor, regarding how unbelievably easy it is to access these sites on school grounds during class? We have already scheduled therapy to discuss this with our daughter. Although the drinking will be addressed, I am hesitant to share with her where I got the photos because, as guilty as I feel, I think “keeping tabs” on her blog without her knowledge helps me know what is going on.

We do use parental controls, but mostly to limit time on the computer. Should we be doing something else? And, if so, how do we do it?

Talking to other parents

A. You are right to be concerned about the safety of your daughter’s friends, and it will be important for you to share the information you have with their parents. It may be helpful to do this in a meeting. When you put your heads together, you will likely learn a great deal from each other.

With regard to the school, disclosing your daughter’s online activity at school may help school personnel be more alert to this activity, but there is little they can do to prevent it. Of all the inappropriate behavior young people can engage in in school, online activity is probably the most difficult to monitor. Students in the library, or who have laptops, iPhones, and other devices are able to access the entire internet with relative privacy. The only way to truly prohibit access is to take the devices away.

Why this is not an internet problem

In truth, this is not an internet problem. This problem did not develop at school, nor because of your daughter’s friends, and it did not happen overnight. Rather, your daughter’s online behavior (and drinking) appears to be a reflection of insecurity and immaturity. She seems to lack the judgment and self-control skills necessary to cope with the media she has access to.

If would also appear that her self-image is such that she is willing to engage is risky and potentially compromising behavior is order to prove herself and to impress others. I suspect that deep down, your daughter may not believe she is the “good kid” you think she is. Although you might not see it, she probably feels ashamed, and is on some level relieved to have been caught. After all, she has become alienated from the most important people in her life, her parents, and this is a lonely place to be for a 15-year-old.

Rebuilding your relationship with your daughter

After your family begins therapy (and I hope you will begin soon), you may want to take the first step in rebuilding your relationship with your daughter.

You can start by telling her everything you already know, and how you have come to know it. She will probably be angry that you have been “keeping tabs” on her online activity. Not all psychologists will agree with this suggestion, but modeling honesty can be a powerful overture to your daughter, and it is almost inevitable that she will find out anyway.

I suggest that you begin by telling her why you have been snooping around her secret world. Use “I” statements such as, “I love you and I am worried that you are not being safe,” “I feel angry that you have been dishonest with me,” and “I want to be able to trust you again, but right now it is difficult.”

Let her know that you believe in her and want the best for her, and that it is your job to keep her safe and on track until she is an adult and is able to live independently. You might also consider letting your daughter know that you will love her no matter what other secrets she may be holding onto, and prepare yourself to hear more.

Your job as her mother is to be strong enough to hear it all, accept your daughter unconditionally, and set firm limits and hold them, even when she says outlandish and provocative things to you, like calling you “abusive.”

It is important to make it clear to her that when you take away the internet and texting, you are doing so because you love her and need to protect her from herself. The process of re-building trust is an arduous one, but you are very fortunate to have discovered your daughter’s problem so early.

Please keep me posted on your progress.

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