The following story is difficult for me to share. My daughter made some poor decisions on social media, and I hope that by sharing this with you, I can help even one person learn from my experience.
I feel as though I need to pre-empt this story by saying that I am not naïve in any way to the negative waste that social media can be. I also believe it can be a powerful resource, a way to connect, and that there is value in allowing teens access while promoting proper supervised usage. Prior to this incident, I would say that I am adept in most social media platforms, have read articles and posts about how kids can gain access to and post less than respectable, appropriate things, and I always thought that my husband and I took the precautionary measures to keep our girls safe online.
It all began because my daughter forgot her phone at home on a school day. I went into her room to drop off a pile of sorted laundry, and noticed the phone on her bed, buzzing away.
My oldest daughter is fourteen. We invested in a phone when she turned twelve, knowing that she would be traveling a forty-five minute, one-way commute to school, participating in sports and other after-school activities, and I appreciated the convenience that communicating directly with her gave me.
You see what I did there? I’m trying to justify my daughter’s phone to you because I’m afraid of the judgment that comes with telling this story.
I judged others with the same story, just like you are right now. I’m absolutely fine with admitting that, and I have accepted that some of you will feel superior to me, shielded by your less permissive or more rigorous snooping standards, and that is OK. I still feel compelled to share, in the hopes that it will help even one other family navigate or prevent this from becoming their own cautionary tale to tell.
I feel the need to explain myself a bit more thoroughly still; when we gave her this phone, we imposed several non-negotiable ground rules, of course, along with restrictive settings and hand-shake agreements. She was aware that my husband and I had full access to the phone at any time. We limited her social media access to Instagram. All thinly-veiled security, of course, considering that texts and messages can be deleted, but security nonetheless. So I had no qualms about reaching over and looking at the screen.
I noticed that there was an unusual Instagram alert among the many notifications filling the screen. I can almost see myself now, furrowed brow, tilting my head and punching in the agreed-upon passcode. My entry was rejected.
Now I was curious and a bit annoyed; I scrolled through the alerts, found the Instagram notification that piqued my curiosity and searched for it through my own account. The account was set to private, the profile picture that of one of her friends. I went back to her phone and started scrolling through the notifications a bit more carefully, and found another alert for yet another Instagram profile. I went back to my phone and searched through my account for this new profile.
It was a duplicate account in my daughter’s full name, with her photo in the profile, describing herself in a pretty undesirable fashion.
I laugh at myself now; I was upset that she called herself a lazy oaf. Considering the social media combing that I have done in my own career to vet candidates for employment, we have already had conversations about what is viewable to whom, and why it’s important that we protect what we put out on social media.
I’m laughing at myself a bit derisively right now. I wish that had been the extent of my unpleasant discovery.
I tucked the phone away and addressed my discovery with my oldest daughter later that night, when my husband was home and our two younger daughters had gone to bed. We sat down, the three of us, and asked her about her duplicate Instagram profile, and why the passcode wasn’t what we thought it was. She claimed she had shared the code with a friend, who had shared it with another and so on, and she had been forced to change it. Then, with the three of us gathered around that little device, I asked her for the passcode.
What I discovered when I typed in the passcode and opened up Instagram was beyond what I imagined, but it was not beyond what I knew was possible. I was just like you, though, as you sit here and read this. I too thought, “Not my kid.”
I could list all of her amazing qualities, I could quantify these qualities with testaments from her family, her teachers, and adults she interacts with on a regular basis. But all of these points are moot, at least in this situation.
She and her friends each had their own Instagram accounts that I was well aware of; but then, there were second, “finsta accounts” that held innocent, everyday photos of two of the girls the accounts were attributed to, one of them being my daughter, however, the punch-line was in the captions. Those captions were beyond NSFW; they were derogatory, vile and they gutted me viscerally.
Arguably more concerning, however, was that as we dug into these accounts, we discovered that our daughter did not manage the account associated to her. I immediately felt equal parts relief, anger and overwhelming concern; while I was relieved she was not the one pushing out images of herself and saying these horrible things, she had absolutely no control over an account that bore her name and photo, and no regulation over what was posted or said about her. She had willingly provided the necessary information for her friend to set this account up in her name, and access it from their Instagram profile. She was not unaware of what was posted; she had liked most of the posts from her own personal account.
Typing this makes me shudder.
My daughter managed a similar account for her friend, and other friends had posting access as well. There were many followers of these accounts that my daughter didn’t even know.
The ramifications of how bad this could have become are not lost on me, and I am still grappling with the overwhelming disappointment of it all.
We had all the right conversations. We knew all of the terrible things. And yet, this still happened.
I have to admit here that I was hesitant to reach out to the other mothers about my discovery. I was afraid of the judgement, on behalf of myself and also for my daughter. I was afraid to share this with my closest friends, for fear of the same. I am disappointed in my daughter’s actions, and feel that the fault lies within me somehow, while simultaneously knowing that it doesn’t.
After several conversations, it’s painfully clear that the girls didn’t think much about the language they were using, or how it all looked from the outside. While my daughter was aware of how posts, regardless of the privacy of the account, could go viral, before we addressed the severity of it from our perspective, she seemed to think it was all just a joke, and that that explanation was enough. Clearly, there are some crossed lines in our communication.
For now, we have revoked all social media and phone access. I am not under the impression that this is a permanent fix. We initially granted her access to Instagram because we believed it was the best introductory platform that we could easily surveil, but we had our parameters set too close, focusing on the account that we knew existed.
However, it is not logical to think that we can shield our children from social media as a whole; their friends all have it, and they use each other’s accounts to access it. We have to acknowledge that social media is a part of the reality that we live in.
I’m still working through how we’re stepping into and through the next piece of this recovery process, how we begin to allow our daughter more freedom and trust, but also how we do a much better job about keeping very regular, open conversations on proper phone and social media usage, and beyond that, about trust, compassion, respect and protecting one’s dignity, not just online but offline as well. The conversation is bigger than this one platform.
I feel that it’s important to end with this note: I blamed myself. I felt as though I had failed my daughter, her friends, and the parents of her friends, that I had done something wrong, missed a step in the process, not been vigilant enough, had been too trusting. I’m still working through that on a personal level, but I also recognize and give myself the grace that I cannot prevent all of the mistakes my children will make.
I can use this experience to better my relationship with my daughter, strengthen her value in herself and improve the respect that she both shows and demands of her friends. Sometimes, you can only learn from the experience, and experience is the only way to grow.