phone home, part two

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{image is a photo of Brooke on Christmas morning, moments after opening her new phone, using it to take pictures of her Kai-LAN figurines.}

In August of 2014, I wrote a post responding some comments that I’d received on Facebook when I’d referred to the fact that we’d taken Katie’s phone away for three weeks. She was thirteen at the time. In that post, I’d written the following:

To those who, in a wonderfully respectful tangential conversation, expressed concern about the fact that we are not respecting her privacy because we periodically read her texts, emails, Facebook messages etc:

When Katie got the phone, we wrote up a contract detailing how it would (and would not) be used. We signed it and so did she. The understanding was that we would read her texts. We are very cognizant of and respectful of her need for and right to privacy. We are also extremely keen on ensuring that she understands that there can be no expectation of privacy on an electronic platform.

She knows that we will never, ever listen in on a verbal conversation. Ever. She also knows that texts are not verbal conversations. She knows (because it’s happened time and again) that kids pick up one another’s phones and read through them (and send texts from them pretending to BE them) ALL THE TIME. She knows that they screenshot and forward conversations to other kids. She knows that they can send something to the wrong person in error.

In short, she knows that there is no such thing as privacy on a format with an indelible electronic memory. So while we absolutely respect her privacy, we also all agree that said privacy is not to be found (in writing) on her phone.

Additionally, I will tell you this – no kid, no matter how savvy or mature or just plain awesome they may be, is truly equipped to handle the stuff that other kids are throwing at them in real time on social media. If we’re being honest with ourselves, I don’t think most of us adults are either. I won’t get into details because for Katie’s sake I can’t, but please, please, no seriously, please believe me when I tell you that they need help navigating this mess. Threats of violence, talk of and threats of self-harm — really, really serious stuff is bandied about like talk of the weather when these kids type away, cloaked in the false sense of security they find behind their screens.

Your kids need you to walk them through this. I’m kind of begging, guys. Trust me on this one. 

A year and a half later, I only feel more strongly about this.

For Christmas, we gave Brooke her own phone. (It’s actually my old phone, to which we added a hot pink case and, voila, now it’s Brooke’s!) On Christmas Eve we pre-loaded it with immediate family members and a couple of friends from her class. On Christmas morning, she began texting. And texting. And texting. And, well, texting.

When I picked up the phone the following morning, there were 108 unread texts that had come in while she slept. One HUNDRED and eight.

I explained to her, as I had to her sister when she’d first gotten her own phone, that Mama and Daddy would be reading all of her texts for a while. And that we’d be talking about some very important rules.

They would mostly be the same as her sister’s list, but with a few necessary additions. Because my kids are different. They have different skills, different needs, and, in some ways, different areas of vulnerability. But they’re also the same. They’re kids. And, as I said in the post I quoted above, NEITHER OF THEM has the capacity nor life experience at the ripe old age of twelve to think critically and broadly about the possible ramifications of the thousands of snap decisions they make without so much as a second glance.

So Brooke will have the same general foundation as her sister, though customized and explained in a way that we hope will make it more accessible to her.

  1. I will always know where my phone is.
  2. I will never write or send anything to anyone that I wouldn’t want my Papa to see.
  3. If anyone, even a friend, asks me to send them something that I wouldn’t send to Papa, I will tell my mom or dad or a teacher BEFORE sending anything so that they can help me learn how to handle that kind of situation safely.
  4. I will never write or send anything to anyone that I wouldn’t say or show to them in person.
  5. I will never send or take a picture that I wouldn’t send to Papa.
  6. I will never, ever tell anyone online my full name, age, address, or anything else about me that they don’t already know, like where I go to school.
  7. If anyone asks me any questions about those things online, I will tell my mom or dad or a teacher BEFORE sending anything so that they can help me learn how to handle that kind of situation safely.
  8. I will never take my phone into my room.
  9. I will always bring my phone to Mom and Dad’s room at night to be charged.
  10. I will always remember that Mom and Dad will read all of my texts for a while, because it’s their job to help keep me safe and help me learn about how to handle all kinds of situations online.
  11. I will never, ever send texts or emails when I’m feeling angry. I will always stop and think before responding to something that makes me feel upset.
  12. I will always remember that I don’t ever have to respond to anything right away. I can always stop and ask for help if I’m not sure what to say or do.
  13. I will never, EVER talk to anyone online or in text conversation who I don’t already know in real life.
  14. I will NEVER, EVER agree to meet anyone who I don’t already know in real life. If someone asks to meet me, I will immediately tell Mom, Dad, or a teacher.
  15. I will not let my friends or anyone else at school use my phone.
  16. I will never give anyone other than my mom or dad any of my passwords.
  17. If anything online or in text ever makes me feel scared or nervous or uncomfortable in any way, I will stop responding and show it to my mom, dad, or a teacher for help.

While every child is vulnerable online, autism and its attendant challenges makes them all that more ripe for predators. That doesn’t mean that our kids can’t ever go online, but it does mean that we have even more of a responsibility to help them learn how to keep themselves safe.

In one of the first two conversations that she ever had with friends yesterday, one boy asked her to send him a video of herself telling his favorite joke. She did, without a second thought.

So we talked about the fact that if we’re ever going to send pictures of ourselves or video we have to be wearing clothes that we would wear to school. We talked about the fact that we don’t have to do everything that friends ask us to do. We talked, preliminary, about why. It was the beginning of what I expect to be a long, perhaps lifelong, conversation.

In the other, a classmate sent her a middle finger emoji with the text, “Hey, Brooke, what does this mean?”

She was trying to goad her to type the F word. But Brooke wasn’t familiar with the gesture, so she’d responded, “[middle finger emoji] means one sec.”

She’d thought it looked like someone holding up their finger to say, “Wait.” Her logic was impeccable, but her conclusion flawed.

Her friend wrote back, “Haha! I love you, Brooke.”

She responded, “I love you too.”

And in just four lines there was an entire subtext, a whole other conversation, that my girl hadn’t seen, couldn’t see.

That same friend would later send her a glass of beer emoji. It was all ‘innocent’ boundary pushing, but it was also a really important reminder. This isn’t stuff that my girl is ready to navigate alone.

We talked about swearing. I told her that she is not allowed to type inappropriate words on her phone. I invoked Papa again – if you don’t say it to Papa, you don’t type it to your friends.

We talked about alcohol. And that it’s not appropriate for her to be texting pictures of beer. I told her that she didn’t have to police her friends, but that she did have to be responsible for herself.

“If my brain says type a bad word, I have to boss my brain,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said. “But you can always, always come to me or daddy or your teachers for help, okay?”

“Okay,” she said. “I will.”

“Can we be done talking now?” she asked.

I pulled her into a hug. “We can,” I said, smiling at my beautiful girl. “But we are going to talk more later, okay? You have a lot of responsibility (a word she’d learned the day before from Papa) now that you have a phone.”

“I do?” she asked.

“Yup,” I said. We both do.

18 thoughts on “phone home, part two

  1. In an effort to help ensure privacy for your family, I wanted to let you know that if you click on the picture above, one of the girls real name is visible on the tag in the background. I happened to noticed so wanted to let you know.

    Have a wonderful New Year! I really enjoy your blog!

  2. Let me just say how very right you are. A friend of my daughter’s was not raised to expect that supervision. She was sexually assaulted by a fellow student, and then harassed and threatened by his friends. She went to the school (an elite boarding school they all attended) and since the texts were anonymous, they said they couldn’t be expected to do anything. My daughter told the girl not to read the texts from them, especially not alone in her room – which made her feel like they were getting into her room – but she “couldn’t stop herself.” That Summer, at age 16, she hung herself. Her parents never knew about the attack or the threats. She didn’t say she didn’t want to go back to the elite boarding school; not sure how this seemed a better option. It destroyed her family and her friends, and my child is still suffering. It contributed to her dropping out of college when two more acquaintances did the same. We didn’t grow up with texting. It is NOT the same. Calls on a landline can be traced, and voices recognized. Parents might be on an extension. It is not the same.

  3. You’re such a great mom! And you’re so right about Brooke needing the extra help. I still get confused all the time with social context. But when I was younger I was never sure what to do, what was expected of me, and “right and wrong” often became confusing blurry lines that didn’t make sense in social situations because no one seemed to understand the same rules I did. So I often assumed I was wrong, because, according to the way I was treated, apparently I often was. Only now I realize, as an autistic adult (but beginning in my late teens), that my values are my own and I don’t have to be influenced negatively by others. Ever. I’m sure Brooke will arrive at the same conclusions for herself with your wonderful guidance. ❤

  4. Brooke is getting a whole lot of this already. Yes, it will have to gone over many many times but this is another leap and bound. I’m so proud of her.

    Love you,
    Mom

  5. This is so awesome. Like totally and completely.

    I have a similar rule for my almost 3 year olds iPad (when it comes to the charging anyway). His iPad is his comfort- and up until a couple of months ago- his main voice. Even now he uses it for more complex things- like using ‘stickers’ (emoji’s) to tell me what he wants or needs when words aren’t working (which is as soon as he gets excited, frustrated, tired or overwhelmed).
    Everything on it is locked- he can’t access anything that I don’t want him to- because he is not even three. The only reason I have wifi hooked up to it is because he loves the kinder surprise videos. Seriously- if there was a thing station showing just that he would so be on it 😄

    I see teenage family members however that get given phones and basically given the freedom to do whatever. It’s scary to see- especially when they are 12-16 year olds. I’ve seen kids on pages that discuss more adult things- from sexuality to mental health- I’m talking under twelves here- and have ‘mum’d’ them- either booted them from the restricted sections or had an admin boot them. Not that asking advice on these topics is bad- more that the depth of information is often too much for a child to understand. Most the time there are g rated pages where they could go to/ones that aren’t age restricted.

    I can’t stop kids who aren’t mine from accessing the more mature side of the Internet but know what? If I find out someone is underage on an age restricted site/blog or message board, bet your bottom I will do something about it, no matter if they think they are ‘mature’ enough. (Bonus is that most age restricted places I frequent will lock you out using IP addresses.)

    But, uh, yeah. Some of the stuff I see on face book especially with younger family members makes me ask the adults if they know what their kids are getting up to- complete with screenshots. Because I am apparently a buzzkill 😄

  6. I’m 26 and neurotypical. I grew up at the exact time the Internet boomed and was everywhere. AIM and MSN Messenger were my life (and before that AOL chatrooms). This was before the term “social media” let alone “cyber bullying” existed. I was cyberbullied by classmates constantly, in a way I didn’t realize was abuse because it was online, wasn’t “real” and wasn’t monitored. I could have really benefited from some of these guidelines, especially concerning guiding me in dealing with it.
    I’m very grateful that you’re around to recognize and write about the problem in an accessible, non-threatening, but permeate-able way. So often I cringe and cry when I read things online, but you refresh me. Thank you for acting as a social justice warrior, not just for the autistic community, but humanity in general.

  7. Hugs to both of you. It’s difficult. That its all in now and forever mode makes it more dangerous.

    Good luck in her keeping first promise of contract. My kids have lost and misplaced so many times as have most kids. They try but fail to know where phone is all of time. I have contract with mine but I don’t out in sure fail terms as they cheapen the contract

    Some bad people are those you and your kids know. And might trust. They should not be meeting anyone without running it by parents or other trusted names people first. Abuse most often happens from those we know.

    Good luck. I feel glad I didn’t have to deal with this when my one child was Brooke’s age. I don’t think it would have gone well as things that were under contract and tracked still went wrong as you saw what happened with DKatie

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