My youngest is on the spectrum and struggles making strong connection with his peers. This can be especially hard when you’re a teen, going through puberty, exploring your sexuality, and becoming more independent.
Our youngest son is one of the most ‘innocent’ people you could meet. His emotional intelligence is through the roof (he has empathy that is beyond compare), he loves animals, and spends countless hours online learning about world geography, other cultures, transit systems, and follows politics. He has very little interest in things I think most parents of teens fear — nudity/pornography, alcohol, or drugs.
My husband and I are aware our sons are on Instagram, but thought it too, particularly for our youngest, was innocent. We found out we had reason for concern when my husband saw our youngest son texting (chat function) with another user and appeared to be trying to hide what he was messaging from his father. My husband decided to inquire who our son was talking to while we were at the dinner table. My son got very quiet and seemed embarrassed. He shared he had started to confide some of his secrets to this stranger including his wants and desires because it felt ‘safe.’ When we challenged our son on who this person was, how old, etc., we learned this person was in their 30s. I appreciated my son’s honesty but was beside myself, as we’ve talked to our boys about being online and never sharing information or trusting who is on the other end, especially if you haven’t met or seen them in-person. I was more upset by the adult on the other end who allowed/continued the conversation even though he knew my son (based on his age being on his profile) was underage. Beyond the emotions I was experiencing, I could see how lonely my son felt, and how he’d been looking for an outlet to share his feelings and thoughts with others. outside mom and dad, and while I get it, it still terrified me.
My son realized the errors of his ways, blocked this ‘friend’ and gave me his login information so we can monitor the app and ensure he’s connecting safely with others his own age. He wants his independence but realizes he lost some of our trust but hiding this from us. We’ve always advocated for our kids to talk to us about anything and everything, even if it’s uncomfortable (for them or us, especially us (meaning my husband and I)). He feels like he lets us down, and we feel like we let him down (how didn’t we know?, how could we or should we have been helping him?, etc.).
We talked about making mistakes, that’s how we learn and grow, and while he’s becoming more independent, he still has knowledge to gain. He agreed, though still feeling embarrassed and ‘stupid’ for not knowing better. We just reminded him now he does.
Social media, like any technology has its pros and cons. I like that it allows users to connect on their interests or passions. I’m not a fan of some of the unforeseen risks inherent with letting younger folks (whose frontal lobe hasn’t fully formed) converse easily with folks who may be legit, or may be a catfish.
I’m still working to recalibrate my brain around what we learned. Some of my son’s innocence is gone, but I should expect that with age. I’m reminded I need to stay on top of how my son is connecting with others and getting his needs met (e.g., making friends that allow his to be himself, share openly, trust with secrets), and what my husband and I (and his therapist) can do to help.
How do you keep a pulse on your teen’s interactions on social media? How are you helping them know the dangers, while giving them freedom to explore who they are and their interests?