The car is where my tween son and I have our best conversations these days. I don’t know if it’s due to sheer proximity or the fact that he doesn’t have to look me in the eye, but it seems for an 11-year-old boy sitting somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, the car is a safe place to question life and still confide in his mother.
It was during one of those journeys to hockey practice last week that it happened. He blurted it out in one long, run-on sentence, half hoping I wouldn’t comprehend the magnitude of his statement.
“A girl in Maggie’s class sent a naked picture to ‘Tyler,’” he stammered.
Maggie is my 13-year-old daughter, an 8th grader finishing her final year of middle school. Charlie, my son, is in 5th grade. I gripped the steering wheel trying to steady myself, trying not to overreact.
I questioned whether he’d seen the picture himself. He hadn’t but said he knew his friend wasn’t lying. “He wasn’t bragging about it, Mom. He seemed kind of freaked out. I think it kind of scared him,” he said. I asked if his friend told a parent or a teacher and was met with a resounding “no” to both.
“Why would someone in 8th grade send a naked picture to a 5th grader do you think?” I asked, careful not to sound accusatory. His answer was simple; she wanted him to like her.
Recent studies have found that about 1 out of every 5 to 10 teens — guys and girls — have sent sexually suggestive pictures and about 1 out of every 3 to 8 teens have received them. But here’s the thing — I don’t know my son’s friend or the 8th grader involved, though I have heard her name. As I sat dumbfounded in my car, a word tumbled over and over in my brain — obligation.
What obligation do I have, if any, to act on the information I was given? What onus do we possess in protecting other parent’s children online?
I regularly spot check my own children’s social media activities, something I’ve done since they’ve been gifted the responsibility of technology. This has always been a rule in our home. My husband and I have all of their passwords and routinely scroll through their various apps to ensure there is nothing on there that makes us uncomfortable. My kids are not angels. We have had difficult conversations and those will continue throughout their adolescence. But what do I do when those situations involve another child I am unfamiliar with?
I’ve certainly had tough conversations with parents of children I am familiar with. Ones who regularly spend time in our home or who my kids are friends with. I am of the “it takes a village” mentality and I would expect if those parents knew my child was engaged in activities that were dangerous, to them personally or to their reputation, that they would offer me the same courtesy. But does it become a case of “sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong” when you do not know the child at all?
In the end, I ended up calling my son’s school to report the incident. I didn’t disclose the 8th grader’s name, but I did tell the principal that my son’s friend received the picture because of his age. I don’t know the outcome, nor is the school able to tell me because of privacy guidelines, but I hope if the roles were reversed another parent would do the same for me and for my child whether I know them or not.
These conversations are not easy ones to enter into. Even when we know the families, no one wants to hear their child is acting foolishly, or worse. Not all parents will be receptive to this type of information. Some may even blame you for being the bearer of bad news. But at the end of the day, you need to decide if it’s worth keeping to yourself and if staying out of it could eventually put that child in harm’s way. Looking back, my mom always said, there are some things she is glad she never knew. Others probably saved me from making mistakes that could have changed my life.
Parenting is not easy and it’s impossible to know what our kids are doing all the time. In the age of social media, knowing there are other people looking out for them sometimes could make all the difference.More On