If you have more than one child, you’ve probably grown accustomed to hearing, “Moooooooom, Adam hit me!” or “Daaaaaaaaaad, Sarah said a bad word!” If you’re like me, you hear the drawn out syllables of your name and immediately groan—will this tattling ever end?
But there is one instance where I have learned to always welcome tattling — when one of my daughters warns me about a potential danger her sister may be experiencing online.
The reality is that as parents, we cannot monitor everything. We can do our best and use the tools we have. I am grateful when the technology I’ve used actually does its job. I appreciate it when my husband talks to our daughters about their value and worth, because kids who know they are valuable are less likely to seek value in unworthy places.
The truth is, we cannot be with all of our children, all of the time, on all their devices (and their friends’, too!) We need help to do our parenting job well.
Watching out for each other online
It really helps when friends and family alert me to things about my kids I may not have seen online. Sometimes kids want to block us from seeing their social media presence, but they forget that we also have friends online and everything is public. One mom shares a story that highlights the importance of a village working together:
“One of our sons unfriended us on Facebook when he was a teenager. However, our other children and even extended family and friends would tell us when they were concerned about things he posted. Once neighbors showed us a Facebook photo of him with a cute girl at a prom that was 5 hours away. That’s how we found out that he had taken our car halfway across the state when we thought he was hanging out at a friend’s house! Because someone cared enough to give us a heads up, we were able to have a much-needed conversation with our son.”
The (digital) generation gap
We have a glaring hole in our safety system. What is this gap?
My husband and I, along with our friends, are of the same generation. This digital age didn’t impact us until our high school and college years. We’ve grown and adapted to the changes, for sure, but we will likely never operate at the same level our children do.
We need someone on board who has grown up fully immersed in this technological culture, not the hybrid that my generation is.
The overlooked ally
By accident, I discovered that my daughter’s sister was one of the best candidates to help her stay safe online. Why is this the case?
1. They understand our expectations
They know our family’s rules and values and can see when a sibling is pushing boundaries. (And they’ve had lots of practice telling on each other!)
I actually noticed a difference in how they approached me about each other’s questionable online behavior. This wasn’t tattling for tattling’s sake or to deliberately make life hard for her sister. It was almost like they hated to tell me for fear that her sister would get in trouble, but they were honestly concerned and wanted to let me know so I could help.
2. They care about their siblings
They truly do love each other (though you may second-guess this by their daily interactions!) The thought of her sister getting into real trouble online is enough to raise her protective instincts.
In fact, it’s possible that I hear only the most dire situations because they take the smaller things straight to each other. News flash: Kids often listen to each other better than to their parents. I can completely imagine my youngest saying, “What do you think Mom would say if she saw that?” and my oldest simply replying, “True . . . It might not be worth posting this.”
3. They socialize in the same online spaces
Even when our girls weren’t hanging out in the same physical space, they would often be on the same social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. They see what each other is doing simply because they’re in the same social media worlds more often than I am. They also are more immediately aware about dangerous features in these platforms (hello, Snapchat’s Cosmo After Dark).
“Siblings are better role models of the more informal behaviors – how to act at school or on the street, or, most important, how to act cool around friends – that constitute the bulk of a child’s everyday experiences.” Laura Kramer, professor at University of Illinois
Cultivating healthy sibling relationships
A healthy relationship between your children is essential in order for them to be allies in a sexualized culture and online world. My daughters certainly do not have a perfect connection, but they do have some key characteristics that make for a good relationship.
The ability to forgive
Fights and harsh words are normal in sibling relationships. Even so, kids can forgive each other and move on when there is a positive balance in their “relationship bank account.”
We make relational “deposit” and “withdrawal” transactions in every relationship. Deposits are things that build trust and love. Withdrawals are actions that are considered betrayals, such as speaking unkindly or being physically aggressive. Relationships only grow when there are more deposits than withdrawals.
When brothers and sisters have enough positive, fun experiences together they can know that their sibling loves them and is there for them.
Mutual loyalty and love
To be loyal means to be faithful and committed. True allies are loyal in keeping out enemies that threaten them, and they are also loyal to each other. When we show someone that we will always protect them, we are expressing unconditional love and allegiance. Kids can understand loyalty and commit to protect each other from anything threatening, whether in real life or online.
Times of positive communication
It’s a joy for parents when they see their kids confide in each other about what’s going in their lives and their challenges. Siblings can be a safe person to share things that are scary or confusing, both in the physical and digital worlds.
While you want them to have that amazing connection, you also want them to know when they need to involve a parent. Big problems need to involve big people. So be clear about when they need to come to you.
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Forming the Alliance: Set the Stage
Help your kids become allies defending each other against pornography, sexual predators – and even their own impulsive choices!
After all, kids’ frontal lobes are still developing even into their adolescent years. This means that kids are more likely to act impulsively and engage in dangerous or risky behavior. And less likely to pause to consider the consequences of their actions. It’s not because they are bad kids – it’s because they are still learning and growing. They can use all the help they can get!
It’s important to set expectations for how and why we need to keep each other safe. I tell my kids that watching out for each other online is not about:
- Shaming each other
- Trying to look like “the good kid”
- “Catching” each other doing something bad
- Taking on the role of a parent
In our house, I let our kids know that if they bring something to my attention:
- I will protect you from backlash. When you let me know about your sister’s online behavior, I will remind her that you did it to help her, not harm her.
- If you see something, say something. (Think “airport security” mantra here.) It may turn out to be nothing, but it also could turn out to be something. We are a team, working to protect everyone.
- Bringing things to my attention is part of your social media contract.
- Though there may be consequences for your sister’s actions, you did not bring the consequences upon her — she did. You probably spared her worse consequences.
Watching out for each other in the digital world is similar to looking out for each other in the physical world. We would expect our kids to stand up for each other on the school bus, to scream if the other was abducted on the street, or to raise a red flag if they left the house wearing something that was out of line with our family values. They can do the same when parallel things happen in the online universe.
Older siblings could even help mom or dad teach younger siblings with our book for kids ages 3-6, Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr.: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds.
For better or worse, kids learn from siblings
Brothers and sisters have a big influence each other’s behavior. In fact, studies show they are excellent predictors of adult behavior. One mom shared that her younger son got interested in viewing pornography because he saw his older brother watching it at a friend’s home. As they grew up they would sometimes catch each other viewing pornography at home – but they never talked to each other or to their parents about it until many years had gone by. Both boys could have been helped much earlier if they had understood that they could talk to their parents – and each other – about what was happening.
But there are lots of positive examples out there too! Here’s an inspiring story of an older sister who did step in to teach her little brother about the dangers of porn and it paid off big! It’s further proof that sibling impact is huge.
Brushing up on Internet safety
What do we want our kids to watch out for online? These three areas of risk are a good starting point for a family discussion about things to be aware of:
- Content: Exposure to pornography and other sexualized or violent content.
- Contact: Interacting with people who might be risky — sexual predators, older kids, and even their peers.
- Conduct: Oversharing personal information, posting sexualzed or inappropriate images, engaging in bullying.
We definitely don’t want to put an unhealthy responsibility on brothers and sisters. Parents always have primary responsibility for the safety and welfare of kids—in the physical and digital worlds.
Brothers and sisters can stand up against what’s wrong, get help quickly, and speak out when they see something that may be inappropriate. They can be true allies who defend each other from online dangers.
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