03/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Chat Room Challenges: When Teenagers Go Exploring...Online

Q: My husband says that I am exaggerating. He feels that the more I worry about our eleven year old daughter, Molly, the more she distances herself from us. He also says that like a self-fulfilling prophecy, if I continue to openly worry about her friends, she will in defiance move toward the dangerous elements in school. My husband says that all I am doing is creating tension at home and not in any way protecting Molly or teaching her how to protect herself.

I am sure you have heard about the dangers of Internet websites, chat rooms, Face Book, etc. There are predators and sexual deviants out there who troll for vulnerable children. I am sure you have heard about the Midwestern teenager who committed suicide after having been bullied over the Internet. I am sure you have heard about the nude photos that teenagers send around as a way of becoming -or staying -popular. This is a whole new world for me and I don't mind telling you, I'm scared.

Molly is beginning to spend lots of time on the computer, talking to her girlfriends. I think it's affecting her behavior. She's becoming the dreaded, uncontrollable teenager. All she talks about with her friend and even to some extent with me is boys. Boys, boys, boys. She puts on nail polish. She wears what I would consider inappropriate clothing. She spends much of her time in her room with the door closed. What do I do? How do I protect her?

A: This is every parent's dreaded moment, if not their nightmare. We all fear for our children's safety. This starts when we let them cross the street by themselves and it is still with us years later when we flip them the keys to the car and pretend we're not worried sick. We also all dread the moment that they become adults and leave our home. Even then, it's hard to let go. Our job is to protect and so we are forever on the alert for what the cruel world can do. The older they get, the less control we have, the more powerless we feel. There is no way out of this.

It's a paradox, but I have always bemoaned the fact that I raised my children too well. They are independent and off living their own lives. I would prefer that they stay close to home and, for whatever reason, need to see me at least once a day. Sometimes I think that if I had known that successful mothering meant such independence on their part, I wouldn't have done such a good job. Doesn't that sound silly? If they win, we lose. And yet we want to lose.

Becoming a teenager is a difficult time precisely for the contradiction I just outlined. Just as we want our kids to be independent/dependent, so they want to be the same thing: to be simultaneously adults and children. The parent begins the process of letting go. And the teenager begins the process of becoming an adult and separating from the family. Needless to say, teenagers are quite ambivalent about that and will occasionally rush back to the protection of home. But they will also assert their need to become independent by believing that their parents are idiots and will do everything to be annoying.

Your husband is right. You are fighting against the natural order of things. Your daughter is growing up. She will spend less time with you. She will listen to her friends and their advice. She will want their approval. She will begin to experiment with sex. She will try different ways of dressing, some of them inappropriate and outlandish. This is going to happen and you might as well try to hold back the tides. Time is on her side.

BUT YOU ARE STILL HER MOTHER! This is important. Her role is changing; yours is not. Yours is only getting harder. From now on, you will have less and less control of her life. The Internet takes her from her bedroom to places you cannot imagine. It does not ask for a driver's license. It does not ask for proof of age - or, if it does, a lie will suffice. Your daughter can enter chat rooms for left-handed. Lithuanian lesbians -and you wouldn't know it. She can send a nude picture of herself to her boyfriend who, as soon as the relationship sours, will send it on to his friends.

What can you do? Well, you can take away her computer. I don't advise this. You can move the computer into the kitchen where you can look over Molly's shoulder so you can see everything she does. Depending on the severity of the problem and the state of your relationship with your child, I don't rule this out but in most households it would not be feasible to be around your child all the time. After all, your role, your obligation, is to be her parent, not her friend. Success for you is raising a child, not be temporarily popular.

You can warn her that boys will be boys, that pride and integrity still matter, that life offers a menu of confusing choices and that you will always be there to counsel, to advise, to help and, above all, to love. She has to know that you will be the mother you have always been. You have certain values and relationships that should be a model for her. She knows what they are. By now, they should be hers, too. You expect her to be true to you. Above all, you expect her to be true to herself.

I wouldn't worry too much about Internet sexual predators. Just this month the New York Times and other newspapers reported on the findings of a task force concerning internet sexual predators. This task force, consisting of state attorneys general, found that the danger of sexual predators over the internet is not greater than the danger in the general population, but the same. The danger seems to lie more with children who are vulnerable because of home problems and have their own need to be a willing victim. Many of the sites have been forced to monitor their membership and to protect their users. From what it sounds like, the chances of Molly falling from some internet sexual predator is virtually nonexistent.

The other danger is internet bullying. It seems that teenagers can bully each other over the internet in particularly dangerous and intrusive ways. The state attorneys general did not address themselves to this problem. But there are other groups and organizations that are looking into this problem and they should be consulted if, as it happens, Molly is affected. The focus is generally on teaching teenagers to be aware of the dangers and to know how to stop an abusive relationship or to create boundaries. Everyone should be aware, though, that trafficking in picture of nude teenage girls could be a crime - no matter how innocent, or dopey, the people involved. These are all important areas of concern. We should focus more on these issues and see how adults and corporations can become more involved in resolving these vehicles of bullying.

This is a scary time for parents and kids alike. If your child has a computer and a cell phone and, especially, if you are a parent with a job outside the home, there is virtually no way you're going to know what your kid is up to. The parental loss of control is unprecedented. The environment has changed; the neighborhood has been infinitely expanded. The social circle is now so much wider and diversified than it had ever been. The kid across the street might have been your best friend. That street has been infinitely expanded by the power of fiber optic networks.

There's more bad news. Except in immigrant groups, where children are the first to master the new language, adulthood usually meant greater knowledge and greater master of the environment. That's all changed. It's your kids who know how to twitter and text, who have relationships on the internet -who have established a whole, virtual society that exists in the ether but has the power of solid steel. The job of the parent has gotten so much harder. You have to keep up. You have to ensure that your loss of control is not total. You cannot protect your child from what nowadays amounts to life itself. But you can arm yourself with knowledge. Learn about programs that can help.

Stay on top of Molly's activities and interests. Trust that Molly has been raised well and she has been given the values that will see her through life. You're right. It is a scary time for parents but a mother can be the best chat room of all.

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