February 15, 2005
Right Under Your Nose
Do you know what your teenager is doing right this minute? Pay attention parents, it can happen right under your nose.
Teens' online lingo leaves parents baffled
Shorthand text messages can hide inappropriate behavior
By Bob Sullivan
She did everything right. Her 14-year-old daughter's computer was in the living room. She even peeked over her shoulder once in a while during the girl's avid instant message chats to make sure nothing unusual was going on.
But the girl fell into a steamy Internet love affair with a 35-year-old man anyway. The mother was horrified and confused: How could this happen?
The family computer contained little evidence of the affair -- until the mother brought it to a police officer who spoke the right language. Instant message shorthand was to blame, he told her. Her daughter and the 35-year-old were so proficient at that cryptic language often spoken by cell phone text message users (r u there?) that they were having the affair right under the mother's nose.
"Mom is very responsible," said Susan Shankle, a South Carolina-based therapist who counseled the family, which requested anonymity. "She just didn't know the language."
"Parents need to know what all those little alphabets mean. We've always said put the computer where you can see it, but that's not enough. You need to go over there and ask them what that stuff is. Even therapists were shocked at some of it."
"None of the parents understand what their kids are saying. Even I don't," she said. "And the smart ones are even writing around the monitoring software. Parents who are so into this that they are actually using monitoring software, it's not doing any good. There are parents who are actually seeing what their kids are typing, but if you don't understand what they are saying, what good is that?"
Parents need to be aware that their children may be using a language designed for evasion -- and learn to ask questions, even if they seem invasive.
"What you need to do is recognize that if you understand everything else they're saying, and suddenly they say something that doesn't make sense to you, they are saying something they don't want you to see. So you need to sit down and ask them what it is," she said. "And ultimately, know that all the filters in the world aren't really going to protect them. What you have to do is teach them well and trust the filter between their ears."
There's nothing wrong with chatting on the surface, but it's an addicting and alluring drug that hooks, reels, and sucks people into a strange alternate reality. Obviously, you can't see the person you're talking to online and so a "fantasy" person develops in your mind. This person is usually attractive and physically perfect. Though that may be true, let's be real. I'm betting if you met them in real life, you'd be very disappointed.
To avoid the disappointment, you simply continue chatting to this person; the fantasy continues to grow until suddenly, you've convinced yourself you're in "love" with this person. You're in "love" with smoke and mirrors.
Though I think getting to know people on the web is a good thing, after all, you are forced to get to know the personality behind the physical shell, it's dangerous. There are a lot of weirdos out there and you can never be quite sure that the person you're talking to is who they say they are.
This is especially true for children. And predators know this.
We've only just scratched the surface of that issue with our oldest son. Though he's not chatting per se, he plays a role playing game that enables the players to talk to each other. Being an Internet veteran myself, I immediately launched into my spiel about being careful how much information is disclosed about himself, i.e. never give your real name, never tell them what school you go to or what city you live in. I can warn him until I'm blue in the face but it all boils down to him taking responsibility and taking me seriously. Pre-teens and teenagers tend to think they are invincible and it's our jobs, as parents, to administer a shot of reality now and then.
So I can see how this mother, in the above article, had no clue what was going on. Kids have their own language and it's the parents' responsibility to take the time and learn it. Keeping our kids safe depends on that.