“Do you know where your children are?
Because it’s now twelve o’clock
If they’re somewhere out on the street
Just imagine how scared they are”
(Michael Jackson, ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ lyrics)
The feeling is that of anguish, frustration and immense fear.
That is the emotional turmoil that a parent goes through when for any reason, they are unable to trace the whereabouts of their young ones. As parents, it is our responsibility to watch over our children. When we are unable to do so personally, we will find someone to do it on our behalf. That is why American Television used to carry an announcement at 10pm or 11pm to ask “Do you know where your children are?”
Our peace of mind is only guaranteed when we know where our children are, what they’re doing and who they are with. This is mainly because their tender age does not equip them with the right skills to deal with difficult or harmful situations.
I understand the importance of that question because I too have been in a situation where I did not know where my child was. One minute, Heidi, was playing with her sister and the next, she was nowhere to be found.
A casual search around the compound did not yield much. A few minutes’ search turned what had started out as a casual search into a frantic one. I was asking Hailey where her sister was. What they had been doing. Which part of the compound they had been playing, what games they had been playing, where she last saw Heidi and with whom.
Before we eventually found her (thankfully we did to our great relief!) I had started doing a mini investigation to find out if a stranger had got access to our compound without us knowing. I had to take a minute to compose myself when I realized that I was not getting any answers from Hailey and that I was in fact starting to scare her.
Now imagine this scenario playing itself out online. You think you know where your children are when they go online, but do you really know?
We pride ourselves in being tech savvy. We even have no qualms being immersed in our phones when visiting friends instead of taking the time to catch up. We prefer to stay online and constantly check our social media pages, or read a few blogs here and there.
We have gadgets in our households that our children manage to get access to at some point. The problem comes when we do not take the initiative to know who they interact with when they go online.
Here is the irony; while we are overtly careful about who our children interact with in real life, we are lax about applying the same caution to their online presence. And therein lies the problem.
We can deal with this problem in a number of ways.
We could assume that since these interactions are virtual and not physical, that since we know the physical whereabouts of our children, then the online interactions are harmless, right? After all, there is no way a stranger could molest your child with the click of a button, right?
Wrong. While you might be tempted to think that, you will do well to remember that teenagers have been known to commit suicide due to cyber bullying, trolling, extortion and blackmail. These have sometimes happened as a result of online engagements carried out from the comfort of their closed bedroom doors.
We think we got it under control until we hear the all-too-real stories of under-age children who have been harassed persistently online. Our eyes will be opened when we come into serious real-life cases of online bullying that has resulted in depression or contributed to kidnapping of children.
You could promise yourself that your child will never own a gadget until she is over 18 and ready to handle herself responsibly online. But that will be foolhardy because while your heart will be in the right place, your child will not be with you all the time. There will always be that friend with a mobile gadget who is more than willing to share it with your child. There will always be that boyfriend who will gift them phones on their birthdays (scary thoughts, I know!) and without you knowing or abetting it, dear fellow parent, they will get easy access to the internet.
You therefore will find that empowering your child with knowledge on what to expect online, how to handle themselves responsibly and encouraging them to be open about their online interactions will help you immensely and save you the agony of having to snoop around hoping to catch them in a mistake.
You could choose to do what Communications Authority of Kenya opts to call ‘Be The Cop” and make it your responsibility (because it really is) to monitor what your child is doing on the internet and ensure his or her protection.
It is a feeling of relief and gratitude when you eventually find your child when you thought you had lost them. When I eventually found Heidi, who had fallen asleep under the bed while playing Hide and seek with Hailey, I pulled her out gently and placed her on top of the bed, covered her, before I could breathe again.
That was after I had contemplated making phone calls to inform everyone I know that I did not know where my child was – words I am sure every parent wishes they never have to use.
It is a real scare. Losing your child physically, is as scary as losing them virtually.
I therefore ask myself this questions; when my daughter will be able to access the internet (and this is an inevitability), will I be able to know who she spends her time with? Will she be cautious about who she engages online or will she do it with sheer abandon? Does she trust me enough to come to me when she encounters cyber bullying? How will I ensure that the gadgets she uses are protected so that she does not accidentally stumble upon pornographic sites?
The same way we are cautious about having our children in the company of people we don’t trust in real life, is the same caution we should apply of the people who catch our children’s attention online.
Who is spending time with your children online? What are they talking about? What information are they feeding their young mind? And why do they have your children’s attention?
Are you monitoring your children’s online presence as you are their physical presence? Do you know where your children are really?