Q. I am worried sick about my preteen daughter.
When she didn’t log out of her Gmail account, I found love letters between her and a “friend” she met in an online game for kids. Apparently she’s been playing this game with him for over a year, but they’ve only been “dating” online for three weeks. However, she says that they are “keeping their love a secret” because her other online friends don’t like this boy.
The letters didn’t contain any sexual references — mostly they were just angst-driven teen poetry — but I can’t help wondering if he really is a 13-year-old boy or if he is a pedophile who is “grooming” my daughter. Part of me is optimistic because they played this kids’ game for over a year before they started chatting off-line and because he plays soccer regularly — maybe for a youth league. But there’s no way to know for sure, right?
So what do I do about my daughter’s e-mail and her online “love relationship”? My initial instinct was to flip out and ban all online games and e-mails, but I’m hoping you know some social media and online rules that I can set up for my daughter instead.
A. Don’t ignore your intuition. If you think something is wrong with this situation, it probably is.
Even if this boy is only 13, their romance should be off-limits because a 13-year-old is too old to date an 11-year-old and an 11-year-old is too young to date anyone.
The difference in their ages might be much greater than it seems, however, and you must find out exactly what it is.
To do this, tell your daughter that her account was open, that you read her mail and that you were surprised to see that she was swapping love letters with a boy she met online. Don’t be judgmental. It’s much better to say, “Tell me about him. What’s he like?” and then be quiet. Children fill silences the way rainwater fills a hole in the ground.
Bit by bit, she will tell you about his school, his family and his soccer team, but ask her about other aspects of his life, too. She won’t mind as long as you don’t cast doubt on his character, his charm or his intentions. If you do, she might question any advice you give her, now and for years to come.
Once you’ve learned all you can, tell your daughter that you’d like to invite this boy and his parents over for brunch on Sunday. This will let you take his measure and evaluate your daughter’s judgment as well. Afterward you should tell her that he’s nice enough but that she can’t date him — or anyone — for a few more years. She’ll be upset, but stand fast and be sympathetic so she’ll know that you understand how much your decision has hurt her.
However, if this boy calls at the last minute and says that the family can’t come to the brunch because the car broke down, the dog got sick or Aunt Matilda just blew into town, then ask him to come next week. And if he cancels again, ask him to come the week after that, even though he’ll probably renege again. That’s when you’ll know that it’s time to tell the police that a child predator might be contacting your daughter, because you have to protect other young girls as well as your own. And if your own police force doesn’t have a cybercrime officer? Find out who handles these crimes in the county, the state or even the FBI; all electronic devices have their own IP addresses, and these agencies can track down every one of them.
And then fold your daughter into your arms and tell her, very gently, that you’re setting new Internet rules because a boy who won’t meet her parents is probably a man who likes to molest young girls. This will distress her at first, but she will accept your rules if that’s the only way she can use the Internet.
From now on, your daughter should:
• use a smartphone, gaming device or computer only in the kitchen or the family room;
• give her electronic equipment to you before you go to bed;
• create a new username that no one can guess;
• and tell you what it is, even though you’ll open her account only if she’s standing at your side or it’s an emergency.
And then beg your daughter’s school to ask the Safe and Secure Online program (email@example.com) to give its free one-hour presentation on cybersecurity to the students and to invite the parents, too. If you want to keep your child safe, you have to be as tech-savvy as she is.
Send questions about parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org.