Update: A judge found Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter on June 16. Read the full story.
Noreen Power says she knows this sounds “kind of weird,” but the Roslindale mother has made her children — ages, 12, 14, and 16 — watch a clip of the disturbing trial of Michelle Carter, the young Plainville woman facing charges for encouraging her boyfriend, via text, to kill himself.
And Power has made sure her kids know Harvard yanked acceptance offers to a group of students who got caught posting offensive material in a private Facebook chat.
The two stories of teens getting into trouble are vastly different. But both show how technology can escalate situations, and both have left Boston-area parents anxious about how to protect their children from the trouble they can get into online.
“One of the things I worry about a lot is they are one step ahead of me,” Power says. “They are texting and I’m checking their texts, but they’ve moved on to Kik, which is a texting app I didn’t know about. But then I find out about Kik, and they’re on to some other texting app.
“What parent has the time to be constantly one step ahead?”
In Brookline, Elena Fernandez says the dangers social media and texting present make her “afraid” for her teenage son and daughter. She is trying to use the two stories in the news as teaching moments. “But it’s anxious-ridden,” she says. “You want to educate them, but you can’t lecture because they won’t listen.”
Parents have always worried about their teens, and teens have always misbehaved behind their parents’ backs. But cellphones and social media, in addition to escalating the cost of bad decisions, allow kids to get into trouble from their own bedrooms, or even when they’re sitting on the couch right next to you.
“All of this stuff goes on in this private digital world, and a lot of times parents don’t know,” says Deborah Offner, a clinical psychologist who divides her time between the Commonwealth School and private practice. “Because kids who are in high school or college have never existed without digital communications, they don’t make any distinction between that and the real world.”
Take, for instance, the incoming Harvard students who posted offensive memes in the Facebook chat.
“My sense from working at a school is that for them that is the equivalent of talking at a party,” Offner says. “And no one is going to rescind an admission offer because you were talking at a party. No one is even going to know.”
With headlines focusing on the cyber aspects of the unhappy stories — “Undone by social media: Harvard rescinds admissions” or “Read the texts at the center of the Massachusetts teen suicide case” — Boston parents say they are worried about the high-stakes world their kids are forced to navigate.
“You can’t wait for these extreme cases to make you wake up,” says Liza Schneiderman of Boston, the mother of a teen and a soon-to-be teen.
“You have to be thinking about the mundane,” she says, about how the ordinary can be turned into something with potentially extreme consequences.
“Think about a group chat,” Schneiderman says. “If you are seen as someone who has read something, there is a level of responsibility. If you ‘like’ a photo that is inappropriate, you may be doing it to support your friend, but you could be perceived as supporting a message you don’t necessarily support.”
Katherine Ingraham, the mother of a high-schooler, a middle-schooler, and a grade-schooler, says she worries that the helicopter-parent trend is having the unfortunate side effect of driving kids to hide things from their parents.
“We put so much emphasis on kids talking to us,” the Brookline mom says. “The openness is great, but I worry that it’s pushing kids to the deepest nether regions to get away from us.”
Abigail Judge, a clinical psychologist and part-time lecturer at Harvard Medical School, says she directs concerned parents to evaluate how their kids are doing in other spheres of their lives.
“How are they doing in school? How are they doing with friends? How are they doing in your relationship? If a parent-kid relationship is troubled, the kid may be struggling in other ways,” she says.
“There’s a lot of research that shows that technology is not in itself the catalyst for dysfunction, but rather transmits risk for those who are already vulnerable.”Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.