by EVANDA BARBARA
I’m a mother currently negotiating life with a thirteen year old girl.
A thirteen year old girl who once slept each afternoon on my tummy till she was almost three and I was too pregnant for her to lie on me. A thirteen year old girl who was quiet, unassuming, academic in nature and made me proud. Every. Single. Day.
Then, a few months ago my home turned into a hormonal warzone.
The first major battle fought was over the juggernaut that is Facebook. My husband, who opposes the whole social media world, was adamant that no good could come of her getting an account.
We negotiated (her and me) because I was trying to ensure that she would socially integrate well going into high school. Any parent will tell you that in this day and age, all arrangements, parties, “get togethers” and the like, happens via Facebook. The home phone line is obsolete.
My husband relented. There were conditions. During school term – only on Friday afternoons and for the weekend. School holidays are a free zone. I have the passwords and do random checks.
I’ve had some parents tell me what an invasion of privacy they felt it was that I was monitoring her Facebook account. I responded by telling them how completely irresponsible they were not to.
I guess before I go on – you also need to know that the social media world is part of my workplace and playground. I’m a communications executive with comprehensive social media experience. I consider myself well-versed and social media savvy.
Last Friday, around lunch time the school counsellor called. The opening “don’t get a fright I just need to talk to you” did nothing to ease my terror. I now know what it feels like when a fist closes over your heart.
Easing gently into it, she asked me how I found my child to be at home. I responded that I found her to be “very teenagerish”. What was I to say?
She then proceeded to tell me that my child’s friends who said she’d told them she was cutting herself had approached her. I stopped breathing.
It got progressively worse after that.
The vice principal had called my child in to discuss this and she’d told them it was a one-off. She was told to go home and tell her parents. She didn’t. I felt like I was going to throw up.
The counsellor had received a phone call that morning from the mother of a friend to ask them to contact me about my child’s tumblr page and its disturbing images. What tumblr page? I started to quietly sob at my desk.
I don’t think there’s anything worse than finding out you don’t know your own child. And that the child is on a downward spiral, presenting a normal front to you, if not to the outside world.
For those who don’t know, Tumblr is a social media site where you set up a page in order to post photographs, accomanied by a short number of words. My daughter posted pictures of her damaged wrists.
The counsellor couldn’t tell me the URL of the page – but told me it was unlikely that it was linked to my child’s name. Of all the social media sites I am unfamiliar with – Tumblr has never interested me. With Facebook, blogs, Twitter, Pinterest – it was one area of social media I haven’t had a need to investigate. I was as uneducated and crippled as a parent without a Facebook account.
In life, I’m a problem solver. I’m well known for my ability to think outside the square and find a solution out of the realm of normal thinking.
I sat in my office, stuck to my chair. Unable to breathe, unable to decide what to do next – thoughts screaming in my head. What was on the page? Without doubt I realized it must have been bad to motivate someone to call the school and not me directly?
It’s one thing to be crippled by indecision. It’s another to be frozen with fear and shock and not want to face the reality that the child you think is perfect has another online persona and life that she is hiding from you.
It took me half an hour to pick up the phone to my husband. I didn’t know how to tell him what someone had just told me. With my world tilting on its axis I almost wanted to spare him the pain. And I felt guilty because I was the one that had pushed for her to be a part of this world and I had in good faith been monitoring her activity as I knew it and advising and cautioning when I saw it was necessary.
You read about people whose children suicide that were unaware of the extent of bullying or trauma their child was enduring. On some level I might have judged them. Now I felt like I was walking in similar shoes – violated by the fact that I don’t know what’s going on in my child’s head.
The tumblr page was horrific. Black and white images with an overwhelming message that “Life sucks get used to it” and “I just want it to be over”. As she was showing us – completely un-phased by it all – my heart ached and I wanted to freeze that moment in time when she used to sleep on my tummy.
I know that teenage angst is rampant and normal. My question is, has the Internet exacerbated the cry for help or has it just become a vehicle to enable their voice on what they may be feeling at that time? Do we take a tumblr page like that and run to therapy and counselling when the child assures you that it was just a one off – she was mimicking a Facebook friend at another school and that the only thing she’s upset about is a difficult on and off again friendship with a ringleader in her year at school?
I am now crippled with indecision. Do I take the child at her word? Do we take further steps as a preventative measure?
How do I sleep at night knowing that at any given time she can again post a cry for help on the internet that someone else’s mother will see before I do?
How do I caution her about exposing herself like that on the Internet? So young, and so naive – this generation are unaware of how they can profiled themselves with a simple tumblr page. Forever.
Do all my child’s friend’s parents think she is a troubled teenager with suicidal tendencies? How do I look them in the face?
The conversation with my child also included some key messages that there needs to be open communication if there’s a problem – a one off or not. That in any situation, the first port of call is home. Not the internet.
People – you, me, our children – need to be educated that the internet is not a safe or private place – to express your feelings or to expose yourself on a bad day. Regardless of the fact that our children have grown up with social media at their fingertips and regardless of how much so-called education their schools think they’re imparting to them in this area, I can assure you that they aren’t even touching the tip of the iceberg.
And at the end of the day, as a parent, I am left feeling terrified, exposed and violated and worrying every minute of every day if there’s something else that I don’t know.
Evanda Barbara is not the author’s real name and has been changed due to the sensitive nature of this post.