Kids and social media

First published on Mamamia 31/1/2016

img_6848My son recently came home from school asking to have a look at Instagram. He told me one of his classmates had said he’d put my son’s photo up and he wanted to know if it was true. Neither of us have an account but it’s easy to create one and we quickly found the photo. It appeared innocuous. My son and two of his friends, smiling for the camera, taken after school.

BUT – the account was set to ‘public’ meaning anyone can see the pictures. Over a thousand people were following the account. My son was wearing his school uniform. With the logo visible and readable. One of the other boys in the photo had no shirt on at all. I was alarmed. Because – and here’s the unfathomable part – my son is eight years old. The owner of the public Instagram account is seven.

I was flabbergasted. Outraged. Upset. But mostly baffled.

Surely this boy’s mother either did not realise her son’s account was public? Or she did not understand the inherent risks in letting a young boy have unregulated social media accounts? As a police officer, I have seen first-hand how gullibility and inexperience can lead much older and wiser people into the dark and twisty depths of the world-wide-web.

I spoke to some of my colleagues at the police station about it and we agreed this was a matter of education. I grabbed a brochure on cyber safety and approached the boy’s mother at the school gate that afternoon. The conversation I had with her left me more baffled than I began with.

Yes, of course she knew the boy’s account was public. She set it to private, but he changed it back to public. She said it as if that was the end of that. There’s nothing you can do about your seven year old’s social media settings? Really?

Yes, she knew he had over a thousand followers. They’re all just other kids of course, she told me. Are you kidding me? Are you naïve or optimistic?

Yes, he had his own phone, data and social media accounts but she regulated it all. The photo of my son and friends had been on the account for several weeks. So you think it’s okay to post photos of other people’s topless seven year olds to public accounts? How good is your regulation?

No, she didn’t need the brochure on cyber safety, she knew all about that. If you understood cyber safety, would we be having this conversation? Do you think I’m doing this for laughs?

I didn’t say all those things to her. It was all very polite, but I walked away from it shaking my head in bewilderment.

I told the school, but knew already there was little they could do. The photo was taken outside of school hours. The boy always kept his phone in his schoolbag until after school was finished.

The whole thing led to some interesting conversations in our household – conversations I didn’t think I’d need to have for years. My kids will only be allowed to have phones and (regulated) social media accounts once they are in high school. But I’ve found out the hard way that this does not mean they may not already be affected by the issues surrounding social media.

To make things crystal clear – paedophiles use these social media sites. We know this. Police find the images along with child pornography. They use places like Instagram to ‘collect’ photos, groom children, blackmail children or in the worst case scenario, track children. They sell or trade photos of children. They attempt to engage with children – it may start with complimentary comments on photos and lead to private messages and beyond. Occasionally, they may become obsessed with a child. Depending on what information they can glean from the account, they may have the child’s name, names of family members, the school they attend, the area they live in and sports teams they play on. They can hang out in a public place, watch for the child they already have pictures of and call out the child’s name to try to lure them. This is an extreme scenario that almost never happens. But the fact that it could happen, that all this information is accessible by creepy strangers should be enough to give a parent goosebumps. Especially when the child is too young to even understand there is something they need to protect themselves from.

Parents must educate themselves before allowing their children to have social media access. If they rely on what their child is telling them, or their own best guess, they are leaving their children exposed.

Fortunately, the same internet that can pose the dangers, can also offer valuable advice. The e-version of the cyber safety brochure I gave the other mother is available on the Queensland Police website at https://www.police.qld.gov.au/programs/cscp/personalSafety/children/childProtection/.

There is also loads of useful information at www.cybersmart.gov.au.

img_6848Educate yourself. Educate your children. Don’t pretend the predators aren’t lurking out there.

 

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When can a child walk to school by themselves?

Miles pic

This has generated lots of passionate discussion on social media.

This article from Miles police appeared on social media and in the news through the week, causing enormous uproar. It cautions parents against letting their children walk to school by themselves. As a mother and a police officer, I have strong opinions on this, and judging by the commentary on social media, so do many other parents.

Firstly, I want to clarify that yes – this is a current piece of legislation in Queensland. Yes, the exact age of twelve is specified. The law considers that at this age, children are considered responsible. But importantly, this law does not immediately deem children under that age irresponsible. The key phrase in the legislation is “without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child”.

What is ‘reasonable provision’? What defines ‘an unreasonable time’? It’s open to interpretation. But if you can name even one thing that may constitute this provision, then you probably have no need to worry about this law.

Does your child walk with siblings or another child? Do they have safe ways to cross any roads? Have you walked the route with them and addressed possible problems? Have you spoken to them about what they should do if approached by someone? Will someone quickly let you know if your kids fail to turn up? Any of these are reasonable provisions.

Some parents send their five year olds off by themselves to get to school. There are ten year olds sent off to school who detour past the local skate park and never make it to classes. There are seven year olds who wander out in peak hour traffic on their way to school, trusting in the quick reactions of drivers. So these specific laws are dragged out by exasperated police when dealing with repeated situations like this.

When I was a kid, our parents were happy for my brother and I to walk to school as soon as we were old enough to attend. This was the norm. But my parents also made us ride in the boot portion of the family station wagon after we’d been to the beach so we didn’t wreck the upholstery. We live in a different world today. As much as I’d like my kids to have a childhood disappearing all day and returning home once the street lights came on, it’s just not the same. There’s been a shift in awareness.

However, I do want to raise independent and capable children who can make practical decisions. So my children, aged seven and nine, walk part of the way to school by themselves on some mornings. I have made a number of provisions and I have no fear for their safety. This is even though, as a police officer, I know the sort of people lurking around and the sorts of things that happen. By applying due diligence and common sense, I’ve minimised the risk. I accept there is always some small risk, but this is inherent in everything we do. If someone attempted to charge me simply on the basis of the ages of my children, it would be thrown out of court. I don’t believe it’s the intention of the legislation. What age you are happy to let your children do things alone is a question for your family, and not the law – providing the ‘reasonable provisions’ have been met.

I recently discussed this very piece of legislation with the detective in charge of my local Child Protection Investigation Unit. I was on the cusp of leaving my nine year old at home by herself for short periods of time. The same law applies for this as for walking to school alone. He asked whether I had made ‘reasonable provisions’ for my daughter. She knows my phone number. She knows which neighbours she can go to. She is forbidden from going to the door unless it is a short list of specific people. She knows about ‘tricky people’ as well as ‘bad people’. She has been quizzed on what she would do in numerous hypothetical scenarios. She is responsible and sensible. As a parent, I am happy to leave her alone for short periods of time.

The age of twelve is arbitrary and Queensland seems to be the only state which has set this. I personally thought high school would be the age when I would leave my children alone for longer, so they wouldn’t have to go to vacation care when I’m at work. But with high school now including Year 7 in Queensland, many kids will start at the age of eleven. So do they have to return to primary school vacation care programs until they turn twelve? Or do the ‘reasonable provisions’ extend to a full day?

It boils down to what steps you have taken to ensure your child is safe. If the worst case scenario does happen, what could you say about your actions?

I’m not sure what prompted this particular notification in Miles. But I can guarantee there is more to this story than police randomly choosing a child quietly making their way in to school. Although I think this particular notification was probably ill-advised and the interpretation that ‘kids under 12 cannot walk or ride to school alone’ is flawed, the resulting reactions show that it is clearly a topic many parents seek guidance on.

It’s certainly prompted parents to think about their views and why they hold them. And that in itself is a positive thing.

Why I’m not half boy

I’m a tomboy.

I’m a butch tomboy.

I’m a butch tomboy dyke.

No, actually, I’m not.

I’m a female.

I’m a female who enjoys active sports and adventure.

I’m a female who has often worn my hair short and doesn’t usually wear makeup.

This does not automatically make me a tomboy a butch or a dyke. No matter how often I’ve been called these names or similar terms.

I recently saw a meme on social media which made me mad. It was a picture of a girl on a skateboard. The caption read “Every cool girl is half boy”.

What the hell is that meant to mean? Only boys ride skateboards? Being ‘just’ a girl is never cool enough? Does that make a ‘cool’ boy ‘half girl’?

This meme goes hand-in-hand with my hatred of the term ‘tomboy’. The implication is that you’re not a girl if you like a bit of action and adventure.

I’ve frequently been called a tomboy, probably since I was age three and preferred dressing up as a pirate rather than a princess. When I was a teenager with short hair and short pants, I was often mistaken for a boy. Once I’d grown up and a set of breasts clarified any gender questions, people often assumed I was a lesbian. I don’t have a problem with that label – love is love wherever you are lucky enough to find it. But it’s my hormones that dictate my sexuality not my choice of hobbies.

I understand the confusion. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.

I had short hair for a long time (it’s easy-care). I didn’t have a serious boyfriend through my twenties (I travelled the world instead). I’m almost always wearing shorts (it’s practical in Queensland). I don’t often wear make-up (seems like a waste of time to do it every day). I have an unmelodic low-pitched voice (it’s genetic, on my father’s side). I started surfing when I was a teenager and haven’t stopped (it’s so much fun). I did martial arts as a teenager and took it up again recently (I enjoy the challenge). Clearly, I must be a lesbian or half boy or some combination of the two. Does that make me cool these days? I don’t really care anymore. I have spent a lifetime shrugging off these sorts of barbs and they no longer stick.

But don’t you dare infect my daughter with this misogynistic sexism.

My pre-teen daughter is a different type of person to me. Ever since she was old enough to voice her opinion, she has favoured dresses and the colour pink. She went for about six years refusing to wear shorts. She paints her nails and begs me to buy her make-up. She’s done ballet classes for years. By her own unconscious choices, she’s slotted into society’s stereotypes.

But she has me for a mother. So she rides bikes, scooters and rollerblades. She can kick and punch hard enough to hurt a person. She thinks nothing of getting dumped by a wave while she learns to surf. She does these things because I’ve encouraged her to have a go at them and she’s enjoyed them. It doesn’t make her half-boy. It doesn’t make her cool. It doesn’t make her any less – or any more – than her own individual self.

She’s a kid, trying out different things and seeing what she enjoys. She’s never been called a tomboy. I think it would confuse and upset her if someone did. She’s happy being a girl. She shouldn’t be made to feel anything other than that, regardless of her choices.

Fun is gender neutral. Don’t make it anything else.

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A kid having fun. Simple.

A message to the parents of young children

Juggling policing and motherhood

First published in the Sun-Herald August 2, 2015

The man facing me is agitated. He curses loudly and aggressively, spittle flying out with his words. I’m acutely aware we are outside a shopping centre and the people going about their business shouldn’t have to put up with this. And as a police officer, it is my job to resolve it. But the man won’t listen to sense; he’s shaping up for a fight. His fists are clenched and the colour is rising in his face. My partner is reaching for his capsicum spray but I’m persisting in trying to talk the man down, while glancing inconspicuously at my watch. I don’t want to arrest him. Not only is it risky and hazardous. But a trip to the watchhouse means I’ll be late for the school run.

I’m one of a surprising number of women who juggles raising children with work, when work means strapping on a number of assorted weapons. For the last fifteen years, I’ve been a ‘general duties’ police officer. When the call for help comes through, my job description involves racing there with lights and sirens on. I used to love the action and unpredictability. I was drawn to it because I wanted some excitement and I didn’t want to be stuck in some office.

Having children changed it for me. These days, with a six and eight year old in the equation, I just want to finish work on time and go home in one piece. I no longer want to put myself in any sort of dangerous situation. I don’t want to risk a needlestick injury or have some drug-addled grub spit at me. How do you explain to a child that Mummy can’t kiss you till the disease test has come back? I tried to rationalise my change of heart to one of the station sergeants. He told me I needed to take a tablespoon of concrete and “harden the f__ up”.

Sometimes, as a cop, I know things a mother shouldn’t. There is a man I often see at the local shops, who is a convicted pedophile. He always gives me a wave and a smile when he sees me. Especially when I have my children with me. We both know he has done his time and is entitled to go to the shops. He is not breaking any rules by saying ‘hello’ to me, or even my children. But it makes my skin crawl. I want to yell out ‘pedophile!’, alert everyone to who he is. I want to warn him if he goes near my children, I will do unspeakable things to his unmentionables. But because of my job, I have to keep my thoughts and my words to myself. Would it be easier not to know at all?

At the start of each school year, I scan my kids’ class lists to see if I recognise any surnames. One year, my daughter had a friend, both of whose parents I had arrested. I needn’t have worried – these aren’t the sort of parents who hang around for a chat outside the classroom. I’ve only been caught out once, at a six year-old’s birthday party, where I didn’t realise who her mother was until I was standing at the front door with my daughter, present in hand. I recognised her but thankfully a couple of years and a different hairstyle was enough for her not to recognise me. People don’t seem to make the connection that I may be someone other than a police officer.

Then there are other, random occasions where motherhood and policing collide. One day, I realised I had forgotten to send an important work email. No problem. I’d just picked my children up from care, so I could duck past the station on the way home. It would take two minutes. However, my children (aged about one and three at the time) had other ideas. When I parked at the station, my three year old got it into her head that she did not want to go into the station. She started up the sort of hysterical screaming for no good reason which only a toddler can manage. Her little brother, always the follower, joined in. I unbuckled my daughter’s car restraint and she ricocheted around the inside of the car, screaming. While I was attempting to either settle her down or grab her (either one would have done at that stage), the volume and persistence of her screams caused an officer to come out from the nearby Child Protection Investigation Unit. Because judging by the noise, clearly some children needed protection. He laughed when he saw it was me; he was also the parent of young children. I ended up carrying two screaming children into the police station, one tucked under each arm like carrying pigs to market, so I could send my two minute email. It’s funny now, but there was more apologising than laughing at the time.

But my kids are proud of my job. They tell their friends, the parents of their friends, strangers at the park. My daughter even threatened to call me in once when her teacher was stirring her up. I’m pretty sure she was joking. But you never know what reaction you will get from people when they find out you’re a cop. It can be very polarising, depending on people’s experiences with police. I ran into my grade three teacher shortly after I had been sworn in. When she asked me what I’d been up to since grade three, I told her proudly about graduating from the Academy. She launched into a diatribe about corrupt and evil police because her police-officer brother-in-law had screwed her over. Lesson learnt. You can never predict someone’s reaction. If you ask me, I’ll say I’m a public servant till I know you.

I have attempted over the years to get myself into a more suitable position. As a part-timer, it is very hard to get relieving duties. Without the relieving duties, I can’t get the experience needed to win another position. I like to work. I enjoy being part of a workplace and having this extra facet to my life. I don’t know if being a stay at home mum would suit me. But I know this is no longer the job for me. Fifteen years as a copper on the road leaves me sadly underqualified to do much else.

So general duties it is for me. With a tablespoon of concrete at the start of each shift.