Ask Titania: Help! I Feel Like I Failed My Child
I feel horrible right now. I recently found out that my 13-year-old kid has been inappropriately chatting with someone on Discord. My son says it’s a child his age, but I’m pretty sure it’s an adult. I check his texts, his photos, and his social media every evening and we’ve talked about stranger danger. I’ve even set screen time limits and blocked a ton of websites. Somehow this fell through the cracks — Discord has so many different servers and chats that it’s hard to parse through. The messages are sexual in nature, and I just feel like a parenting failure. What did I do wrong? And how can we recover from this?
Feeling Like A Failure
Dear Feeling Like A Failure,
First off, you are not a failure. Right now is maybe the hardest time to be a parent in the history of parenting. Our tech-obsessed culture has deemed it generally okay for kids to be handed these devices that have instant access to all of the images, videos, and people in the world. Some parents may choose to wait longer to give their kids a phone, but eventually, every child will need one at some point if they’re going to function with one as an adult.
This means it’s hard, and it’s also very complicated! Also, it sounds like you’ve been doing everything right. Your level of involvement in your child’s digital world is top tier — you’ve set parental controls, engaged in spot-checking, and have talked about the serious issues.
Shift Your Perspective
Instead of thinking that you failed, I want you to think that you discovered this information at exactly the right time. You were fortunate enough to catch this before anything worse could have happened.
It’s both a blessing and a curse that the internet leaves a trail of nearly every interaction. A curse, because these conversations and images often come back to haunt people. But it’s a sort of a blessing because it often enables parents to figure out what happened.
Just think: a child talking to a stranger in the 80s most likely did it out in public, with no permanent record of their interaction. If they exchanged messages, they would have been on paper, which can be easily burned and destroyed. Parents would have literally no way to learn about some of these risky interactions.
Kids Have Always and Will Always Push Limits
This brings me to another important thing to remember: kids are going to kid. What do I mean by that? Basically, if there’s a way to explore things or sneak around parents, it's probably going to happen. Now, not every child, of course — there are some children that may never cause their parents a moment’s unease.
But for the rest, there are definitely going to be challenges. For our generation, it was sneakily picking up the phone at night when you were supposed to be asleep.
Some of my friends in the 90’s had beepers, and used them to send messages. Still others were figuring out ways to watch porn on scrambled TV screens.
My point is that this generation isn’t any different from us. They just have way more avenues to get into trouble — and they can do it while sitting in the same room as you. This is a very frightening thought.
Where There’s Chat, There’s Danger
You mentioned checking texts and social media, and you’re definitely on the right track there. But any place where there's a chat room, there’s a chance for predators to contact kids. We’ve even seen it happen in fitness apps and religious apps!
Discord is an especially tricky platform because many adults don’t understand. The TL;DR is that it’s kind of like Slack, if you’re familiar with it. If you’re not, just know that Discord is an app entirely used for communicating with texts, voice chat, and video chat. This means it’s an especially dangerous app for kids because adults can reach out to them in a ton of different ways.
Interest in Sex Is Natural But Stressful
If your son thought he was talking to someone his own age, this isn’t a rarity. As kids grow up and enter adolescence, age-appropriate sexual curiosity is 100% normal and to be expected. As parents, it can be distressing to discover our teens taking part in anything remotely sexual. You’ll need to talk to your child, though. Our parents only had to give us the birds-and-the-bees talk. We have to do that and talk about how it intersects with digital technology.
A Danger to Know About: Sextortion
The problem, of course, is that he may have been talking to a predator, which is anyone who manipulates a child online into sexual discussion/behavior. Boys especially can be the target of scams like this, and it’s known as sextortion. They’ll be tricked into thinking they’re chatting with someone their own age, then the predator will convince them to send nude photos or videos and blackmail the child with them.
How Bark Can Help
You’re already on top of a lot of the things your child is getting into online, which is great. But it’s like playing whack-a-mole — as soon as you get a handle on one thing, another will take its place.
This is why I recommend the Bark Phone. Our built-in parental controls can help you manage nearly everything your child can do. First off, you can approve all apps and review all contacts so you know who he’s talking to.
The Bark Phone also monitors popular apps like Discord, but also YouTube, Gmail, WhatsApp, and countless others. Then, we alert you if we find something concerning. Bark scans for sexual content, predators, bullying, suicidal ideation, drugs/alcohol, and all of the other things you need to know about, too. If you want to let your child utilize tech in a safer way, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If and when it’s time for your child to have access, the Bark Phone gives children the ability to become responsible and healthier digital natives with close (but not overbearing) parental supervision.
Bark is a comprehensive online safety solution that empowers families to monitor content, manage screen time, and filter websites to help protect their kids online. Our mission is to give parents and guardians the tools they need to raise kids in the digital age.