By Lisa Slusher, Mother

I recently learned that a large percentage of pre-teens and teens have a social medial account that parents are unaware of . . . honestly, I was kind of glad to read the statistic because up to that point, I thought I was the only one to uncover my daughters secret social media platform! Here is my story and my advice.

I have a 15-year-old daughter (I appreciate the empathetic sighs) – after much contemplation and prayer (as well as hours of discussion with my husband), I made the decision to purchase a laptop for our teen for Christmas. Her own personal laptop – she was thrilled! I had spent several years of sharing computers and watching over everything that she did on the computer. I felt that she had earned this tiny bit of freedom with a personal laptop. Now keep in mind that I didn’t just hand her over a computer with no parental oversight. I had carefully set up our Microsoft Family Sharing Account to set screen time limits, hours of the day for use, carefully blocked websites, restricted content based on her age, and was monitoring her activity on the computer. We had “the talk” again about internet safety – not sharing personal information, no chat rooms, etc. I disclosed to her that I had set up time limits and that certain sites had been blocked for her protection. We talked about all the dangers of such well deserved freedom.

She was thrilled! Her own laptop! She quickly set up her passwords (which I made her disclose to me) and went to town downloading apps for fun as well as for school. She is an avid reader so without hesitation we downloaded a reader where she would have access to thousands of books. She could do her own research without having to plan around my time on the computer! As the weeks went by, I got these lovely reports from Microsoft Family Sharing that told me how much time she spent on the computer, what sites she visited (as well as how much time she spent on them), if she attempted to go to any blocked sited, etc. Things were good! Or so it seemed . . .

As the months followed, so did my concerns. I started noticing that she was on the laptop more than what her time limits should have allowed. I checked my Microsoft Family Account – she had “timed out” several times during this week. I also started noticing that she was on the laptop during times that were blocked and several times I “caught” her with the laptop in the wee hours of the morning. Hmm . . parental gut check . . time to have another talk. What a relief, she was just reading books that she had downloaded to her reader! So I check the “reader” usage – and yes, she was spending a ton of time on the app and had several books checked off as completed. We mutually set some further restrictions – laptop on the table at night, no “overnight” reading sessions, etc. After all I wanted to protect her eyes! Even when she questioned the legitimacy of my concerns (as I am guilty of using my reader for hours upon hours) – I explained that I was old and my eyesight was already bad! Little did I know that this was just a tremble of the earthquake to come . . .

Life goes on beautifully – she is doing well in school. She is a delightful teen with lots to talk about. Computer on the table when she goes to bed, Microsoft Family Sharing reports all look good. Hmm . . maybe a little too good. This was my “whisper” – something’s not right, this doesn’t feel right, somethings up . . .

Since I was working a lot of overnight shifts, my husband was tasked with “computer monitoring” – and from all appearances was doing a fine job. Computer on the table most mornings when I came home. An occasional slip up with an “I forgot” or “I feel asleep” –Then the husband tells me that the other night he found her in her closet with the computer after he thought she was in bed. What? She tells me she was in the closet reading one of her books on the computer. OK that’s weird. I grill her about what book, why in the closet? Sure enough she had an answer for everything. She even had pillows and a blanket in the closet to bolster her story.

I started paying even more attention to the family sharing reports. No attempts to reach blocked sites but then I noticed something a little strange – she wasn’t using all of her computer time. She was no longer “timing out” on usage. Parental gut check and the whisper again. I checked the computer. Went through everything, or so I thought. Checked her internet history. Checked her “game time.” Everything seemed to be in order. Had a talk with her – gave her a chance to tell me if something was up. Nope. Everything was fine. She had just not been on the computer as much. Discussed with husband to learn that she is actually on it all the time when I am at work. Weird – right! How could that be as it should be “timing out.” I checked the reader again – yep, she was reading a ton of books! But why wouldn’t she just tell me that? Parental gut check . . . that dang whisper again – only it was louder this time – SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT. DANGER AHEAD. TROUBLE. RED ALERT. RED ALERT.

The next day I was schedule to work overnight. I set my typical plan to prepare for a night shift in motion – stay up as late as I can to sleep the next day before my shift. At 10 pm the laptop was carefully placed on the table as my beautiful teenage daughter went to bed for the night. At 1 am, I checked on her – sound asleep, computer on the table. All is good. I settled in for a few more hours of Netflix – trying hard to keep my eyes open – I can typically make it until about 3:30 am and then I am out! But that parental gut check was haunting me and that whisper was now a loud voice telling me to get up and walk through the house just one more time.

Hmm . . computer not on the table. Was it really there before? Was I dreaming? Was I just so tired that I missed something? Quick sweep of the kitchen and then the den. Where was the computer? Glace at daughter’s room – her door is shut but the room appears dark. She doesn’t sleep with the door shut unless the dog is bugging her. Where is the dog – wait, the dog is asleep on my bed where she has been all night. I could feel my heart rate double – I don’t knock, I just open the door. A startled teenager is completely dressed, makeup and hair done – ON THE COMPUTER! She quickly closes the computer and without saying a word, I grab the computer and head toward the light of the breakfast nook. “Mamma I’m sorry, I was just reading, I will put it on the table now.” I still don’t utter a single word (I couldn’t get a word out of my mouth right now if I tried). “Mamma I wasn’t doing anything, I was just reading.” She reaches for the computer, still closed sitting in front of me. I am not about to let the computer go. I manage to utter “BED. NOW.” And fight the tears back to keep my stern voice in check. She is still trying to talk to me as I walk off, to my bedroom and close the door. She knocks. I don’t answer. I can’t even hear what she is saying at this moment. Mumblings from the other side of the door. Is she crying? I can’t tell, I can’t hear her right now. I don’t want to talk to her right now. I don’t want to see her right now. She must have given up and gone to bed – everything is silent – except my brain. All I can think about is what I am about to discover. And I had no idea how bad it was really going to be.

Full blown parent mode. Checked our Microsoft Family Sharing plan, checked and rechecked our security measures, read through every single email in her account (even recovered the deleted ones) – bam! Hit me like a ton of bricks! A “recovery” email in the trash folder from Gmail. She didn’t have access to Gmail, she didn’t have a Gmail account – or so I thought.

My 15-year-old daughter had created a whole separate online identity that I knew nothing about. First of all, she knew my Administrator password and when she was running out of time on the computer, she would just check the box “my parent is here” and type in my password – which then stopped the clock as well as the detail of sites visited (yes, the Microsoft Family Sharing is meant for monitoring children when the parent is not around, once the “my parent is here” box is checked and the correct password is entered, time limits and details of sites are no longer monitored). And then I learned that the Microsoft monitoring program only works for their supported web browsers! I did not realize that there were so many different web browsers that could simply be downloaded (Firefox, Mozilla, Chrome, Safari, Pale Moon, Opera – to name a few) for free and voilà – instant access to anything that was previously blocked. These browsers can also be hidden in either apps or toolbars.

I discovered that she had utilized these tools to build a strong social media platform on almost every social media site I had heard of – and some I had not heard of. She was using her Gmail account to set everything up and was communication with total strangers over the internet! And she wasn’t just surfing on these social media sites, she was actively posting things – such as pictures (carefully hiding her face on most of them), using a different name, communicating with total strangers, and even sexting! She was “video chatting” with people she had never met and that I would never in a million years approve of! On multiple sites! In my own home! Right under my nose! My heart sank, my dinner was making my stomach do flip-flops, I was nauseated, my head started pounding. I started crying uncontrollably. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to talk to. I didn’t understand how she could do this. I wanted answers. By this time the sun was peeking through the darkness.

I honestly thought I had my house under control. I had spent an enormous amount of time talking with my daughter about every topic – sex, boys, dating, safety, the internet, personal responsibility, body shaming, clothing choices – you name it, we talked about it. I couldn’t understand why she felt the need to be so “creative” on social media. And it was something that she could not explain to me. “I just wanted something of my own”; “I wanted people to like me”; “I wanted the attention”; “I wanted to see if I could get away with it”; – hours and hours of talking and these were the only answers I got. Does she not understand how dangerous these activities were? Did she truly not get it? Did she think I was just being overprotective by my approach? The honest answer is no, she didn’t understand. None of them do. They may tell you that they get it but they really don’t. They don’t have a “rational” brain at this age. I had to settle on the answer that it was just something to do when she was bored. There were a few other things that I discovered that we were able to talk about and hopefully open a line of communication for the future. I still deal with the thoughts of inadequacy as a parent. How could I let this happen? It is my job to protect her. Should I have not given her the computer for Christmas? How do I prevent this from happening again?

As my daughter nears her 16th birthday, I am forced to deal with the fact that in just a few short years she will be 18! An adult by legal standards. How do I prepare her for that? How do I use this experience to protect her? I still don’t have all the answers but I do have some words of wisdom for others. These “security measure” take a little bit of time to set up and they can be a little inconvenient for some but trust me, a moment of inconvenience could save your child! (These security measures are for any device that uses Microsoft as the operating system including cell phones and tablets).

  • Create your own Microsoft account first (if you have a Microsoft operating system you likely already have an account). DO NOT allow the teen to create their own Microsoft account. You will add them as part of your “family” once you set up their device.
  • Set up their device only after you have ensured that you have a Microsoft account. It is much easier than doing the device first and then trying to add to an existing account because you cannot merge accounts – so if they have somehow set up their own Microsoft account it needs to be deleted or closed. So if you are trying to set this up after weeks, months, or even years after they have had their own device where they are the Administrator or have their own Microsoft account (hand me down device, older device, etc), it is best to restore the device to factory settings and start over. This includes the X-Box!! Yes, X-Box has a Microsoft operating system and content, time limits, etc can be controlled by YOU if it is set up properly through your Microsoft account. Did you know that your child can surf the web with their X-Box??
  • Set yourself up as the “Administrator” on all of their devices! Set up your teen as an additional “user” with their own “username”. Make sure you check the box that prohibits adding an additional username with Admin privileges (this will prevent them from being able to obtain Admin privileges under their username). Log off your own personal devices every time – if they need to use your device, they can log in with their own username and password. Make them disclose their password (and test it frequently in case they change it). This is done on the device itself.
  • Add them to your Microsoft Family Sharing plan. This is done through your Microsoft account. Once they are on your Family Sharing plan, then you can set up the controls for screen time, block sites, block content based on age, etc. You can also put in specific websites that are “always blocked” such as other web browsers (these restrictions will also work on the X-Box device). I recommend blocking all web browsers except Explorer and Edge.
  • Don’t give them your password for any reason – and if there is an emergency where you have to disclose your password, change it as soon as you can. Anytime you have to give up your password in an “emergency” – check to ensure that no additional “usernames” were created (if you checked the box during setup prohibiting additional usernames with Admin privileges they can still create a username with no restrictions on website content, security, and monitoring). If an additional username was created, delete it immediately
  • Utilize the Microsoft Family Sharing account the way it was intended. Set up realistic time limits, time of day usage, website restrictions, as well as content restrictions. Realize that other web browsers are not monitored. Sign up for the weekly (or daily) report and read through it carefully. Make mental notes of things that don’t add up – are they “timing out” frequently? Has their usage time changed? Are there days where they “time out” followed by days that they barely have any time used? These are potential “red flags”
  • Block ALL downloads under their own username. This way, the “Administrator” password must be entered to download anything under their username – my daughter had managed to download a few things on my personal computer under my username because it was “always on” and then she could access it from her laptop because she had my password!
  • Log in to their user account and go for a test drive. Attempt to go to websites that should be blocked. Try to get to other web browsers that you think are blocked. Try to download a game or something from the App store.
  • Anytime you make a change to your settings in either your Microsoft Account or on the device – restart the device.
  • Technology is changing rapidly – keep an eye out for changes that could affect the security measures you have set up.