11 months ago I wanted to remove online devices from my children at home and I questioned the usefulness of technology in schools. 11 months ago my beautiful, intelligent, caring, daughter disappeared. She turned 18 on June 1st. 15 days later I had a sick feeling that only a parent could understand. It was around 9:00 am and she was supposed to be with a friend, but something was very wrong. I began texting her friends and sure enough there had not been a sleepover. My daughter wouldn’t respond to texts nor answer her phone. No one knew where she was. There had been no clues leading to this day other than her talking to me four days prior to her disappearance about possibly changing her college destination. She had decided to attend college in our home state of California, but now was interested in Georgia. She mentioned participating in an online college chat and meeting someone from Georgia. We talked about cold feet and that she could always switch colleges after a year. We also talked about not meeting someone in person from online because we don’t always know if they are who they say they are. She agreed. We hung out. All seemed fine for four days. Then she was gone.
Mother’s intuition connected our talk about college to her possibly going to meet someone in Georgia. After being unable to reach her, my husband and I drove to our small local airport. We found her car in the parking lot with a parking permit that had been time stamped at 5:00 am. We hurried in and questioned the agents at the counters. No one would help us or even tell us if she had been a passenger on a plane because my daughter was 18. She had only been 18 for 15 days, but she was an adult. We hit a wall. We were terrified. We went home and I began scouring her room for clues. Miraculously, buried in the bottom of her trash can was a printed itinerary. We now knew where she was headed. My husband and I bought airline tickets and were about 11 hours behind her. As we flew on the red-eye flight, bad thoughts rushed through my head. I didn’t know if we would find our daughter alive. She was headed to a very small town in Georgia. While we were in the air, members of our extended family contacted private investigators in Georgia. A private investigator followed my daughter to her destination. 11 hours after she arrived at a home in the backwoods of Georgia, my husband and I drove up to the same home and knocked on the door not knowing who would answer or what we would find.
What happened when that door opened shook me as a mother and changed me as an educator. I found a daughter who now believed she belonged with a strange family. She was ready to give up college, move to Georgia, and alienate her entire family. I also found out that my daughter had met this family via a school project. This is when I became passionate about limiting the use of online devices in schools. I knew the possible negative effects of technology. I began to wonder, how can teachers really supervise students online? Would my daughter still be at home had she not had an online school project? I went from being a supporter of technology in the classroom to a skeptic. Then, in March of this year, I attended the CUE Conference and heard George Couros’s keynote address.
George Couros’s speech included a reference to pencils. Students may get in trouble with a pencil, but do we ban pencils? Students may use online devices for inappropriate behaviors, but should we ban them or educate them? The reality is I want my own children and my students to know how to use technology to create and be productive. I don’t want to ban them from those opportunities. Couros’s speech encouraged me. While still heartbroken about my daughter, I am raising two young boys and I participate in the education of over 1000 students at my school. I want them to be future ready and I know that includes the use of technology, but we as parents and educators can be smarter in how we teach our youth to participate in the online world.
After hearing George Couros speak, my thoughts toward kids and the Internet began to shift. In his blog titled Protecting or Ignoring, Couros states:
Am I saying that there are not dangers out there? Absolutely not. But helping our kids learn to navigate the messiness and complexities of our world is more likely to protect our students than pretending the Internet doesn’t exist in the first place.
Couros is right. Our kids will navigate the Internet. It’s up to us to decide if we want to be the ones to educate them about it or not. I believe as parents and educators we need to:
- Allow kids to explore the Internet, but with supervision and guidance. I work with elementary students. My own children are eight and ten. I don’t feel it is appropriate to just let them go on the Internet with no supervision, but I now don’t block sites that I once blocked. For example, my boys and students know about YouTube. They are curious about YouTube. When I banned my sons from it, guess what they did at their grandparent’s house? They were on YouTube. I now embrace YouTube with supervision. In the school setting we have filters in place, but that doesn’t excuse teachers to sit at their desks and let students go. I am present when they’re on YouTube. I learn what my students’ interests are by what they are searching. Recently I learned that there are a lot of cool and informative videos all about fidget spinners from a student. At home, I have conversations with my boys. We talk about inappropriate language and what do if a video is inappropriate. When a friend of ours posted a video and some people left negative comments, my son wanted to respond. We discussed the reasons we shouldn’t participate in online arguments. I have transitioned from banning to having discussions and supervising their online activities. **Of course there are some sites that are inappropriate- I am not condoning everything.
- Know that we will never be the experts in the area of the Internet. I was recently talking to a district tech leader. His own children are now reaching the age to search the internet. He acknowledged that it is scary. He pointed out that we must be willing to learn all the time because we are the first generation of adults navigating how to lead children through the world of the Internet. We must be willing to stay up-to-date in the area of technology. We must also listen and watch our kids. I’m amazed at what my own children and students know about the Internet. They teach each other about sites and apps, we need to listen and observe to be aware and learn from them (and intervene when needed). My daughter had been using Google Hangout to meet with her online acquaintance. I was satisfied with knowing about GAFE, but failed to learn about Google Hangout. We can’t know it all, but we must not stop pursuing knowledge about what is out there on the Internet.
- Be a better teacher of the positives of the Internet. I believe that if you stay busy with the positive, you don’t have time to dabble in the negative. The more we include the Internet in lessons where students are creating and learning, they will have less time to use the Internet for negative activities. We want them to become self-directed learners. We need to guide them in the way to use the Internet in this modern world. Let them create and teach them to use the Internet to contribute to our society. Let them research and learn about the amazing learning opportunities we have via the Internet.
- Include Internet safety conversations in all grade levels and subjects. As educators and parents, we need to be purposeful about our instruction of Internet safety. My daughter had a device in high school, but most questionable sites were blocked. Instead of offering her instruction on how to use sites in a mature manner, she was just blocked from anything questionable. I am convicted that blocking doesn’t transfer to teaching safety, especially during the teenage years. At home, we thought we were safe by checking her texts and apps, but we didn’t have honest conversations about Internet safety. These talks shouldn’t prevent our youth from using the Internet, but inform them about possible dangers and positive ways to express yourself online. I’ve had these talks with my sons recently when they signed up for an app and strangers were friending them.
- Parents must keep devices out of bedrooms. This is a huge regret I have as a parent. Our daughter was responsible. She always did well in school. She never partied. We trusted her, but the temptation of an inappropriate online relationship can mislead even the best of children. Most of her conversations with him occurred when we were asleep. We should have had her park all of her devices before we went to bed. We now know why she was often tired. For this, we are truly sorry.
The story of my daughter has not ended. I still have hope that we will one day get her back in our lives. This experience has affected my husband and I greatly as well as our other children, extended family members, and friends. We can never look at the Internet the same, but we cannot hide in a cave and pretend it doesn’t exist. We just hope we can be smarter as both parents and educators to truly lead others to the wonders of the Internet by also including the truth about Internet dangers.