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Daunted by the prospect of keeping up with his two teenage daughters’ activity on social media to protect them from predators or cyberbullies, one father signed up for a new app that monitors their activity online — only to discover that his 17-year-old had gotten involved with drugs while out with the family car.
“Honestly, I didn’t think there’d be much that would come up,” Charlotte, N.C., dad Trent (who prefers to share only his first name) tells Yahoo Parenting in a revealing interview about his experience with Bark — a recently released app that analyzes Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Instagram, Google+, email, and iOS text messaging and sends alerts when it detects potentially dangerous activity. “I really thought my girls were both fairly careful about who they accepted as followers,” adds the divorced father, who also has a 15-year-old, “and I just wasn’t expecting this kind of alert.”
But less than a month after the financial services executive began using the app, he got an alert that stopped him cold. One Saturday night in December, his oldest daughter texted him saying that she’d finished her shift at the restaurant where she works part-time and that a friend’s mom had offered to take her and her friend to see a movie, then host a sleepover at her home. “I just had a weird feeling in my gut,” Trent says. “My parental intuition told me that something more was going on, but I had nothing to work off of, so just dismissed it.” The following morning his suspicions were confirmed, with an email from Bark that said there was an alert requiring his attention. “So I go into email, pull up the message, and it was a direct message tweet that my daughter had sent around 10:15 the previous night to someone unfamiliar to me that said, ‘Yes we’re coming over, have to stop to get some bud,’” he says. “I thought it could be Budweiser beer. But then I realized, no, it’s probably not. It’s probably marijuana.”
Photo: Courtesy of the family
After a call to discuss the alert with his ex-wife, Trent decided to sit down with his daughter that evening when she finished work to talk with her about the message. “I had the laptop open and asked her the open-ended question ‘What were you up to last night?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I need you to explain this to me’ and showed her the screen with her tweet.” The dad says that his daughter “then of course sort of stammered around” before she realized that she had been found out. “Eventually I got the story,” he says, “which boiled down to her having friends in her car who asked her to stop at a house to buy marijuana — and she did.”
Trent believes his daughter when she says that she didn’t buy, and doesn’t use, marijuana herself, but he admits, “She has friends in her life who do.” He grounded his daughter for lying and then got real with her in a frank talk about the consequences for possession of drugs. “For me, the conversation with her was about educating her,” he explains. “I pointed out that her friend could have stashed the drugs in the car and said that they weren’t hers, things that she hadn’t thought about. It was eye-opening for her. And I feel like in the conversation and subsequent conversations with her mom that she fully grasped that things can go wrong and a drug possession encounter with law enforcement can affect your future.”
When he first got the alert, Trent admits that he felt “dread” having to have this talk. But now he insists, “I’m glad it happened because it helped me educate her to think more about being responsible.”
And the dad has always made it clear that he expects his girls to interact responsibly online as well. “I’m the type of parent that when my oldest wanted to get on Facebook at 13, I sat down with her and wrote down a contract of terms that she’d agree to,” he explains, noting that he and his ex-wife have access and all the passwords to the devices that their girls use, and they were aware that their father had access to Bark. “But as her and her sister have gotten older and into Instagram and other sites, I haven’t been as vigilant because I just can’t keep up with the volume of it. There’s no way as a parent that I could effectively go through messages or posts from their followers. Bark was appealing because I can’t keep up and I was concerned that there was stuff that could be missed from a bullying or stalking standpoint. Until this incident I wasn’t really thinking of using Bark to catch them in the act of something. It was in general more about protecting them from everybody else.”
Sample of a cyberbullying alert on Bark. (Photo: Bark)
Since the marijuana news, Trent says there haven’t been any other red flags regarding either of his girls — and yes, he’s watching as closely as ever. “It wouldn’t surprise me if she was resorting to another method of communication that Bark can’t monitor,” he admits, noting that his daughter was “bummed she was busted for lying,” but he says that the volume of her activity monitored by Bark hasn’t gone down, “so I don’t think she’s changed her behavior.”
At “some point,” he says, he’ll stop monitoring his kids online, but that day isn’t coming anytime soon. His eldest is a junior in high school, and Trent says, “I have decided that if I’m paying for a device, I have the option to continue monitoring the activity on it — as long as I want.”
Top photo: Courtesy of the family