Mommy, Just One More Status Update Before Bed!
What should you do when your children ask for a Facebook account? Panic. Because how are you supposed to guide kids through the untamed digital wilderness when they know more about it than you do?
The other day I was thumbing through the mail in our kitchen when my nine-year-old son came home from school and asked me if he could have a Gmail account.
“Why?” I asked nonchalantly, hiding my alarm.
“Because a lot of my friends have them, and I want to e-mail with them,” he said.
“Uh-huh,” I muttered, employing my classic mom-jujitsu move of ignoring something until it goes away. “I’ll think about it,” I said, praying that the question would just vanish on a waft of warm spring air.
He’s only nine, I thought as I watched him bound up the stairs to his bedroom, and it’s already happening?
So this is how the sucking of a child down the social-media rabbit hole begins — with an innocent question that a stunned mother can’t answer. I had no idea.
What I do know, though, is how the story ends. Who doesn’t? All you have to do is read the newspaper or have coffee with a few moms to hear how tweens and teens are morphing into sleepless zombies who text, IM, and hang out on Facebook and YouTube all day and night with God knows who. They can’t concentrate on their homework for longer than the span between incoming texts, and are vulnerable to cyberbullying, sexting, handing personal information over to marketers, and sharing naked pictures of themselves shotgunning Bud tall boys. And it’s all there for every college admissions officer in the country to see one day — none of it deletable.
As a fortysomething mother who recently got her first smartphone and still doesn’t really know how to use it, my son’s question set off a quiet panic in me. I began contemplating a future that included all three of my kids running wild across a vast and unsupervised digital wilderness. I’m not ready, I thought.
The thing is, I’m not a half-bad parent. I’m not crushing it by Tiger Mom or Bringing Up Bébé standards, but I am raising happy, healthy kids who go to school every day, have close friends, and still like to snuggle up with their parents at night and read a good book. But when it comes to technology, I go a little dark. Why is that?
I’m no Luddite. I use my computer for work and I text, tweet, and post clever witticisms on my Facebook page. Still, my social-media life is an outer layer to the skin-and-bones one. I shed it, often gratefully, when the day is done. But I keep hearing that the social-media worlds of adolescents are so enmeshed with their real lives that they form a kind of chemical bond. So how am I supposed to guide my children through a digital realm that their brains will one day comprehend on some freakish molecular level I can only dream of? I mean, I don’t even know if a nine-year-old can have an e-mail account. Or go on Facebook. When should a kid be allowed to have his own cell phone and start texting under the dinner table? Above all, what is my role? Am I supposed to read my kids’ every e-mail, check their search histories? Just how much time and energy are we talking about here?
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I must admit, I’ve detected a certain nonchalance in my generation of parents when it comes to technology. We let our babies paw our iPhones. We pop Leapsters and PSPs into our kids’ hands like flight attendants passing out bags of pretzels. We shut them up on long trips with iPod Touches and DSes, and eventually just lug the old laptop we haven’t used in a while into their room, so they can have their beloved screen time on Saturday afternoons and we can take a nap. But in doing so, are we shirking our parental responsibility to provide guidance and structure? I’m wondering: Are there any adults on this plane, and if so, could they please report to the World Wide Web? I have a few questions.
I mean, have you seen this stuff? The anorexia sites where girls can compare notes on how to avoid eating, the YouTube videos where teens ask perfect strangers to weigh in on whether or not they’re ugly, the multiplayer video games where thugs beat up prostitutes? Aren’t we at all concerned that the first thing our fourth-grader’s going to do when we buy him a smartphone is take it to his room and type “boobs” into the search engine? And what happens once he leaps into social media?
I realized standing there in the kitchen that my deftly executed evasive maneuver wasn’t going to work this time. There are surely wonderful things for kids to find on the Internet and in their budding social-media lives. But there’s no ignoring the risks embedded there. After emerging from the haze of indecision that followed my son’s request, I knew I couldn’t be caught flat-footed again. What I needed was a plan, a set of rules and strategies, a guide to entering the social-media vortex at the eye level of a child. I needed to make some cold, hard decisions about what I was going to do about it all — and I needed to make them soon.