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?
My search for answers starts with a visit to Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital who’s known as the “Mediatrician.” I’ve come to his office as a wanderer seeking wisdom from a sage. “Parents,” he tells me, “are more uncomfortable with the Internet Talk than the Sex Talk.” Rich, who is compact, with a flop of graying-blond hair and a playful laugh, has made a name for himself as a kind of middleman, bridging the gap between scientific research about kids and media and parents like me who want to understand it.
Rich says that many parents feel like they have their hands full just keeping their kids away from sex and drugs, never mind the Internet, which they fear they don’t understand well enough to police anyway. But it’s in this realm that today’s kids need the most guidance, he says, because they spend more time in it than anywhere else, including school and home. “If you’re not part of your kids’ media lives,” he says, “it’s just like if you were sending them off to a party every day for six or seven hours where you didn’t know the host, you didn’t know if there was alcohol or weapons or drugs or what in the house.”
That got me thinking about that time last year when I edged past the computer one Saturday morning and spied my son playing an online video game in which a battalion of tiny soldiers were spurting wide arcs of bright red blood, then keeling over. My husband and I banned the violent video games, but once our son found some nonviolent ones, we fled the scene again, reluctant to intrude on his online life. Wrong approach, Rich tells me. He’s a friendly man in his beige khakis and washed-denim button-down, but he’s leaning forward in his seat now, his eyes locked on mine, and I suddenly feel like a patient being given a dire prognosis.
“You have to go in,” he says. “If you check out, you’ve lost.”
When our kids are young, we’re the central force in their small lives — the planet to their moons. But what the tween years — with their sudden emphasis on friends, sleepover parties, and Justin Bieber — signal above all is their leaving us. Social media makes the transition faster, simpler to observe, and more fraught. The chime of a new e-mail or blaze of an incoming text is a newfangled version of the scruffy teenager showing up at the front door, except now that scruffy teenager doesn’t live up the street and you probably don’t know his parents.
Nearly three-quarters of teens who go online use some kind of social-networking site like Facebook. What’s our place as parents in all this? I was talking about that with a friend of mine. She put me in touch with an Arlington mom who has two girls in middle school and is trying to find the balance between firmness and understanding.
“To be honest, I spent many an hour as a teenager on the phone with friends,” she tells me, “and I knew people who had to get second and third lines because no one could make a phone call in the house. There is that communication need that kids have.” But because social media complicates these natural urges, she’s been trying to slow things down. When her older daughter first asked for e-mail when she was eight or nine years old, she set her up on a kid-friendly site called ZooBuh! (“like e-mail with training wheels”), and created a list of acceptable correspondents. When her daughter outgrew that site, though, and demanded the “grownup” Gmail, the mother gave in.