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?

In Alone Together, Turkle argues that our constant, superficial, pinprick ­connections leave us overwhelmed, depleted, and, above all, lonely. So much of this texting, Turkle tells me, is a mindless attempt “to fill this moment: ‘I’m so anxious, I need to be with somebody. I’m so anxious, I need to feel plugged in.’ If we don’t teach our children how to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely.”

Turkle thinks this problem is most disturbing when it comes to parents’ distracted interactions with their kids — when, for instance, they text at the playground. I confess to her that, after our third baby was born, I bought an iPad so I could check e-mail while I nursed her. “She’s two now,” I say, somewhat guiltily, “and yesterday morning, as I was sitting on the couch scrolling through e-mail, her small voice rose up and she yelled, ‘Mama, close computer!’”

There’s a brief silence before Turkle says, “I think kids are very upset. I think they grow up never feeling as if they have their parents’ full attention. They talk a lot about it to me. It’s not good.”

Clearly it’s time for me to get my act together. But the deeper I go into this stuff, the more issues crop up. Really, where do you start? One mother I met was an “absolute wreck” years ago when her oldest daughter went on MySpace. The key to maintaining her sanity, she tells me, has been keeping her kids close when they’re on the computer. Her youngest daughter, who’s now 16, experienced some bullying on- and offline during middle school and ended up finding her social niche online, in a community of writers. Each night, members of all ages from all locations log on and do timed writing assignments, then share their work for feedback. The girl’s interacting with strangers, some much older than she is, but, her mother says, “She’s always sitting in the living room with us while we’re watching TV, and she’ll look up every once and a while and say, ‘Oh, we’re writing this’ or ‘we’re writing that.’ If she brings up anything about anyone in the group that raises a red flag, then we’ll talk about it.”

 

This reminded me of something Michael Rich had said in his office at Children’s Hospital: “The best hardware you have to protect your child is your dining room table. Don’t let them have a computer in their room. Let them use it in a public space.”

But the dining room table doesn’t do much good once the kid has access to a cell phone. The mother who told me the popsicle-licking story has four sons and says she and her husband put every parental block and filter you’ve ever heard of on the computers and kept them in a central area. But last year on Christmas Eve, she was trying to get her family ready for a trip, rushing around packing and intermittently yelling at her 14-year-old to get out of the bathroom because he had to pack. She also couldn’t find her phone.

“Then I went by the bathroom and it just hit me,” she says. “I thought, He’s in there with my phone. Suddenly I connected it. I started knocking on the door, yelling, ‘Get out!’” The boy confessed to his father that, unable to access pornography on his computer, he’d figured out his own clever work-around: For months, he’d been locking himself in the bathroom with his mother’s cell phone.

Most teens, particularly boys, start to seek out pornography at some point; their natural curiosity about sex just kicks in. But what about the kid, say, a sweet nine-year-old boy, who happens on to graphic images without meaning to?

To find out, I call Janis Wolak at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “We do find that for the kids who stumble upon it accidentally at age 10 or 11, it can be upsetting,” Wolak tells me. “They’re less likely to seek it out, and when they actually see something it can be shocking and disturbing.”

When it comes to preparing kids for the fact that they could bump into adult material on the Web, Wolak says parents need to be honest with their children: “Sometimes you may see websites that are really for adults — they might involve adults doing things that are sexual or adults that don’t have clothes on. And if you come across those kinds of sites, please come talk to us.”

Not an easy talk to have with a nine-year-old, but nothing compared with what Wolak recommends when your son hits 15 or 16. That’s when she says parents really need to have “the talk” about porn. They need to be straightforward about the family’s values around the subject, whatever those values may be. Too often, though, teens tell her, “My parents never talked to me about this, especially pornography.”

Things aren’t all bad, though, Wolak assures me. She says that most of what the media reports about sexting, online sexual predators, and even online sexual solicitations is vastly overblown. Actual rates of sexting, for instance, hover around one percent, she says. And she tells me that if you look at the data across all the social-problem indicators among teenagers, there’s mainly good news. Substance abuse, teen pregnancy, the onset of sexual activity and number of partners, suicide — every risk factor you can think of besides obesity is down.

  • Cathleen Huckaby

    Masterfully written, well-researched, and chock-full of WISDOM every parent should read before the rabbit hole experiences begin!
    I was captivated by Ms. Ozmets own foray into this uncharted land of Internet/Porn, and very grateful for each nugget of advise by sage experts!
    I plan to email/facebook, and who know what else this article far and wide to every grand/parent I know…
    Kudos for such a stellar article.

  • http://www.handsfreemama.com Hands Free Mama

    This is one of the best articles I have ever read on the topic of mindful parenting in the digital age. I appreciate your openness, honesty, and willingness to put this information out there in a straight-forward fashion. The sources you used for the article bring a new level of awareness and knowledge to parents navigating this unfamiliar world. I, too, have a 9 year old who is savvy on the web. I have been quite involved with her online activity, which so far has been related to lesson planning and website creation for the summer school she holds for several young neighborhood children. However, your article has alarmed me in a good way … in a proactive manner … and I will be communicating to her more of the dangers of online activity and being more involved in her online research practices. Thank you so much.

  • http://flight-attendant-training.com/ Samantha Jacobs

    very insightful and full of nuggets of wisdom. what i see is a mom seriously wanting to raise loving and responsible children. as a parent, you’d really just want your kids to pick up the positives, protect them as much as you can from influences that you deem are not good for them. but up to what point? when they go out of the house they’re exposed to all sorts of things, good and bad. you just have to trust that you’re bringing them up well to make the right choices even at a young age. and trust that they will listen to you most of the time.