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.