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?
“What a relief,” I think as I hang up the phone. I’ll just download some filtering software on my son’s computer and make a point to add the Porn Talk to my growing to-do list. “At least I don’t have to worry about him actively seeking it out on the Internet for a few more years,” I tell myself.
Then, later that week, I’m standing with another mother at a Little League game when she tells me about some kids who were Googling “naked ladies” at a recent sleepover. When I ask her what grade they were in, she says, with a frozen smile: “First and third.”
That conversation rattled me, but I’m determined to stay strong. I will enact the strategies that I can to guide and protect my children (and keep them far from those kids with the “naked ladies” fixation). But then I call an Arlington father with an 18-year-old son. He speaks in the casual amble of a parent who is nearing the empty nest. He tells me his son has always been a good student, and that there have never been any major problems with his Internet use.
And yet, toward the end of our conversation, he adds that his son doesn’t have much of a life outside the one he has on his computer. He doesn’t have a driver’s license and, aside from the occasional “DVD marathon” at a buddy’s house, he doesn’t get together much with friends. “Compared to my teenage years,” the father says, sounding nostalgic, “these kids are slower to gain independence. I mean, he goes out occasionally with friends, but not as much as I did.”
I know it’s not an extreme story of Internet trauma, but to me it was starting to feel like the most cautionary tale of all.
He went on: “A lot of my son’s online experience before he was really into Facebook started with multiplayer gaming in middle school. He started spending a lot of time not just playing the game, but also chatting with people he knew through the game.”
I thought about my own son and his newfound love of a fantasy game called Wizard101, which we allow him to play on weekends. Will he one day blow off getting a driver’s license because his friends live beside him on a screen in his bedroom? The prospect scared me. At the same time, the Internet and social media aren’t going away, and there are surely rewards to find there. How could I steer him through the morass?
“First of all,” Michael Rich had told me back in his office, “you swallow your pride and you sit down and you play the stupid video games with them.” That creates openness, and the parent can more easily engage the child in actively thinking about what he’s doing online. “When a kid is busy telling you how to negotiate this environment where you kill zombies, what that does is it allows you to say, ‘Explain to me why killing zombies is fun.’ So you can bring the executive functioning stuff in,” he said. “It’s also nice for you to show your vulnerability because they’re running rings around you in whatever the game is.”
I’d been resisting Rich’s advice, not just because I don’t have any interest in playing Wizard101, but also because my son is only nine, and I’d been thinking I still had time.
And then one recent afternoon, my son is playing the game while I’m tidying up the kitchen and I ask him to turn off the computer.
“I can’t right now,” he says. “My friend John wants me to help him.”
“Who’s John?” I ask, my antenna going up.
“Just one of my friends,” he says.
“Where does he live?”
“I have no idea,” he says, as if it is the most natural thing in the world, which to him, of course, it is.
There isn’t any more time, I realize. It has all already begun. And so I ask him to introduce me to John.
“What?” he says, looking surprised at first, then melting into an easy smile as I pull up a chair beside him.
“I want to meet your friend,” I say, leaning in close. “Show me how to play.”