Mommy, Just One More Status Update Before Bed!
These issues are getting thorny awfully fast, and I still haven’t figured out what the right, rather than legal, age is for a kid to be on Facebook. So I call the man who should have the answer: Jim Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a website that rates all kinds of youth-focused media for age appropriateness. He’s also just written a book called Talking Back to Facebook. So I ask him: Is 13 old enough to join Facebook? There’s a distinct leap in his voice, like he may have found an ally. “I don’t think so,” he says. “I personally think 15 or 16 is when kids have more judgment and can take most advantage of the positive aspects of a social-networking platform.”
Steyer believes that parents need to know, and share with their children, what happens with all those Facebook photos of kids licking their way up popsicles. A study by Microsoft Research in Cambridge found that only 9 percent of parents believed their kids’ personal information was being used by advertisers to target them. Steyer wants the other 91 percent to wake up.
“I’m a professor at Stanford,” he says, “so these are my students who start these companies, and they view human beings as data to be aggregated. I think it’s extremely important that we understand that kids are not data points — they are human beings who need to be carefully raised and protected.” To that end, Steyer is working with Congressmen Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, and Joe Barton, of Texas, who’ve sponsored legislation now working its way through Congress called Do Not Track Kids. If passed, the law would provide more-stringent measures than COPPA does to protect kids online.
If you want a reason why Steyer, Markey, and others are worried about children’s privacy, try this: Google your kid’s name. Or recall how easy it was for someone to set up a fake Facebook account in that young girl’s name.
Then again, Facebook may be the least of my worries by the time my nine-year-old is a full-fledged tween. The more I learn about kids and social media, the more I realize we parents will never really be up to speed. That’s because, with the rate of technological change now at an unprecedented gallop, the ground is constantly shifting beneath our feet. Just consider the staggering rise of texting. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of teenagers text. In 2011 they sent an average of 60 messages per day, up from 50 per day in 2009. And texting can apparently change the very nature of communication.
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.
“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.”