“Meet me at the site.” “Ok I’ll log on.” “Oops, gotta go. My mom’s home and she’ll kill me if she finds me online.”
These were just some of the chat messages that scrolled across the screen as I was trying to read on our family iPad. The messages were from my son’s buddies, all ten or eleven years old. This year they’ve discovered that they can chat with each other and play Minecraft together online. What they don’t yet realize is that we share computers in our family, and everyone gets to read any messages broadcast to their group of friends.
Many of my son’s friends have their own devices and ready access to the internet. Although my son feels deprived (he insists he met a first grader with an iPhone), we’re happy to be the mean parents for now. We see the value in having a basic cell phone. However, constant, possibly unsupervised, access to the internet is not something we’re ready for our eleven-year-old to have. To be fair, in conversation with more permissive parents, I’ve learned that most of them regularly check their kids’ chat logs as a condition to internet access. I’m not ready to relinquish that much freedom, but fortunately, this has not yet been an issue. In fact, I was so annoyed by the constant comment across the iPad screen that I turned off the messaging option. My son still hasn’t noticed.
Most of the chatter among my son’s friends seems innocent, annoying, and silly. However, one mother pointed out that even seemingly innocuous teasing about a crush between school friends quickly turned into torment for her daughter. Instead of being able to leave the gossip behind at school, she was hounded with messages when she was home trying to play a game on her iPad. It became clear to me from this example how quickly cyber-bullying situations might develop. And it made me realize the importance of establishing good habits, rules, and boundaries now while my children are still fairly young. We struggle to keep our kids physically safe, confident that our experience and street smarts gives us an edge in advising our children. On the internet, however, our children often know their way around better than we do. It takes a techno-savvy parent to stay ahead and steer them away from dangers they may face.
I’ve seen my kids have a wonderful time with computer technology and networking. For his birthday party last year my son had a simple plan for his party: first they’d spend half the evening playing ball hockey, and then they’d play video games after they got tired. I couldn’t picture how nine boys with their eyes glued to computer screens could be social at a party. Surprisingly, there was plenty of interaction, encouragement, and sharing. Most kids brought some sort of device on which to play, and but for those who didn’t have their own, there was lots of lending and taking turns. The boys all gathered in a group on our big sofa and watched over each other’s shoulders. And even thought they were only a few feet apart, they connected with one another on the internet so they could play together in the same games. I wish for all of my kids’ gaming and internet-based activities to be as fun and supportive as that birthday gathering.
When I was my son’s age there was a public service announcement that ran on one of our local TV stations every night. A deep, disembodied voice would say, “It’s now 10 o’clock. Parents, where are your children?” When I was allowed to stay up late enough to hear the announcement, it struck me as funny that parents would not know the location of their children. These days, however, it’s not enough to know physical location; children can leave virtual bits of themselves all over the internet, whether intentionally or not. I don’t think I’m a helicopter parent, except when it comes to online stuff. I’m still working out an age-appropriate balance between the need for privacy and my need to protect. But for now the helicopter view of my kids’ internet activities feels like the approach I want, at least while I play catch up. And I’m happy to share my computer, as long as I can read over my kids’ shoulders.