June 2, 2005
The Digital Lives of Kids: What Parents Need to Know
Chapter 1: A Real, Live IM Chat
Have you noticed more and more lately that your child is engrossed in a constant, beeping dialogue with her computer? Does she brag about a buddy list with hundreds of names, most of which you've never heard before? Does she protectively minimize or shield the screen any time you walk by or quickly type in POS (parent over shoulder)? If you're wondering what all the secrecy is about, come join me in an instant message -- I mean, IM -- conversation with my 14-year-old daughter, Emma.
drmogel: Sup, Em? [Translation: What's up, Emma?]
iluvjohnnyD: NO!!! uh, mom, u DON'T put capital letters for names or places...that's just so...loser-ish. u can do all-caps to make a point, but otherwise, just don't.
Note her tone of superiority and impatience. Although this tone is not unfamiliar, it is not her characteristic style of communication with me. It is, I will soon learn, the emboldened attitude of instant message interactions.
iluvjohnnyD: try again
drmogel: sup em?
I know that nmu ["nothing much, you?"] follows 'sup' as Exodus follows Genesis.
iluvjohnnyD: NO!!!! why would u ask me how i was when u just said "sup"? that's repetitive. u want to just say "nm"
I thought cyberspace was as unrestricted as the Wild West, but there are, apparently, many conventions -- strict ones at that -- that govern communication here.
drmogel: hey em what should parents know about their kids im life?
iluvjohnnyD: it's IM, mom. it's the best way to keep in touch with ppl [people] and it's a better babysitter than the TV.
drmogel: what about kids saying mean things about other kids?
IluvjohnnyD: u have to accept that when u are online people are talking about u behind ur back but we don't mainly use the internet to dis people.
drmogel: Judaism teaches us about the dangers of gossip. remember the story of the pillow and the feathers, isn't IM'ing a gigantic duvet?
iluvjohnnyD: idk [I don't know]. what are u talking about?? all that money towards religious school and i'm still lost.
drmogel: LASHON HARA! The evil tongue. It's the story of a boy who loved to gossip. The rabbi asked him to bring his pillow to the top of the mountain, cut it open and let the feathers fly in the wind. Then the rabbi said, "Now gather all the feathers and put them back in the pillow. When the boy cried out, "But I won't be able to find them!" the rabbi said, "It's the same with gossip. You can never take back your words."
iluvjohnnyD: whatever. mom, teenagers are supposed to gossip. it's our job!
drmogel: tell the readers about making connections with friends you meet at a bar mitzvah. that seems cool.
iluvjohnnyD: hahaha u have no right to say *that seems cool* ur 53. and about the bar mitzvahs? I LOVE being able to instantly [hence the title 'INSTANT message'] IM someone who lives far away. For example at ben's bar mitzvah in Indianapolis I met some kids and five minutes after I got home I was asking them if it was still snowing there. It's nice to be able to have such an easy connection to someone less accessible than a next-door neighbor.
drmogel: talk to parents worried about cyberpredators.
iluvjohnnyD: all right, Parents Worried About Cyberpredators...PWAC! here's what happens...ur innocent little 11 year old sarah wants a boyfriend (gasp) and so she starts talking to some hairy 47-year-old she met in the SoccerFanz chat room or whatever...but he says his name is ryan and he is blonde and cute and has a six pack ... pulls her in, right? just WARN HER not to do this. and NEVER to make plans to meet people. it's just stupid.
drmogel: what about the buddy list names popping up when you are supposed to be doing homework?
iluvjohnnyD: hehe.... um ... then u stop doing ur homework for a minute.... idk some kids can control it. some get too involved.
drmogel: doesn't it interrupt your concentration?
iluvjohnnyD: yes. too bad. g2g [got to go].
Chapter 2: Why You Should Not Worry
Talking to strangers, being rude to friends and family, wasting acres of time, eschewing capitalization and proper punctuation. Why let your child do this?
Because these kids spend long hours in school and in adult-supervised after- school activities. Because they work hard, possibly harder than any kids in history. Because they are generally polite to adults and are required to follow a lot of rules all day long, every day. And because the new SAT requires a tightly written five-paragraph essay: intro, three deft points and a snappy wrap-up.
Our children's lives are not like ours were. They're not free to hang out at the corner drugstore or on the stoop or in a vacant lot. They have little privacy or downtime. They are scrutinized, measured and cloistered. But teenagers need to communicate and connect and express themselves freely. They need privacy and risk. They even need to make a few cheap mistakes before they go off to college. The Internet and instant messages provide rich opportunities for them to do all these things.
If you're curious about the content of these messages and Web sites, go to LiveJournal.com, a Web log (blog) so popular that it currently has more than 2.5 million active users and gets 23,000 postings an hour. It is mostly popular with teenage girls, and yes, it features plenty of sad, provocative communities (been_abused, 2sexy4u). But if you leave your prejudices at the door you can find a world unique, unifying and thrilling in its diversity.
Try it. Be a cultural anthropologist. Type the word Jewish in the "interest" box on the LiveJournal home page and you will get a list of 195 communities. Most are lively and challenging; some are wacky. For example:
Japs and We Love It!
Chk4Life (Camp Hess Kramer alums)
In our paranoid, fragmented world we all need community. In our wildly competitive, nervous world we need to express ourselves. Online communities are one way to belong. And IMing is an opportunity for warm, casual connection with friends from camp, a boy you met at a dance or even your parent in the next room.
Chapter 3: Why You Should Worry.
Still want to worry some? Here's what you should worry about.
1. Distraction. Note how Emma equivocated above when I asked her about IMing during homework. (IluvjohnnyD: hehe....um... then you stop doing your homework for a minute...) The primary danger to young teens online is not cyberpredators, although lonely, socially isolated kids are at risk. The greatest hazard is that your child won't finish her homework in a timely fashion.
Although our children may be masters of multitasking, the steady blip, blip, blip (hey em, sup?) of instant messages from pinacolada15 or mybootay or any of the other friends and acquaintances on their buddy lists may be far more alluring than completing a book report. These interruptions can create pseudo-attention deficit disorder even in children not predisposed to it. So consider you own child's disposition and decide how much he or she can handle. Some kids can work with music and phone calls and the intrusion of instant messages, and others can't. You provide the parameters.
2. Catching a virus. When they download music, they get viruses. Even if they tell you they know for sure the source is safe, it isn't. If the family computers are plagued by viruses, a likely culprit is Kazaa (or another free music file-sharing service). You may need to institute appropriate consequences.
3. Overexposure to inappropriate images. These sexual, violent or hateful images can never be erased from the hard drive of your child's mind. The adolescent prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, which means that their judgment is not yet as discriminating as yours. Even if they can convincingly argue that they're mature enough to monitor themselves or to handle anything they see, don't believe them.
Cyberfreedom is a privilege, not an entitlement. You would not let your kids drive without a license, so even though I'm advocating online freedom and even some risk, it needs to be titrated in doses appropriate to your child's demonstrated level of maturity and good judgment in other areas. Does he meet his homework and test preparation obligations independently, without your prompting him? Is she responsible about her about health, hygiene and chores? What do his teachers say about him? Are your children respectful to adults and compassionate toward their peers?
Listen to your gut. How would your 13-year-old react to a pornographic image or to footage of an Islamic terrorist beheading a hostage? Everything is accessible on the Web. So until your children are ready to roam freely, use a filter even if they tell you that no one else's parents do and that they absolutely cannot do their homework without unfettered access to the Internet.
4. Cyberaddiction. There is no question that cruising the Internet and chatting endlessly to one's buddies can become addictive to some kids. Without adult intervention, some (not all) children may neglect other activities that are generally considered to be useful to the well-rounded human being -- for example, reading for pleasure, playing outdoors and visiting with friends in person. If your child spends two hours a day at the computer on non-homework-related pursuits, that may be too much. If he has a computer in his room you'll have to make regular check-ins to assess this.
Chapter 4: Educate Thyself
Everyone loves to scare parents about the dangers of the Internet. It's juicy newspaper copy. But as with so many aspects of parenting, there is no clear-cut way to navigate the hazards. If we say yes to everything, we risk putting our children in harm's way. If we say no, we risk depriving them.
The real danger of the Internet lies not in what's available out there, but in being uninformed. Educate yourself, so when your child says she's ready for access, you can allow it -- while still maintaining some oversight. And don't forget to ask her to show you her favorite sites. I am a great fan of homestarrunner.com, introduced to me by my daughters. You may learn things about her and our planet that will entertain you, educate and impress you. In the words of the late Lubovitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, "Do not fear the Internet, it will knit the world together."