Last month, I had the privilege to attend the New York Women in Communications (@nywici) Cocktails & Conversations panel on The Future of Communications. Moderated by the group’s outgoing president and NY PR agency head Liz Kaplow, the panel featured BlogHer CEO Lisa Stone, Dana Points from Parents and American Baby and Sarah Davanzo from ad agency Sparks & Honey. The conversation ranged across a number of topics, including a survey conducted jointly by BlogHer and NYWICI on women’s attitudes toward technology, but the panel really dug into to the issue of our children’s use of technology, with varying points of view about how to manage it and whether so much tech was good or bad for child development, interpersonal relationships and future success in life.
I’m the parent of a 14 year old young man who is deeply engaged in the online gaming world and has been digitally active since he was barely out of diapers. I also have a professional background in the online safety industry; I worked at Cyber Patrol and SurfControl for 10 years (1994-2004), during which time I testified about online safety in Congress and at the FTC, represented my company at an OECD workshop in Paris, and was generally deeply involved in the discussion/debate about children’s use of the Internet. Safe to say I have strong, and I would say fairly well informed, opinions about children’s use of technology. None of which I try to impose on anyone but happy to share.
How much is too much? What is too much? Are we spending too much time in front of the screen? To the detriment of our personal relationships?
This is tricky, because how you answer depends on how you value your relationships, and specifically the differentiation you apply to online versus offline friends. As a society, we still tend to place more value on the people we know in the physical world, our “real life” friends, but why? Why is someone you’ve shaken the physical hand of inherently more valuable as a friend merely because you have been geographically co-located? The long tail when applied to personal relationships implies that we are now able to “meet” people “like us” from all over the world. Are these people any less our friends?
This has become a very robust and long lasting online conversation. Our rule at home is that Doug needs to spend some time every day with the family, and I regularly plan offline activities for us including day trips to NYC and other local attractions, but his online friends are just as much his friends as anyone he might meet in “meat space.” I feel the same way about quite a few friends that I have never actually met in person, but have been chatting with online for 10 years or more.
For some people, the safety of online is what permits friendships to develop, and not just when it comes to online dating. For folks who are even remotely socially awkward or uncomfortable in social situations, online is a safe haven for trying on personas and navigating the white water of developing friendships. For that alone, gaming is a gift. I firmly believe that the demands of these environments, including the need to understand the rules and social mores within the game, help kids develop many necessary social and coping skills. Far from preventing development, games foster it.
What about porn?
What about it? Seriously, there is a ton of bad shit on the Internet, and as parents we do want to protect our kids from inadvertently accessing inappropriate material, at home and at school.
There are two lines of defense. Teach your children well is first and foremost. Your good relationship with your child, and mutual trust, is probably the best parenting tool we have in general. As a secondary safeguard, especially when your kids are young, there is no harm in using filtering software to block inappropriate content. Just know that even if it could find and block all the “bad” web content, it can’t protect your child from everything. Cyberbullying and sexting don’t have URLs that a filter can block. Teaching your child to recognize, avoid, handle and report these sorts of things is best defense. As an aside, know that while there are online predators who lure children in chat rooms and so forth, I firmly believe the bigger danger is bullying and bad behavior from the people we know, not the bogeyman under the bed.
Two other tips. Keep the Internet connected machines in family rooms, not in children’s bedrooms, and most important, be genuinely interested in what your kids do online. Even if it is not your cup of tea. The best thing that can happen to you is your kid WANTS to show you the mod he created for his game or the dumb thing he found on a video sharing site. Don’t squander that opportunity.
I’m not. This July 12 and 13, I will be spending the weekend with Doug at MineOrama in New York City. The minute he heard about the convention, he wanted to go so he could meet other Minecraft enthusiasts in person. I *have* to attend because he is less than 16 years old, so I can’t just drop and go, but I am actually looking forward to the opportunity to spend time with him in his world. It’ll be fun, and you can be sure I will tell you all about it.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my first exposure to Minecraft about three and a half years ago. My son was playing on his laptop and I was working at my desk when I heard this song emerging from his speakers. I thought for the life of me they were singing “Digging the whores. Diggy diggy whores.” Needless to say I was a little freaked out. Turns out it was “holes, Mom, holes.”