Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Call to Parents: Ask About Friends' Internet Access

My nine year-old daughter, Ella (not her real name), recently told me a story. Well, first she told the babysitter, who gently hinted to me that I should talk to her.

The story goes like this: A few months ago, while playing at a friend's house, the friend (also nine years old) openly and willingly searched for sex videos on her iTouch, excited to shared the results with my daughter. She showed her two videos. My daughter reported that she got an eye full, then quickly turned away, and told her friend that she didn't want to see anymore. And she rode her bike home crying, vowing to never play with that friend again.

I won't share the details of our conversation, or my concerns about how this has been affecting my daughter (and trust me, it has been affecting her). But when I asked Ella why she didn't tell me sooner, she said that she was afraid that I would tell the other girl's parents, who would tell their daughter, and consequently the other girl would bully her at school. And that, too, makes me sad.

Now, I have several questions.

For myself: How could I have been so naive?

Yes, it's certainly ironic that I write this blog about technology and its interaction with and potential harm to children and families, and yet I didn't adequately protect my daughter. I could have, should have, asked the parents about their home Internet policies - or lack thereof. I was naive to think that other parents have some barriers to Internet access for their kids, at least in the form of supervision. Lesson, unfortunately, learned.

For the young friend's parents: Where were you?

Where were you when your daughter looked up these videos in front of my daughter? And where were you when she did the same to other children (as we know she has)? What were you thinking when you handed over an iTouch to a nine year-old without, apparently, providing strict instructions as to what is appropriate to search for and share with other children?

For other parents and readers: Are you protecting your kids?

Have you thought about the fact that other children have access to personal devices - and that they know how to use them well? Do you know that other parents do, in fact, allow unfettered Internet access to their children?

Have you thought about how you will vet the family of your child's new friend before the children play together? Do you have a script to share with other parents that politely but firmly explains your views? Are you prepared to disallow the playdate if your expectations for a safe playdate won't be met?

And if you don't mind full Internet access for your kids, please have the decency and courtesy to recognize that other parents don't feel comfortable with this, and your family should look out for the interests of the children that you invite into your home.

For our community at large: Do we really know what we're getting into?

During our discussion, my babysitter shared an interesting observation with me. "I feel so sad for her," she said. "We didn't have anything like that [personal devices] when I was growing up."

My babysitter is 18 years old.

That's obviously quite young, demonstrating how quickly changes in technology are moving in on our families. Are we sure that devices for kids and wide open Internet access for all ages, whether purposeful or through negligence, is a good idea? Have we thoroughly thought through potential pitfalls? Are we sure we want to throw all of the responsibility for protecting our children directly in the laps of parents who can't always watch every move our children make?

I also wonder if any of this going to affect our children's relationships both now and as they age? Will our children have a realistic expectation of a loving sexual relationship after they've been exposed to unrealistic and fantastical videos?

As a side bar, Ella came home from a sleepover last weekend (different friend), sad because the friend kept pestering her mother to let her play an individual computer game - sending the message to my daughter that she was less interested in playing with her. The mother, thankfully, kept the child off the device until 15 minutes before the designated pickup time. As my daughter prepared to leave with me, the other child barely looked up from the computer to say goodbye to my daughter, and that hurt her feelings even more.

I feel like I'm in a daily struggle to defend my daughters' rights to be children, free from sex videos, adult music lyrics (another story), texting obsessions and from taking second place behind a video game. I want them to learn about the world in an age-appropriate way, to keep them young and innocent while they truly deserve to be so.

And yet, as much as I want to protect my daughters, I also want them to be connected with their peers and to be technologically street smart as they get older. I sometimes feel overwhelmed and unprepared by this conflict. The only thing left to do is to learn as I go along and hope that I get the balance, and the timing, right.

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