When I was a little kid, I was playing in the front yard with a friend after school one day when a middle aged man drove up and motioned me over to his car. He told me that he needed directions. After I had pointed him to his destination and he had left, my mom rushed out, frantic, reminding me that I was never to talk to strangers. She pointed out that, had that man been the wrong person, he could have easily pulled me into his car and driven off with me before anyone would even know what had happened.
In a way, that was motherly over-protectiveness. And in a way, she was right.
I now face a similar dilemma with my own seven-year-old son and the new version of “strangers with candy” – the internet and social media. Whether I like it or not, computers and the internet are a part of many American kids’ lives today, and realistically, keeping my son from all internet access would limit his ability to develop skills that he’ll need to thrive as he grows up in a world even more technologically advanced than ours. It would also create the ongoing conflict of “but all the other kids at school get to go on the internet.” And I’d rather have him on the internet at home and know what he’s doing online than have him do it at school or at a friend’s house where I can’t monitor what’s going on. And lastly there’s the part that I hate to admit: I often have work to do and cannot be there to occupy him every minute that he’s awake, and the computer is one of the things that keeps him engaged.
One of the kids in his first grade class actually recently got a Facebook account. I will not consider letting my son have any social media or e-mail account for several years: I don’t consider that an appropriate activity for little kids. The one that is pressing right now, though, is YouTube. My son really likes the game Minecraft, and enjoys watching videos on YouTube of others playing it. Apparently there are people who have actually figured out a way to make a living posting videos of themselves playing video games – who knew!
My son has become a big fan of a Great Britain-based Minecraft-playing gentleman in his twenties who goes by the name Stampy Longnose (or Stampy Cat). He also likes Stampy’s good friend and fellow Minecraft video creator, I-Ballistic Squid. My son has been pestering me for the past couple weeks to get him a YouTube account or his own e-mail address so that he can begin contacting Mr. Stampy. I am certain that Stampy is a fine, upstanding individual, and I greatly appreciate that he has made the conscious decision not to use profanity or other non-kid-friendly language in his videos, but just to avoid establishing any kind of precedent, I will of course not be creating any e-mail or YouTube account for my son (although I worry that Grandpa may be swayed in a moment of weakness without my hearing about it).
I imagine that every parent in every generation has thought that their culture has presented different parenting difficulties, but I do believe that today’s technology-based culture makes parenting uniquely challenging, particularly when combined with the reality of parents’ inability to spend every waking moment monitoring their kids. The guy in the van can be right there in the house, silently communicating with your kid, and all it takes is your kid’s wrong mouse click or misspelled Google search to get him there.
I have decided to make this series of blog entries about my search to find ways to keep my son safe on the internet, with the understanding that he can and will find a way to get access to the internet whether at home, school or a relative or friend’s house. Any suggestions are welcome, but please keep them luddite-friendly – I am not a techie by any stretch!