What was the most popular Christmas gift this year for 5th graders? The Apple iPod iTouch. What is the most popular gift for 6th grade birthdays and graduations? Hands down, a “smart” cell phone. And what do they have in common that makes them so popular? The most coveted feature is the wireless internet accessibility, so that kids can surf the web, email, instant message, and play web-based games from their pocket-sized device at any WiFi hotspot (home, school, coffee shops, bookstores, etc). At first glance, it seems like a really fun toy and a great way to keep in touch with preteens who are increasingly mobile. In fact, it seems like a great safety device – a way to keep in touch, to know where kids are and what they are doing all the time, and to allow kids to call for help when needed.
But at what cost? What are the hidden costs that counter these benefits? How many parents are even aware that there are dangers in this wireless revolution? Well, let me pull back the curtain a little to show you what is really going on in the digital lives of many children and teenagers (and these are not just a few latchkey kids).
Kids today are making the leap to cyberspace mostly by themselves, without training, and without experience. 4th graders are watching R-rated and un-rated programs on their parents’ satellite television. 5th graders are surfing the internet on their cell phones or iTouches alone in their bedrooms. 6th graders are sending sext messages because they think it’s so funny. 7th graders are being awakened in the middle of the night by text messages of teen drama and are texting the night away. 8th graders are spending more time on Facebook than any other activity each week, including school. 9th graders are gambling online. 10th graders are ordering alcohol online to be delivered to the senior party they are hoping to attend. And this is all before they are able to drive a car or vote.
These behaviors may or may not be the norm everywhere, but they are certainly not at all unusual. So many kids are entering the “adult” section of the bookstore of life, ill-equipped for what’s there. And the parents who bought them the devices and pay the monthly service fees to operate those devices have no idea what they have done. They have opened Pandora’s Box for their children long before they realize what they have done. It almost happened in our home this week.
This summer, my just-turned-11-year-old son worked enough hours around the house to add to his birthday cash to buy his own Apple iPod iTouch. We were so proud of him for working so hard and choosing such a fantastic product. He listens to music that I put together from my collection for him, which has taught him about musical genres and the history of rock and pop. He does a hilarious Elvis impression and a really bad moonwalk now. He watches classic cartoons, the kind I loved as a kid, like Road Runner, the Jetsons, and the Pink Panther. He gets all kinds of strategy games and fun little applications for free or a few bucks each. It’s been a great device for an 11 year old boy who deeply appreciates it and knows how special it is, since he had to work so hard to get it.
That’s all good, until last week when my wife saw some sexuality on a game he was playing called The Sims 3. Apparently, he had unknowingly bought a Teen-rated game which included some R-rated content: specifically, one of the female characters got fresh and climbed into bed with his character. Apparently, this virtual woman was sexually attracted to my 11 year old son’s game character. Without totally freaking out, we decided to have him erase the game, and we paid him the $7 to go buy something else. And we made it clear that he needed to be more careful to check the ratings of games and get us to okay his future purchases. Problem solved.
However, after several months with his iTouch, he wanted to unleash its full gaming potential by getting us to setup the wireless internet feature. He promised that he would not surf the internet; he would only use it to play games online, check the weather, and find information for schoolwork. We trust our son, knowing him to be responsible and honest, and it seemed like a pretty logical and nice thing we could do for him. Plus, it would be a free service, since we already have a wireless network setup at the house for our laptop. No problem.
But wait. What would keep his natural, God-given curiosity from a quick peek at this or that on the internet? It may have been 27 years ago when I was 11, but I remember my curiosity in 5th grade. I was fascinated by Magnum PI’s red Ferrari 308, all things Star Wars, and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders (not necessarily in that order). Had I had wireless internet access on a device that I could hide in my pocket, I would have found little ways to peek at the fascinating things that adults seem so excited, upset, or nervous about.
It was then that I realized that a lot more was at stake in this one little decision about a gadget. I was facing Pandora’s Box. Do we connect his iTouch to the internet and get some kind of filtering software for it? And how do we handle our son’s desire to use our family laptop to surf the internet? Suddenly, I wished it was 1982.
Fortunately, I remembered that children have a strong sense of curiosity, which is actually a blessing to be embraced and nurtured. In fact, curiosity is the driving force behind learning, and every good teacher knows the power and beauty of a child’s curiosity channeled in the right direction. So, maybe it is good to allow my son to use the internet in a safe way, guided by a parent who can teach him how to navigate the dangerous waters of the virtual world. And that is not something that will happen quickly, so there is no quick decision for a simple solution.
So, after a few days of research and discussion with my wife and my sister who has kids a few years older, I came to the following conclusions: 1) There will be no wireless devices for my son that have any access to the internet, no matter the filtering capabilities (99% filtering is not enough). 2) There will be the best filtering software I can find on our home computer, and I will be sure to use it to its fullest ability. 3) Our son will be allowed to use the internet in the kitchen area only and will not be allowed to surf or search the internet without supervision.
Problem solved? For now.
There is always more to learn to keep up with the digital lives of kids. If it seems overwhelming, then get some help. Don’t take the easy road and ignore it. And don’t be in a hurry to buy that smart phone for your kids. If they need a phone to reach you, in the very unlikely case of an emergency, it’s likely that most of their friends have one on hand.
*** For more specifics on this topic, here is a document called APD Ready Set Internet Contract which helps families know how to use the internet safely. Also, I recommend the Safe Eyes internet filtering software.
P.S. If you think Microsoft Online Services are going to protect your 13 year old from internet content, you are wrong. Here is an email that my sister recently received from Microsoft upon her son’s 13th birthday…
“Dear parent or guardian:
According to the birth date provided for your child’s Microsoft online account, (your son) is now 13 years old. You are therefore no longer able to manage permissions for (your son’s) account through Account Services, and your child may create a new account without your permission. United States law requires websites and services to obtain parental permission to collect, use, or share personal information from children under 13. Because this child is now 13, you can no longer manage permission for this child for Microsoft online services. For ways you can help protect your children online, see the Online Safety Guide at http://join.msn.com/?page=features/parental&pgmarket=en-us&ST=1.”