How I Learned About Online Parenting Dangers The Hard Way
(A guest post from John LaMorte in the Online Safety Group community)
I graduated from high school in 1985. My senior year I took typing as an elective course. Everyone needs this I thought, its essential for any job. I wasn’t the fastest, I wasn’t the most accurate, and mistakes were often corrected with White Out liquid paper. That summer, the school system pulled out the type writers, and redesigned the typing rooms into a computer lab. The computer lab taught students the basics of computers, and incorporated the essentials of typing.
I knew computers, were involved in launching the Space Shuttle and things of that sort. But to me computers were more like a scientific calculator, or an Atari gaming system. I purchased my first computer in 1995. A friend advised me on this monumental purchase in my life, and assured me that the 456 megabyte hard drive would be enough to last my life time. My son found an old floppy disk the other day on my desk, and asked me if I had used a 3D printer to print out a ‘computer save button’. It’s the little comments like that, that make me feel old.
I tell you that to tell you this, I was naïve. I grew up in a world where pornography was hidden in the back room of video stores. Dirty magazines were behind the counter, and covered with paper. Parents allowed us to watch television to a certain extent, it kept us quiet, and the content wasn’t too bad. But, after 30 minutes we were ordered outside for fresh air.
I was dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming. The phone took 75 years to reach 50 million people, the radio 38 years to reach 50 million, television 14 years, and the Internet took 4 years to hit that same magic number, proof that our world is moving faster than ever before. And how appropriate that the company that is probably most associated with this ever growing information technology uses an apple with a bite missing from it as its logo. Just as Adam and Eve became enlightened by the bite of an apple, we have become enlightened by the byte of todays Apple.
The World Wide Web is so information dense that it is impossible for a human being to live their life today and absorb all that it has to offer. For all the good that this technology has to offer, increasing speed, finding directions, Googling a recipe, searching YouTube about how to change a brake pad, it also has equipped a segment of our society with the tools to create devastation. It can mask people’s intentions, and remove modesty from the user. The best comparison I’ve found is putting toothpaste back into the tube. You can’t put it all back in once it is out there. What I have also learned recently is that once you interact with it, you can’t forget it. For some users, that means innocence lost.
I recently read a book, How to Protect Kids Online, by Dax Hamman. This book showed me how to open the discussion of online predators, and online pornography with my wife, with my boys, and with my friends. I imagined all along that because I wasn’t searching for these things that predators had to offer it couldn’t infiltrate my home. I went to church on a regular basis. I played with my kids, nieces and nephews outside, participated in local youth programs like scouts, football and basketball. I thought that my family and I were protected.
My naivety was coming back.
A friend from church shared an experience where his preteen son casually hit a link on the computer and led him to an adult site. It told this boy how to create a profile to access the site. He did it all, even posted a picture of his face, he was eleven years old, and he looked it. He posted his age into his profile, and it was accepted. His father found out via email that the profile was shut down due to age restrictions, but the damage was done. That was what it took for his family to sit down and have a discussion. I found out that a day prior to hearing my friend’s story, my niece was approached online by a potential predator via her phone on a social media site. This person asked to meet her outside the home, away from her parents. Thankfully she was scared enough to tell her mother, and it ended there. That’s what it took for them to have their first discussion. She will always have trepidation when she goes online. In both incidents, innocence was lost that can’t be regained.
I used to let the kids take their electronic devices to their rooms to do homework, watch videos and play games. Computers became to my kids what the television was to me 30 years ago. I knew that I didn’t want this situation to be our family’s first discussion on this topic.
As responsible adults, we have an obligation to oversee, and place restrictions to online usage. First and foremost, we have to have the discussion with our families. We have to let our kids know what our expectations are, and how they should react. That they can come to us with questions at any time. This way we can prevent the unnecessary loss of innocence, and equip our kids to live safe, long and fruitful lives, in the same manner that our parents tried to do for us. It starts with me and my wife, to make our kids proactive instead of reactive. The real truth is that these things are out there, and I would rather me teach them, instead of leaving it to the world to do it for me.