Thursday, July 19, 2012

“Talking Back to Facebook”

Pad Kee Mao from a cart.

“Keeping it real” is an overused expression, which can rationalize just about any behavior if uttered with enough panache, or at least a straight face. But here in Portland, every few years I try to update my thinking. I’m not only bikes, sustainability, and Pad Kee Mao from a cart. 

I recently read  “Talking Back to Facebook- The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age” by James P. Steyer, a book that sparked a lively discussion in our household (albeit one without input from the kids).

The book had all sorts of ideas how to limit and monitor our kids’ media intake, likening unfocused screen time to junk food, a small amount tastes good and is fine but unchecked can lead to health problems.

Steyer’s book crystallized in my mind the danger of too much screen time  – poor social skills from using social media in place of face-to-face communication, exposure to inappropriate material, and cyber-bullying.

Previously I had been concerned about a predator contacting my kids without my knowledge, but it seems the enemy is within. The time-sapping fun of being online and the thrill of being able to get information on just about anything is the problem. For the record, none of my kids has a Facebook account.

Steyer does cite many of the amazing educational opportunities of the internet, but his writing, as the title suggests, is a cautionary tale.

I realize that if Steyer knew both my kids had unfiltered  browsers he would most likely stage an intervention and involve law enforcement. Furthermore, on weekends we are often lax about enforcing time limits or hovering nearby when the kids are online. Perhaps the coup de grace in getting me upset was Steyer’s criticism of Club Penguin (a favorite of my kids), saying it primarily taught children to be consumers and that it could be hacked so inappropriate language could be used.

How I live with myself

My feeling is that unfiltered, connected devises have more potential good than evil for my kids. Both kids enjoy Youtube, a singularly dangerous place in Steyer’s view. My daughter loves watching music videos and comedy skits and my son has been catching up on missed episodes of “America: The Story of Us.”

Generally I’m not that concerned if my kids know curse words. I tell them they can speak any way they want with their friends when no adults are around, but serious problems will arise if they bring bad language to the wrong place. I feel this has been the de facto method since time immemorial anyway. So far this strategy has held.

I do realize with an unfiltered browser my kids will see objectionable material. My parenting and life strategy is to be involved with my kids’ lives, not just in the strictly custodial sense, but in a meaningful way, where I understand their temperaments, tastes, peculiarities, media materials consumed, friends, and abiding interests. I enjoy understanding what’s going on with them on a daily basis, so when difficult things happen, whether online or off, I can offer guidance. I hope to instill in the kids that sex and violence have long-reaching consequences not usually depicted in video games or television shows.

Easier said than done, I suppose, as teenage years are always difficult and the secretive nature of exploring the forbidden. I do have the liberal parent’s dream that by giving my kids the freedom to explore the world on their own terms that such will lead to a fulfilling life. I try to lead from example, making videos, taking pictures, and using online technologies for education and creativity.

Generally, making sure the kids have plenty of offline activities is the best antidote to online worries. I know I’ve not yet faced a true challenge in our media diet, and I may have to make adjustments.

Responsibility, the ability to make good decisions for oneself, engagement with the physical world – these are where I’m placing the emphasis. Look back here in a few years to see if I’ve chucked the Xbox in the river and am living in a yurt off the grid.

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