Recent news of a known community member's arrest has got my head and heart spinning. Controversial or not, I have equal concerns about the adult in question, whose story is only known to us third-hand at this point, as I do about the 14 year-old and his parents. I am a colleague of one, and the mother of my own teenage boy. There are so many unknowns, perhaps forever, given the age of the players. My son and I have discussed this over several meals now. That's in part because we have been careful with the internet since he's been allowed access. He's also on the debate team at West and carries his own weight, if not more. In fact, it's all I can do to hold on at times.
My son is quick to remind me that 14-year-olds can legally drive, have sex and get married in many states in the U.S. What if the teenager, to take one possible explanation, is dealing with fears of coming out as gay, or is testing a gay identity and therefore surreptitiously is seeking a sexual encounter, or even advice? He also reminds me that our pediatrician all but forced us to start taking vaccinations for sexually transmitted disease – at age 11. When I protested that it was far too early, the pediatrician leveled his gaze at me and said, "You will not know when it happens."
I'd like to think we communicate well enough that I would in fact know. We waited five years. Now the topic is much more appropriate for us to discuss.
Innocent mistakes happen, like when my son's friend was searching for a video game called "Commando" and severe porn popped up with naked women bent over on motorcycles, being whipped. We need to know our kids are just one typo away from these things. We need to guide them in how to deal with it, instead of pretending it's not out there. We teach our kids not to open doors to strangers. We don't hand over the keys to our car without training and licensing. We don't drop our kids off in some major metropolis at night with no map or safety outlet.
We prepare them, we check in, we monitor this portal to the vast unknown.
I would like to think that the precautions we have worked with since his first computer access have made a difference. Besides a general lifestyle that limits hours alone on the computer, it goes something like this: As long as you live at home and I pay for the cellphone and internet, I will have passwords to everything you do. You can expect I will periodically check in, and if the history is deleted prior to that, you will lose your privileges.
Kids are savvy and they'll find workarounds. We have to be informed enough to manage this. We can't simply walk out of the room and close the door.
We also don't put ads on Craigslist without my involvement. After all, you have to sign in stating you are "over 18." When we get a response, we do not invite those strangers to our home, nor do we go to theirs. We go to a coffee shop to sell the used trading cards, or old video game, and mom goes along despite wearing the annoyingly embarrassing yoga pants. These rules didn't happen overnight; they evolved.
Apparently innocuous gaming with online players from around the world can suddenly turn with a personal question. Do you know what sites your kids visit, or if they place online ads? If not, why not? You would be surprised at how many people do not show once they know a parent is involved. It's frightening.
With access comes accountability. We need to teach our children about internet safety and the consequences of poor choices made using this readily available means of access. If it's really "too private" for mom to read, then it shouldn't be in a written form that can forever be retrieved. Use your words — the old-fashioned way — by speaking. If something feels off, it probably is. Sadly, I'm not sure kids even have a chance to develop much intuition because so much of their socialization is spent online without having to learn from body language about another person's intentions.
I'm not saying this will prevent the unwanted tide of porn and more on the internet, but perhaps it can delay it long enough for some basis of good judgment to form in the maturation process. I love and respect my strong-headed, purpose-driven son, but I also realize he is more trusting than the world deserves, and he could make decisions today that he will not make two to three years from now. It's my job to guide him as long as I can.
If we are the humane and intelligent community I have loved for decades, I am hoping we will consider this recent wrenching news to be a cautionary tale for parenting in the digital age.
Because you just never know who might be sending that text message, or on which side of the law they may be hiding.
Mary Katzke is an independent filmmaker and writer and executive director of Affinity Films in Anchorage.
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