Don’t Panic if Your Kids Encounter Internet Porn

A column about life, culture, and politics.
May 16 2012 1:54 PM

Parent Traps

Don’t monitor your kids’ Web surfing.

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I do wonder though if my own original instinct toward giving my almost 9-year-old freedom is a self-justifying one. Am I just rationalizing the pragmatic realities of my own household? There is no way that as a single mother, with basically three jobs and a 2-year-old, that I can monitor the almost 9-year-old all the time, even if I wanted to or thought it was a good idea.

boyd points out that the expectation of constantly monitoring children and teenagers on the Internet is an upper-middle-class one. Even the ideal itself represents an impossible luxury for most people: Who has time to stand over the shoulder of your kids while they are on the Web? But even if we could monitor them so constantly, would it be a good thing? Are they doing something valuable with their avatars or profiles; is there something to be learned about the world by hanging out?

boyd argues that children’s freedom to roam in the physical world has been radically curtailed. While previous generations could ride bikes or walk to school or play outside unsupervised till dinner time, this generation is watched all the time. They have lost that thrill of being on their own until they are much older, and boyd suggests that for them, the Internet can provide that open space, to test and explore and try out the outside world. She points to the educational value of hanging out: a lot of the work kids do is apprehending the social world, and for them, much of this work is done online.  

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The important thing, boyd points out, is to give the kid the ability to handle choices, assess risks, and take what she calls “strategic” risks, or calculated risks. You want, in other words, to create the kid who can handle the Internet without you. And how can they become that kid if you are watching them all the time, if you are always hovering right there next to them? She says, “You don't just throw a 5-year-old out on the streets and tell her to figure it all out. The same is true online. But, equivalently, you can't expect to put under surveillance and control every action a child makes until she's 18 and then magically assume she'll be fine off at college when she hasn't had any experience managing her own decisions.”

The point, according to boyd, is not to create a safe world, but a safer world. Of course this is very fraught emotional territory, since it engages with the crucial and impossible fantasy that we can protect our children, that there is some way to seal them off from awful or painful or frightening things. Here I think of a line from one of boyd’s papers: “Our fears are amplified when they intersect with our insecurities and challenge our ability to be in control. Nowhere is this more palpable than when it comes a parent’s desire to protect their children.”

As a coda: My almost 9-year-old, when I finally get around to glimpsing what she is doing, is Googling pictures of Harry Potter characters. Of course one never knows what some rogue Hermione is doing in the corridors of some rogue Hogwarts somewhere in the recesses of the Internet, but I have decided (thank you, danah) not to morally panic.