The Internet Parent
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Friday, September 08, 2006

Unmaking a mistake

Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune posted a column (registration required) entitled "Time to reboot a parenting plan that backfired". Eric made the mistake of putting a computer in the bedroom of his 16-year-old son. Oops. Grades slipped. Behavior changed. Isolation and distance increased.

What to do?

Well, Eric, you have found yourself in one of the classic Internet Parenting dilemmas. We're all struggling with this kind of problem. You close your column with reluctance to "succumb to using adversarial Internet-filtering and monitoring technology that he's probably smart enough to circumvent anyway..."

Let's start with some basic observations:
  • The entire range of human behavior, from the most inspired and noble, to the most depraved and dispicable, is available on the Internet.
  • Internet behavior is Public behavior. Anything you say and do on the Internet (and anywhere you go, for that matter) needs to be considered something you are doing in public.
  • The Internet is forever. Anything you say and do, and anywhere you go, can inconveniently become part of the endlessly swirling and loosely controlled "public record".
Now, think about your relationship with your son. What is your job? What is any parent's job? Let's split it into two pieces:
  • Teach your kids to make good judgements, be responsible for their actions, do what's right.
  • Provide a safe environment for them to learn to do that.
How do you do these two things? A variety of ways, including supervision, conversation, rules and limits, etc., etc.

Let's look at these two sets of observations together and see where it leads.

One part of fulfilling your job as a parent is to supervise your son, so you can "teach and coach" good decision making, and so you can "block and redirect" to keep him safe should he careen towards an abyss. Less and less as he gets older for sure, but certainly, when the stakes are high and he's treading into unfamiliar territory.

Would you agree that at least some part of THE ENTIRE RANGE OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR qualifies as unfamiliar (and high-risk) territory? OK, then that means you need to be supervising your son while he's on the 'net.

How about public behavior? You expect your son should know how to behave in public by now, right? OK, but what if he doesn't realize he's in public? Would you make it your job to alert him to that fact, and help him adjust his behavior accordingly? Internet behavior is public behavior. Anything you do on the Internet is something you are doing in public. Yet, contrast that with the "experience" that you are doing it in the privacy of your home (or in your son's case, behind the closed door of his bedroom) and you'll see why kids don't get it. This devilish paradox is probably the most important epiphany you and your child need to reach.

And, as a "public record", the Internet is equally misleading. Your son and his peers have no doubt indulged themselves in MySpace or Xanga or other social networking sites. Here's the thing -- they don't think that's "public" or permanent. What have they posted? Is it something they would want a prospective employer to see? MySpace is a misnomer. MyBillboard is more like it. Or, perhaps, more honestly, "My-File-Of-Youthful-Indescretions-And-Juvenile-Behavior-

If the world had a permanent public record of what your son was "into" five years ago, would he want it on display somewhere, searchable and indexed for easy access?

You, as a parent, have a long history of managing your son's public behavior, and he has a long history of acknowledging your right to do so. Use that NOW. The Internet is not "just for cool, teenage friends of mine". It's used by everybody -- friend, creep, teacher, suit. It's the biggest public square ever to exist. Is what he's doing something you and he would be happy for the world to see? For the neighbors to see? For his college admissions board to see?

The bottom line is -- you are well within your rights, and frankly, I'd suggest obligated by your responsibilities, as a parent to introduce supervision into your son's Internet experience. And if you can't do it by standing over his shoulder (even while the computer is no longer in his room), you'll have to get some software to help. It's not "Spying". It's "Supervising" and "Coaching".

It's also your job.


  • Thank you!
    It is true that many parents do not know what is going on... but to me, the most alarming trend is found in the group of parents that DO know, and think they can't or shouldn't exercise any control. They confuse parental guardianship with governmental censorship, and lose sight of their responsibility to provide safety for their children while they are immature.
    Bravo to you for helping to clarify the issue.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at November 28, 2006 11:39 AM  

  • Thanks. I'm frustrated, too, with parents who feel they're over-stepping their bounds. We seem to have ceded control to our kids at precisely the time when we've introduced a technology that makes them most vulnerable.

    It's confusing and frustrating. The best we can do is raise the issue and keep educating our peers.

    By Blogger John Carosella, at November 29, 2006 6:53 PM  

  • Wise words of wisdom John, more relevant than ever 4 years after you wrote them!!! I have 2 sons, one nearly a teenager, and what is available to kids & teens on the net really scares me. We need to be so vigilant and as you say, steer them in the right direction with a firm hand. Some of my son's friends seem to have free reign on computers & X-boxes and what really worries me is that I have no control over what he sees and watches when he goes to his friends' houses.

    By Anonymous Bron, at August 19, 2010 4:33 PM  

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