The Internet Parent
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Monday, January 22, 2007

MySpace, Zephyr, Darwin, and You

Evolve – because your kids have...

Julia Anguin of the Wall Street Journal writes about MySpace’s Zephyr software. Although details are limited, it’s clearly an attempt to help parents know more, sense more, and keep up better with their kids’ online activities.

But why is it so hard in the first place?

Watch any kid around technology and you’re likely to get a little dizzy. The video games are a sensory onslaught, with what seems like too many controls, too many options, and so many tiny visual cues, signals, and indicators that you can hardly follow the “meta-data”, much less the main storyline.

With cell phones, kids text more than they talk. With computers, they IM with somewhere between 4 and 10 conversations going on at the same time, all while listening to music, doing their homework, and surfing the web.

It seems impossible that a human could process that much information without going into overload. The closest adult experience might be an air-traffic controller working rush-hour at JFK.

But we’re seeing an incomplete picture. It’s like watching the neurons firing in a brain scan – impossibly complex and opaque patters that look nothing like the “thoughts” that are being thunk.

The analogy is an important one, because, in a sense, when we look at the dizzying activity and sensory input of our kids, we’re not really seeing the experience. We’re seeing the external “artifacts” of the experience. Without an accompanying mental model of the experience, it looks chaotic, almost painfully so. But to a participant in the action, it all makes perfect sense. It’s very hard to “get it” until you are immersed in it. And, let’s face it, most of us can’t or won’t devote the time to become masters at the tools our kids embrace, and certainly not in the same way.

One important way to examine this “generation gap” is to realize that our kids have evolved. Human beings have been evolving outside our bodies for the past 50,000 years or so. Tools and inventions are classic “survival adaptations” – they’re just not genetic and biological. We fly in the skies, spend days or weeks on open water, even live under the earth. And we capture and kill prey of every size and speed. We can survive in any environmental niche the earth provides. So we’ve evolved externally -- “virtually” -- in our physical reality.

And now that we’ve created a virtual world, is it any surprise that this interesting capacity to evolve outside our bodies has taken yet another, perhaps weirder, turn? Our kids are evolving to embrace a collection of electronic inputs and small-motor outputs (keyboards, pointers, game controllers, cell-phone keypads) as vivid, full-blown human experiences.

These “electronic” experiences are so divorced from their
analogs in physical-reality that they're incomprehensible by those of us who have never participated. It’s not just a different language (although that’s often a major part of it). It’s a different way of being in the world. Our kids have augmented their senses and their ability to reach out into their environment in very fundamental ways. They see and feel things that we do not. They effect changes, touch the lives and realities and experience of others, in ways that we do not.

They have evolved.

Where once you could take your kids to the park and supervise them while they play, you now sit dumbly and blindly unaware of what’s REALLY going on, as you observe your kids playing on the computer, instant messaging their friends, or texting on their cell phones, the way a primatologist might observe a troupe of the mountain gorillas – or maybe a gorilla observing a group of primatologists. Imagine an anthropologist trying to comprehend a newly-discovered civilization that has a rich, astonishingly intricate language based entirely on facial expressions. They might THINK they’re getting it, but they’re not…unless they “go native”, if that’s even possible.

So you have a choice. As a parent, you can: 1) sit in the audience, 2) try to be a coach, or 3) get in the game. If it’s the first, well, have fun. I hope the story has a happy ending. If it’s either the second or the third, you need gear to augment your parental senses. And you need to train to use the gear. And you need to be unafraid of the gear, and the game. You need to evolve.

To augment your parental senses, get filtering, monitoring, and coaching software that helps manage and moderate your kids experiences. And have some experiences of your own. Engage the tools, the places, the ideas – even if juvenile and “boring” – to the extent you can.

Otherwise, you’ll just be another evolutionary dead-end, relegated to the dustbin of irrelevance.

As a parent, that would probably be bad.


  • Thank you for your article. I have been thinking about increasing monitoring of internet activities in our home. I only hesitate because there are trust issues to consider and my children are older. I want to keep them safe but I also want to be fair and reasonable. It can be difficult for parents to balance these concerns.

    By Blogger The Content Writer, at February 02, 2007 2:19 PM  

  • Hi Content Writer,
    Thanks for your comment.

    You're right - it's a difficult balancing act. How old are your kids? Still under 18? If so, I suggest that it's not a question of trust, really. It's about supervision and YOUR accountability. Think about it -- you are responsible for the behavior of your kids in public. And Internet Behavior is Public Behavior. I say this over and over because it's so important.(See my previous blog entry for more details:

    Of course, you should surely have a conversation with your kids, to encourage them to act responsibly, and to listen carefully with the goal of understand what they're doing on the Internet, and why. And in the end, remind them that it isn't about trust, it's about accountability -- yours. They can't fault you for that!

    By Blogger John Carosella, at February 12, 2007 3:08 PM  

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