I have strong feelings about freedom of speech and expression.
Nothing makes me more viscerally angry towards a politician than when he or she starts bloviating about how Hollywood, or the media, or the internet pushes "every depravity known to humanity" on our children, and something must be done!
I'll make my own decisions on how to raise my kids, thank you very much.
And anyway, who are you to restrict my (or my fellow-citizens') access to information of any kind? "We the People" make the laws in this still-free Republic, and the free flow of information is the red blood of our healthy body politic, so don't you dare interfere with it!
Sorry. Joseph Lieberman irritates me to no end.
But I had an interesting conversation with a friend yesterday regarding the question of whether parents (not government, parents) should or should not restrict internet access for their preteen and teenage children.
What she said shocked me.
My friend's son is ten, and she and her husband have decided (for now) to place no restrictions, install no "safe search" software, enforce no limits at all on what their son can look at online. (Though they do restrict him from playing certain video games based on their ratings -- he had to return a Halo3 game recently, with tears in his eyes, which he had purchased with his own money.)
"You're saying that he can look at anything online that he wants to?" I protested. "Do you have any idea what is out there?"
Yes, she claimed, she did. She had seen some bad stuff. When searching for a "gift for grandma" she stumbled upon some very... disturbing things. (No links -- apologies to my depraved readers.)
But her plan is not one of a kind of benign neglect. Instead, my friend argues passionately, she and her husband intend to talk with their son constantly, I mean on a daily basis, about the perils and dangers and shocking things that can be found there, how he feels about them, how they feel about them, what people do and why they do it, which values we may share with them, which values we do not.
She believes that by opening up the communication channels entirely and refusing to create an "us vs. you," we-know-better attitude about the internet, her son will gradually, naturally, develop his own understanding of what to avoid, what is disgusting and depressing, what to devalue and what to value, on the internet. He will learn how to navigate this onslaught of information on his own.
She also believes that her son's sense of judgment will soon equal (or even exceed?) that of his parents.
I am impressed by the clarity of my friend's position. But I am troubled by it too.
My children are still so young that I don't have to worry about them going on Google. But I can only imagine what they will find when they do, and if they are anything like me it will stick in their minds forever (not that unlike traumatic experiences in the offline world).
Of course no one wants their children exposed to violent and sexually graphic images and writings. Every parent can appreciate the impact that this exposure might have on the mind of someone who has had fewer years to become inured to suffering (i.e. has had less time to learn how to pretend to be inured to suffering).
So what's the best approach? My friend's insistence on open access with constant communication? Or my off-the-cuff rejoinder, which was to install safe search software and keep the open communication by explaining, openly, that we don't view certain kinds of materials in "our home"?
My friend's argument is that teenagers will find access to these websites in any case (at a friend's house, at a library, or even by circumventing whatever restrictions you have on your home computer). She believes that the damage done by building walls (because your children would then have to resort to subterfuge) is worse than allowing the images to hit their eyes freely.
I agree that they will probably see it elsewhere. And I wouldn't lay a trip on my child for doing that. But I like the idea that my childen know that mom and I don't like that kind of material; that we believe it dehumanizes people; that it bothers us to have our most primal impulses of fear and revenge and domination triggered by images which bear very little relation to what we aspire to in the rest of our life. Etc. And that we feel so strongly that we don't want it in our home.
Would this make us prudes in our children's eyes? Possibly. Could I claim that mantle of prudishness and make it my own? Possibly...
The truth is, I am conflicted, thinking about it. I've never thought of myself as a prude, though I laughingly will admit that I am sensitive. There's a world of difference.
I do see my friend's point that this not-in-our-house approach might lead to defiance and subterfuge on the part of my child, if he or she then decides to look at certain materials anyway outside of our house. It would be natural that this child would not spontaneously bring up his or her reactions and feelings about those materials over dinner. We would possibly have placed limits on the conversations we could be having.
But maybe those limits are porous enough to be healthy? At least my child would feel very comfortable telling us how he or she felt frightened or upset by something a friend had watched on his cellphone that day in school. Our child would feel no trepidation about being considered silly or squeamish, or (dreaded word) prudish, because mom and dad would have already made their concern about that sort of thing very clear. But then we would make this clear anyway...
Much to think about. I'm glad I don't have to face this yet. (And so much is changing so fast, I imagine that the ground will likely be quite different in seven years time!)
I welcome comments and stories from parents with teenagers already dealing with this.
Update: Since posting this, I found out that my friend and her husband have not yet even hooked up their 10-year-old's computer (the one in his room) to the internet. So he has to use the shared computer... and ask before he uses it. So that's the current state of things, which sounds like a pretty good arrangement.
The more I ponder this I am inclined to think that talking and talking and talking (and not a safe search filter or other restrictive parenting software on my child's computer) is the right way to approach it. I think my friend is right, and my initial reaction was wrong.
Wow. Big decisions ahead, whether you look in a timeframe of days or months or years...