I've been thinking about filtering a lot lately. Much of that thought has been spurred by watching my kids--especially my older son--exploring social software. He's blogging now, and is reading my blog as well. He's an IM wizard, enthusiastically working with far more open conversation windows than I can manage without my brain overheating. He hangs out in Neopets, and signs online petitions to allow fan sites to post Neopet photos. He does all this wirelessly from the hand-me-down Powerbook G3 that he got for his birthday this year.
All good things, in theory. What's not to like for a parent who's as much of an Internet and social software geek as I am? Well...plenty.
Let's start with the blog. The benefits of his blogging have ben multi-fold and inspiring--it spurred him to write enthusiastically and in detail about our trip to Asia, it made him aware that he had a platform from which he could explore not just his experiences but also his questions and frustrations (like book censorship, for example), it made his teacher (and his classmates, and their parents) aware of the power of student-generated content generally, and blogs specifically.
But with blog readership comes the inevitable blog spam. After the first few "enlargement" comments, I installed mt-blacklist, which helps a lot. But that's a short-term solution, since the ingenuity of spammers tends to outpace the rate of solution provision. The new MT comment registration service may help more...we'll see.
But what's more challenging are the oh-so-difficult questions of public vs private information online. For example, I know not to put my home phone number and address on my blog. But he and his friends haven't yet developed those instinctive filters for personal information--and on several occasions, I've found our home number, along with those of his friends, in a blog posting. I quickly edited that out on the blogs I control--but it left me more than a little unnerved.
Recently, he and his friends discovered BlogSpot, and decided to set up a group blog to complain about every child's favorite problem--their parents. Anyone with kids knows that good parenting isn't always popular parenting, but that doesn't make it any less painful to see one's children publicly reviling you for what they see as unfair and hurtful actions.
So we had a talk. He reads my blog, and complains (with reason, I think) if I talk too much about him. There are purists who would argue that if I were a real writer, I wouldn't allow his reactions (or anyone else's) to change what I write. But I do think about my audience when I write, and I think about how what I write will affect them and my relationship with them--now, and in the future. And I want him to do the same. "How do you think it makes me feel when you write mostly about what you think is wrong with me?" I asked him. I don't begrudge him his feelings, or his right to an outlet. But I do want him to understand that publicly expressing those feelings can and will have an effect on the people who read them. It was a good talk, a valuable talk. But it remains to be seen to what extent it changes his use of this exhilarating medium--and it also remains to be seen if my husband and I will continue to encourage this level of freedom of expression if we see it as putting him or his friends at risk.
And while we're on the topic of risk, there's that pesky IM thing. I walked into the room where he was typing the other day, and he quickly closed the IM window. My parental radar kicked in immediately. "Who were you talking to?" I asked. "Just a friend," he answered, intentionally vague. We eyed each other. I told him I really needed to know who it was, but that I didn't have to see what was being written. . "Was it someone I know?" "No." "Who was it?" "He's a kid that T (a neighborhood friend) met online. He's 13."
WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! (That's the sound of the all-hands-on-deck alarm that went off in my head.)
"We had a deal," I said. "IM only with people you already know in person, and not with anyone Dad or I haven't approved to put on your buddy list."
He protested, telling me that he could tell this was a nice kid, that he was smart enough not to reveal any personal information via IM, that obviously I didn't trust him or think he was smart. To no avail in this case--I'm not willing to budge on this rule, and I made that clear. But I'm deeply concerned--we had the rule in place, and he broke it. How do I know it won't happen again?
So I'm caught. On the one hand, I want to encourage his exploration and use of online media and interaction. On the other, he's right--I don't trust him not to make potentially dangerous mistakes. It's not that I don't think he's smart, or savvy, or listening to my warnings. What he doesn't understand--what he can't understand--is how easy it is to be fooled, to be taken in, to be taken advantage of. Especially when you're honest to a fault, as he is--because it's that much harder to really understand just how dangerous and dishonest so many people "out there" can be.
(As an example of how this honesty plays out, here's what happened after we found out the boys had been visiting "NSFW" sites on one of our computers--via a phone call from one of their friends' parents. I had a serious talk with them about appropriate use of the computers, and the risk of lost privileges. I told them that the computer recorded all the sites they went to, and that I'd be checking that on a regular basis. A day or two later, while I was at work, they came rushing downstairs to talk to Dad. "We accidentally ended up on a page that had grownup stuff on it, but it's okay. We left the site, and we erased it from the history of the browser so that mom wouldn't get upset!" He didn't know whether to be delighted at their honesty or dismayed at their obvious mastery of the technology.)
This isn't a new problem for parents. We all struggle with the "stranger danger" issues these days--how do we keep our kids from being paralyzed with fear at the sight of a stranger while still keeping them safe from the very really harm that lurks around too many corners? I don't have answers right now, just questions, and concerns.
For the time being, I'm continuing to err on the side of access, with a healthy dose of oversight and communication. But I'm also hoping that better solutions for children's use of technology begin to emerge. A kids' IM client that I can configure in terms of access, for example. An easy to install and configure weblog client that lets me approve posts before they go live. Varying levels of access that i can allow or remove, depending on each child's activities and maturity. I wish I saw more work happening in this space, though I understand that COPPA makes it difficult.