When my two youngest children decided they were ready to embrace the internet experience like their older siblings and friends, I panicked. Even a 53-year-old seasoned parent like me gets panicky sometimes. So I said no, which was of course totally thoughtless and unoriginal, especially to a 12-year-old. But I said it to buy time.
Recently, my daughter’s classmate came to school with an announcement. She was getting an iPhone because she had proven she was old enough to handle it. “My dad said if I can fast the whole day on Yom Kippur like an adult, then I can have an iPhone like an adult. So I did and he added me on to his plan.”
My daughter laughed this off. “My parents won’t let me have a phone until I can pay for it myself,” she responded to her friend. But I knew precisely what was going through her head. That she was a social outcast whose parents were totally out of touch with trends, with what mattered to an adolescent girl. Having a phone was a rite of passage, akin to that first date or first kiss, and one that every single girl in my daughter’s class had. Every child had some type of connectivity. My daughter felt like a misfit.
As much as I wanted to scream out, “Nyah Nyah Nyah, my daughter is getting a tablet with a keyboard for her bat mitzvah,” I stood silent and kept my stance. My husband and I were steadfast about the internet. We didn’t think our kids had the maturity to navigate the insidious ins and outs of the world wide web. Like gambling or gaming, the internet has an addictive quality. All too often I had seen potentially catastrophic incidents that could have been prevented had a smart phone or iPod not been involved.
I saw it too often as a teacher, too. One year, during his parents’ custody battle, an eighth grader contacted his mother on his iPod—an innocent gesture. But his action violated her court order and put her into a precarious position. Then there was a fifth grader with an Instagram profile. Innocent enough, right? You post photos and people leave comments. Except one of the comments on her photos came from an adult male trying to arrange a get-together.
Then the the Slender Man story surfaced. He’s a modern-day digital boogeyman, the kind you might imagine hiding in your closet or under the basement stairs. But he’s fictional, and most who follow the tales that include him, know that. Except perhaps, impressionable kids, who attempted to murder another classmate to prove their loyalty to him.
After reading about the Slender Man story, I freaked. I gathered my two youngest babies together and practically interrogated them. “Who is Slender Man? What do you know of Slender Man? Do you think that he’s real? Do you know the difference between fantasy and reality?”
I was a lunatic and I could see the look in my kids’ faces. They were annoyed but they felt pity for me, too. Obviously the day-to-day stress of parenting was taking its toll.
My 12-year-old daughter tried to console me. “Don’t worry mom. We don’t know who Slender Man is. And even if we did, we wouldn’t get involved in that stuff.” Then, ever so subtly, she redirected the conversation to more immediate concerns. “Does this mean I’m never getting an iPod or tablet?”
Unlike other media forms, the internet blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Since anyone with an IP address and a browser can post online, facts are blurred by opinions, stories can obscure the truth, and unless you have the skills to weed out garbage from credible sources, it can be hard to discern truth from fiction. It is this blurred sense of reality that led two 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin to believe Slender Man was real.
The job of a parent isn’t to be a child’s best friend. It’s not a parent’s job to give a child what he wants. You don’t go through childbirth, the sleepless nights, and the terrible twos, so you can trade Pokémon cards together with your child. You give birth because there’s an instinctive drive to procreate, to have a piece of eternity. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It doesn’t happen without a careful plan. And a child certainly doesn’t grow up to be healthy and functional unless the parents invest in the hard work and work out a comprehensive parenting plan.
Saying “no” is an essential part of parenting. Explicitly or implicitly, it must be clear to a child that there are boundaries, rules to comply with.
And when a young girl snuck out to murder her best friend and prove herself to an internet meme, she clearly had not learned those boundaries from her parents. They didn’t see the red flags, didn’t see how immersion into the internet world could be harmful to their child’s mental health. It sickens me because I might have been that parent. I might have been too afraid to say no, or too lazy, or too something.
It shouldn’t be like this. We shouldn’t be so afraid to lay down the law and make decisions. Kids are resilient. They know how to forgive as long as they know their parents care and work hard to protect them. My kids feel protected. They feel love. My daughter still wants that iPod or tablet. And in the end, she’ll get it. But she also knows that like Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984, I’m watching her and I expect her to navigate with care.