By Tanu Shree Singh
About four years back, I found the younger one standing frozen in front of the computer screen. He was clearly stunned and when I saw the screen, he just mumbled, “I swear mumma, I have no idea what happened. I was just playing a game.”
And there they were – multiple screens shouting about the “practically” free deals for a lifelong supply of porn. Along with a chat window that had popped up with an offer for “friendship”.
We think that we have done enough. We have shown them the cautionary videos, told them about the perils of the Internet, educated them about the stranger-danger, and felt extremely proud when they waited for the right age before getting on the social media bandwagon. Quite a few of us, including yours truly till fairly recently, think that Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram are the only danger zones on internet and we have done our bit if we have protected kids from these till they grow old enough to use them responsibly. The story sadly doesn’t even begin there.
The innocuous looking games that the little ones play on our mobiles and iPads do not count, right? They are games! What could possibly go wrong? Nothing more than probably some condescending looks from other parents about gaming and some groans from the child when you take the device back.
About the time when the boys discovered online games, a war of wits broke out at home with me trying to restrict the usage and them trying every trick in the trade. One day, while handing out the iPads to the boys for a limited time to play Clash of Clans, a game pretty popular with kids at the time, a few notifications caught my eyes. I swiped across to get a shocker. These were pretty disturbing chat requests with a promise of a “good time”.
“Have you seen these?” I asked the younger one.
“Yeah, these keep popping up. I ignore them as they are a bit distracting while playing and some of them have really bad words.” He looked tad bit tense, probably out of worry for device-time.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I didn’t think it was important.” He was genuinely confused.
That was a big blow to me, honestly. I was scared and angry at the same time. Scared since both of them play a myriad of games on the device like Clash of Clans, Quiz Up and what not, and they must have been getting such chat requests. What if they did accept some? They are after all at an age driven by curiosity and a misplaced sense of adventure. A surge of anger swept over me at my stupidity. Honestly, I had assumed that I had taught them enough to recognise danger and come to me at the first inkling of it. That was silly of me. And I think that is the second mistake we make after assuming the limited scope of Internet. It is never enough. We cannot deliver our one-time lecture and assume that we have educated them for life.
So, like me, let us assume that you found some chats that were not exactly an emulation of real world relationships, what would you do? How would you carry out the ‘talk?’ In fact, do you even think it is worrisome? There are certain things that we need to understand before we decide to ‘talk’ or not with the child:
1. Arm yourself with knowledge
Internet, usage patterns, and available apps – everything is changing more rapidly than you and I can keep track, yet we must keep learning. What are the new apps/games that are popular with kids? What are the inherent dangers? How much time are your children spending online? Keep questioning and keep finding answers. For instance, a few seventh-grade children were on the verge of being suspended at a school since they had formed a WhatsApp group on cellphones (their parent’s or their own) and were using it to post objectionable content as well as to bully other kids. Honestly, till now, I had never thought of WhatsApp as being something we need to bother about. Also, WhatsApp can be accessed from the computer which is not even a worry since kids do not use it. There are millions of other chat softwares that can be used on different mediums. And the gaming world is constantly upgrading itself.
2. Boundaries are essential
Free access to Internet via gadgets or computer is unadvisable. There ought to be time limit on usage, and what can it be used for. When we complain that the child spends too much time online, it is us who have let them stretch those boundaries. It is never too late to take charge. And let the computer be in a common area of the house. This one is the toughest and will probably earn you the crown of a tyrant. A good idea is to keep them in the loop and let them decide the time of the day when they want utilise internet privileges.
3. Use age appropriate safety softwares
There are tools out there that help you monitor the child’s online activity. Research. Choose software according to your requirement and install. No they are not a breach of trust. We do install locks on the door to keep the world out, right? These are similar locks for the virtual world. Also keep in mind the age of the child. A three-year-old does NOT need to be a gaming wizard! However, I would not recommend a sly installation of safety software on the teen’s device. There you would have to have a constant conversation. With teens, exchange of information that would often take the shape of a debate are the only way out. When the debate gets heated, step back. They need to know that you trust them but not the world at large. It is fairly tricky and more often than not you would end up with a crushed heart. Good thing is that parental hearts are made of wolverine genes. We heal.
4. Don’t be easily shocked
For most parents, growth implies simple gain in height and grade level. And hence, when we chance upon dubious chats or emails, we get shell-shocked. Since we were expecting them to be babies, this new piece of information throws us off-balance and we end up wallowing in disbelief which mostly stems from denial. We deny that the 14-year-old could be going through surges of sexual energy, or could be bursting with curiosity for the gender of interest. Expect changes. In fact welcome them and help the child address them. Let them know that you are in it with him or her. Half our battle is won if we let them know that we understand and that sex is normal.
5. Regular communication
Communication is an ongoing process. We cannot deliver instructions, probably have a one-time conversation that ends with the child nodding in agreement, install some mean protection software, and think that our job is done. Keep talking, and be vigilant. However, always remember there is a thin line between conversation and nagging and a thinner one between being vigilant and being overbearing.
6. Do not buy/make excuses
Most of us express helplessness over the child’s online life. ‘All his friends are online,’ ‘He/she doesn’t listen,’ ‘It is just a game,’ and more such excuses are offered. Then there is the other line of thought that this is how this generation is. Just because all his friends are online doesn’t mean your child has to get on the bandwagon too. And they don’t listen when we don’t speak clearly enough.
7. Gaming doesn’t ensure IT prowess
Another misconception that a lot of parents hold on to is that a child needs to be active online to be able to become a computer whiz. No such connection. Really. Posting a few selfies online, clearing the tenth level on a game, or playing and chatting with random unknown people leads mostly to trouble and no education whatsoever. And then there are additional problems of addiction and social isolation that we shall talk about another time.
It is a scary world out there, especially with Internet enabling people to enter our bedrooms without our knowledge. But it is not all bad and there is no need to let paranoia yank out the modem cable. Internet is a powerful tool if we teach our children to use it responsibly. And responsibility is not learnt in a day. It is a constant struggle to teach and to learn. You and I have a tough road ahead. Gaming is here to stay. It is however up to us how much we let it take the child’s life over.
(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)