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When To Let Go: Negotiating Parental Controls

Although a digital native by any criteria, I am often finding myself out of touch with the even younger generation. I learned to read long before I learned to type. But this younger generation is making Internet buddies before they can talk and playing Tetris online before they can read. Two recent incidents made me feel like an old fuddy-duddy. First, there was the New York Times article linked above, about parents creating profiles for their babies on social networking sites such as Second, I returned home this summer to find my six-year-old brother entirely engrossed in playing Webkinz.

As children begin using the Internet at younger and younger ages, parental concerns about safety have become more prescient. An eight-year-old is naturally going to approach the Internet with more naiveté than a preteen. How do parents navigate these shifting waters? What responsibilities do websites aimed at young children have for their safety?

The most popular websites for children have addressed the issue of safety head on. Chat on Webkinz, which I played around with alongside my brother, only allows a preprogrammed list of questions such as, “Which Clubhouse room is your favorite” in the KinzChat Area or filters all messages through a dictionary excluding numbers, proper nouns and inappropriate language. (KinzChat Plus Area). The oft-mentioned Club Penguin, a virtual world where players interact with each other as penguins, has similar safety features in its chatrooms.

But Webkinz and Club Penguin are most popular among the younger set. More problematic is when children reach an age when they are not only more eager to shake off parental supervision but also savvy enough to do so. Emily Yoffe, in “What Kids Like to Do Online – A Slate Investigation,” found that several sixth graders were underwhelmed by Club Penguin because advanced access to the site required a fee of $5.95 per month or $57.95 per year fee, involving money and of course, parents.

All the kids had enough insight into economics and psychology to know that asking their parents would not only get a “No” but draw undue attention to their leisure activities. “I only do what’s free, but you get bored quickly,” Anna said

Although the sample size of this Slate survey was small and entirely unscientific, it sheds light on the general attitudes of preteens toward Internet safety and parental involvement. A 2007 “Safer Internet for Children” study by the European Commission surveyed boys and girls 9 to 10 years old and 12 to 14 years old in 29 European countries. All of the children were well aware of the dangers on the Internet, from viruses to pornographic sites to bullying. Striking, though not really surprising, is their attitudes toward parental involvement.. A lack of technological know-how on the part of parents is often cited as a reason kids prefer not to get them involved. “My parents don’t teach me, I teach them!” was the response of one boy in the European Commission study. And parental involvement is important, but they are not the sole gatekeepers

Parents are of course privileged informers, but they are sometimes perceived as excessively
protective, which can lead, among some, to relatively intrusive behaviour or behaviour perceived
as such (checking of the websites consulted, checking of e-mails) and hence a loss of privacy and
self-censorship. In this respect, children’s peers, classmates, friends and brothers and sisters
are interlocutors who are sought out more readily.

So as important as it is to monitor the activities of their children though, it’s also important not to over monitor. Drawing upon my own experience, I’d agree with that. While doing online research for a school project on witchcraft in fifth grade, I stumbled across a web site with a warning page cautioning that the content was not appropriate for children under the age of 16. I immediately went to my parents to ask permission. What my father did was launch into an angry lecture about Internet use, cut off my Internet access for a week, and demand a meeting with my teacher. I understand my parents’ concern, but my fifth-grade self found the episode completely embarrassing. Their reaction – overreaction I’d argue even now, I had gone to them after all – made me reluctant to ever ask them for permission online again. Whereas I used to ask permission every time I logged on (dial-up with limited hours – those good ol’ days), I began sneaking online after school.

Although this tug and pull regarding privacy between parents and children is natural in the process of growing up – a friend was recently complaining that her father had friended her on Facebook – parents don’t need to stand by helplessly. The key, and also the goal of the Born Digital book, is to foster a dialogue among parents and children and educators and policymakers. Internet use is yet another facet in the tricky job of parenting. The safety of younger children can be regulated by restricting and monitoring Internet use, but older children will eventually demand more freedom and privacy. How do we make this transition? I obviously write this post from the perspective of a child (though an fairly old child), so I would be interested in hearing parents weigh in!

-Sarah Zhang