Once you clear the nightmare scenarios of kidnapping and fatal illness, walking into the room to your seven year old’s screams to find him frozen in front of a video of anal rape is pretty much the last thing a parent wants.
It happened to us almost a year ago, and it still comes up at the dinner table and bed time occasionally. He refers to it as “that thing I saw” and we all know what he means.
I would describe it here, except I don’t want to relive it myself. The details were beyond anything I could really fathom. Luckily I never liked cucumbers.
How did this happen?
We allow him online. He started playing Mine craft when he was five years old. He began with Pocket Edition on the iPads, which kept him connected to only the other kids on our network. Pretty quickly he wanted to use the PC/Mac version. After a tutorial from a local 12 year old he was introduced to Skype. From there it blossomed. After dinner, contributions and homework he would spend his time on the computer. We reviewed basic rules: polite language, kindness, and never giving out personal information. He logged dozens of hours a week online.
During the honeymoon period we watched him learn to read and type, construct and barter, collaborate and stand up for himself. Unlike the school playground where insults go unreported and unrecorded we were within reach of Leo when things got tricky. He would call us in to read the chat record, we would work together to craft responses. Often he would block kids entirely. He practiced what was appropriate language, what information he could share, and other online etiquette. He was stepping into the world, with its normal risks and rewards and he was navigating pretty well.
After a year or so his “best friend” lived in Berkley CA, a three hour time difference from Vermont, and they would coordinate their schedules to play together almost daily. He learned to tell time and to subtract by three. They compared allowances and things their mothers made them do. They talked about their siblings. They turned on video chat and showed each other their pets and their hair cuts. It was a real relationship. When we decided to move to Colorado Leo was excited. He would be two hours closer to cocoa. They have used this to their advantage.
Then there is the research. He quickly got beyond my tech skills and learned to load mods and manage a server by watching youtube tutorials. He visited wikis and learned to compare multiple sources. I remember my encyclopedia report on the beaver in fourth grade. I was so proud of my carefully traced picture showing it using its tail as a tripod. Leo’s research is leagues more complicated. Although he still likes colored pencils. And probably beavers.
And then the video. Sent to him as a link to a mine craft server he clicked on it to open. It was so horrible in fact that I don’t think he knew what he was looking at. Yet he knew it was bad. There was the scream. And then the fumbling to shut it down. And then gathering him in our arms on the couch as he cried. After a bit of silent shudder cuddling I asked him what he thought we should do. How we could help protect him from that. I told him staying offline was the only guarantee that he wouldn’t see anything scary. Like a teenager offered abstinence he was quick with an alternative. “I will never click a link from someone I don’t trust without an adult in the room.”
He has lived by these words ever since. He has learned the basic format of urls and knows when it is a mine craft server. He avoids shortened urls from people he has just met. He has called me in several times to open the link for him. He huddles under the covers with his hands over his ears like the small child he still is. I open the links and reassure him that he can come back to the screen.
He has begun taking screenshots of chats that upset him which he reviews with me or friends online. They use this to dole out discipline to other kids playing on their servers. We use it to talk about motivation to hurt other people. He even tells me how it makes him feel. He has a blend of empathy and anger that I can relate to, and I wonder how much more of it I see scrolling through chat records than I would at after school play dates.
I know we live on the far far far end of the spectrum of screen time. He can spend as much of his free time as he wants on the computer. He can use it unsupervised connected to the world. Like other aspects of our parenting we believe that natural consequences are the best teacher. This video was one of the most effective consequences possible.
We still wish it hadn’t happened. He will see horrible things, be called horrible names, be threatened in life.
This way we are a room away. Ready to cuddle our littlest boy. And question ourselves in small hours of the morning. And choose again to release him into this world, as we will the larger one sooner than we want.
What about you? Are your kids online? Do you see the risks more than the rewards? How do you muddle through this mess?