Online literacy and anal rape.

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?


Stranger in the house

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 8.42.25 AMLeo runs to grab some more apple slice and calls out over his shoulder “be back in a second.”

Steve and I are in the kitchen. Oliver is upstairs. He is speaking ostensibly to no one. Or everyone. In fact it is someone with whom he is playing Minecraft. From Germany. On Skype.

Earlier this afternoon I was un trimming the christmas tree when I sneezed. My cute sneezes have morphed into something that would wake the deaf, sleeping, dead. Its those boys. They have big heads. If you don’t follow you are doing something right with your life.

In any case I pretty much screamed out my sneeze, and a crackly little voice said. “Bless you.” I looked toward the computer. Leo, as usual had left it on, and whichever faction he was playing with was still present in our living room. At least virtually.

We have dined with pre-teens. I hear him negotiating with them. “Its dinner time, I need to be away from the keyboard.” “How long?” They ask accusingly. 15 minutes he replies. “That’s tooooooo long”, whines the response. Leo flips his hair and laughs. “I’ll do my best to hurry, but we eat together here.” They will call out to him during the meal with anger over stolen goods, or excitement over great discoveries when he forgets to mute them. He rushes out of the room to silence the Skype, whispers a word of encouragement or celebration, rejoins us at the table and apologies politely.

One of his newest friends has throat cancer. He found this out after chiding him over his funny voice and cough. Now we have spoken at length about chemotherapy, cancer, its known and unknown causes. A bit of power drained away from him during this talk. Even kids can get it.” He tells me, face pulled down. “Yes.” At the same time he has a new battle to wage, his friends treatment and remission, the fear of randomness quickly replaced with the kinship of a war waged with witnesses.

He is glad this friend has minecraft. He can play from his bedroom and never feel alone.

Yesterday from two rooms away I heard one of his skype buddies refer to a kid in another faction as a “faggot.” I dropped my non intervention stance to yell out. “That word is NOT acceptable, nor is the sentiment behind it.” Then I had to explain it to both boys who were interested in my outburst. “Why would you tease someone for that?” asked Oliver. “People love who they love. Leo might marry chicken skin.” As Leo returns to the computer with the 14 year old faggot slinger I hear the teenager deliver another brutal insult. “I pity anyone who uses a mic.”

I am grateful for the mic. Despite its intrusion into our family life it allows Steve and I constant ”fly on the wall status. We have been able to discuss bad language, threats, getting dumped by a group of friends, property rights and all kinds of complicated elementary school issues and beyond. It is our spot at recess. But there is no need to deal with kickball.

Leo has grown a thicker skin. He used to cry when his home and base were destroyed, lamenting the time in and reading into the feelings behind the destruction. Now he has a zen like, entrepreneurial attitude. He feels he learns from building, and will always be able to rebuild. Minecraft allows that. Thousands of hours of minecraft has taught him that there will be other friends, other bases, and improvement through iteration.

I used to describe it as a virtual lego set. I would tell anyone who asked why we had such lax screen time policies that Minecraft taught Leo to read and write. And type. It deals with construction and manufacturing from core elements. States and countries are integrating it into education. All of this is true.

The facts of the game, with its endless mods, and servers are not what interest me most. It is the incredible developmental social aspects that keep me fascinated. Minecraft as Leo plays it is the wild west, a melting pot, and lunchroom rolled into one. Kids (boys mostly) from all over the word come together to meet and join forces and battle against one another. They create new worlds, and find their footing in existing ones. They call each other names, talk behind one another’s back, get dumped by whole groups of friends, and live to play another day.

Leo applied for his first job (system admin) and got it. There was a poorly formatted (kid made) application with both short answer and essay questions. The application was filed and he needed to wait three weeks to hear back. It was college acceptance letters for the grade 1 kid. When he got the job he was so excited. And power mad. His character began to fly. He gave all sorts of access to his friends. He banned and unbanned people from the server. Then the natural consequences caught up to him and his privilege was removed. Those were tough hours in the Palmer house. But like each destroyed home there is always another job. He has applied and been accepted. This time he took the rules more seriously, and is having fun granting nicknames and policing for bad language, rather than using his post for personal gain.

How many 7 year olds have been fired?

I know we are at the extreme end of the spectrum. Leo plays 15 hours of Minecraft/ day on weekends.  Oliver dabbles in it. Mixing in sledding, and playdates, drawing and reading. It is a struggle to get Leo out of his chair. So we don’t struggle. We focus instead on positive lessons, and know that he spends tons of time outdoors. Online.