Like most parents, I have a love/hate relationship with the internet and my children’s relationships with it. The internet has brought us access to amazing online classes, like those offered through Online G3, Khan Academy, Code Academy, and Coursera. These educational portals enrich every day of our homeschooling. It’s brought us Google Hangout, my platform for teaching, and Google Drive, the most sensible way to share documents from computer to computer and, for my boys, from our home to their home at their Dad’s. The internet brings us instant access to answers to almost any question while allowing us to talk about the quality and content of those answers. The online offerings available for homeschooling families have increased dramatically since I started this journey 9 years ago, and I really don’t know what our homeschooling would look like without it or whether we would still even be home.
And then there’s the hate side, or at least the more complicated side. There are all the sorts of sites I don’t want them to face. Porn. Malware. Scams. Hate speech. Gambling. Phishing. And then there are the sites they adore and find so compelling that time seems to stop for when they go to them: YouTube. Facebook. Minecraft. Reddit. Tumblr. Skype. Meme sites of every and any kind. And lately, CNN and the New York Times.
I didn’t want to use parental controls. I kept our computers in busy places where privacy was assuredly not available. I wanted to think that open dialogue between parent and children paired with of a good dollop of self-control and a cup of desire to follow the rules would keep my highly inquisitive children from searching for the stuff for which they should not search via internet. That’s mostly been true. But I didn’t count on an eight year old who would search for images of kittens and come up with scantily clad adult humans. Call me naive. Self control or not, something had to be done.
So for several years, the parental controls were about keeping disturbing material out. I had no more need to come across images of the wrong kind of kittens than my boys, and I’m all for avoiding what could be a scam, so I set controls that worked for all of us. K9, a free program that works with iOS and Microsoft machines, became my assistant in keeping the internet a place that worked for us.
Until it didn’t. While I admit that Scrabble and Facebook can distract me from work I should be doing, I generally manage to get done what needs to get done. My children are, ahem, less task-oriented. My twelve-year-old’s vice is YouTube videos of other people playing Minecraft (I don’t get it, but I know he’s not alone.) and, while less objectionable but no less distracting, the New York Times and CNN websites. My sixteen-year-old is partial to aggregated readers and Skype (audio only), carrying on conversations with friends while playing games, reading other sites, and computer programming. Neither distraction is managed with moderation. My children, it seems, are unfamiliar with moderation.
So what to do? My preferred method of parenting is to present my thoughts (computer entertainment is getting in the way of education and Experiences with Real People and Things), explain the value I espouse (moderation in all things and regular contact with books, outside, and Real Human Beings), listen to their thoughts and plans for change (this part can get dicey), and wait for change to actually happen (and apart it falls). Something between steps three and four goes wrong, and my collaborative process of guidance fails to deliver.
So I’ve had to resort to what I really don’t want to resort to: tightening the controls. I hate doing that. I want people to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. So up go the blocks on the sites my younger loves the most, only to be unlocked by me. (Given we share computers, moving between two all day long, there is little else practical. We’ve tried having separate accounts, but the bouncing back and forth is a pain.) Ugh. It’s a hate-hate situation, but it is, for now, our answer.
Parental controls for a sixteen-year-old who built his own computer is another issue altogether. I’ve wrestled with this question and found no reasonable answer. Products like OpenDNS that protect an entire home network don’t easily work with our internet provider’s technology, and I can’t put parental controls on a computer where he has all the, well, control. I’m running on trust when it comes to objectionable material, trust and the hope that he truly has the values he seems to have. That will have to do when it comes to content.
As far as time management, I’ve largely taken the stance that, at sixteen, he needs to learn to manage the lure of technology. He needs to learn to budget his time. It’s too early in the semester to know how that’s going, but I’m optimistic. And a bit freaked. This parent is not in control of a major source of distraction for one easily distracted not-so-much-a-child. It’s taking a good deal of deep breathing and no small amount of trust to stay this course.
So I try to exercise some parental (self) control, realizing that I’ve raised him well, and while that’s no guarantee he won’t make bad choices, in less than two years, he’s an adult. My younger son chafes at the relative freedom his older brother has regarding the computer, and aside from reminding him that his brother had limits at twelve, I don’t know what to say. I’m still figuring this out, parenting a teen, and I don’t have it all down. I still remind my older than interacting with live people is part of becoming a healthy human being and insist on a live presence for all meals and the mandated fresh air exposure that comes with yard care. And I ponder what is right and what is good and what just is different from what I knew growing up. So it’s another deep breath as I regain my parental control and watch two boys grow up in the age of technology.