Dear Dr. Mark -
When I first got into the internet, I lived in a middle-of-nowhere town. My folks and I had just moved there, and I was out of high school already. I attended the local community college, but I only made a couple friends. But in my spare time, I got my first real taste of reliable high-speed internet and found what my little corner of the real world couldn't give me: People. Lots of people. I made instant friends with people over several forums and a free-to-play browser MMORPG.
But my parents never seemed to quite grasp that I was interacting with real people on the other side of that computer screen, they just saw me sitting alone in front of a computer screen - comparable with the "internet addict" horror stories of the time. I've since moved out to a larger town and have made "IRL" friends now that I'm in an area with a considerable amount of people, but I still remain close with many of my first internet friends, and I take my laptop with me to stay in touch when I visit my folks. But to my parents, my close friends are just names on a screen, not quite comparable with real people. Even with my dad's experience with online gaming and my mom's exposure to social networking though her work, I still don't think they quite get it. My dad only ever played an MMO the way you would play a solo game, and my mom only really reaches people online that she already knows in-person. I never really got much grief from them about it aside from the occasional "Why don't you go out and find some real friends?" comment, but is there a good way to help them understand that I do have "real friends"?
This is a nice statement about the tremendous benefits the internet and gaming can offer to people who find themselves isolated socially or geographically. You can find people elsewhere on this planet with whom you might have something in common and you can build meaningful and significant relationships with some of them. I know many young adults who seem to have developed a healthy internet social IQ that allows them to make reasonably sound judgments about whom to connect with and whom to avoid while on the internet, and as a result, they end up with some terrific friends. When I think about my year playing WoW, the thing I miss the most is the fun, spirit and camaraderie of my WoW guild and the sense of real closeness I had with many of my guildmates.
I think you're absolutely right that people of your parents' generation (of whom am I probably one) have an instinctive discomfort with this. It seems inadequate and alien to us. How could you really know or trust someone who lives hundreds of miles away that you may have never met in person or in some cases never even laid eyes on? We are also constantly regaled with horror stories about pedophiles and murderers who find their victims through the internet. While these risks are real, and I certainly advise caution in developing online relationships with people you don't really know, I think they are highly over-emphasized by a media hungry for sensational lurid stories that attract a lot of eyeballs.
You are also correct that people of my generation are suspicious of the amount of time you spend seemingly alone in front of the computer screen. How can that be anything but withdrawal and isolation? Often it serves a conscious or unconscious function of creating distance between family members, so your parents may feel deprived and a bit jealous of what you are doing there.
So how can you bring your folks along? First, make sure they see that you have healthy relationships and a good life outside of gaming and the internet. I hear from many parents who are quite worried when their kids' lives seem to have been swallowed entirely by activity on the internet. I think it's easier for the older generation to accept this as part of a healthy social life, rather than all of it. Second, look for opportunities to help them get to know your online friends. This might involve telling them some details about their lives or the things you do together, or actually getting your folks involved in a meet-up or two. That way your online friends will seem less mysterious and cryptic to your parents. Finally, when you do go to visit your folks, make sure you aren't using your laptop and gaming as a way to avoid them. This may mean making sure you reserve ample time for meaningful interaction with your parents so they don't feel cheated because you have come home to see them, but really aren't seeing much of them. If you get the ratio right, they will likely be more accepting of the time you spend gaming and socializing on your laptop when you are with them.
It may take some time and attention, but I think your parents can increase their understanding and appreciation of this part of your life, or at least accept it for what it is and let go of the badgering.
Dr. Mark Kline spends most weekends traipsing around remote suburban Boston as a marginally attentive youth soccer spectator. Since recovering from a year-long intensive WoW habit, he sticks to computer Risk and casual word games, but is still trying to figure out why his children like The Sims.
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