There’s a perturbing routine that repeats itself in my house every so often, occurring in the evenings as I prepare dinner for my family. My 3-year-old daughter will be playing in the living room with her stuffies (her name for stuffed animals, and now you have that in your head — you’re welcome). My son will be scanning the horizon of the Fortnite map from the vantage point of his airborne party bus, looking for a good drop point. Our house is softly filled with the dulcet tones of veggies being chopped and imaginary tea parties being thrown. Suddenly the serenity is shattered as our surround sound system blasts a stream of profanity that would make George Carlin blush. Racist mantras with an aftertaste of verbal Dadaism are vomited from every corner of the room, as my son and I scramble to identify and mute the party member who decided this was his night to vent all the frustrations of his life, and Fortnite live chat was his soapbox. Some days we succeed before my 3-year-old asks for various word definitions; other nights we fumble miserably.
At this point everyone’s aware that the worst of humanity resides on the internet, reveling and thriving in its digital anonymity, cyber-bullying everyone they can connect with. Surely banning all multiplayer games in our home would be overkill, but the current method of being destined, however briefly, to experience this deluge of hatred before spamming the correct menu option is unsustainable. Half the time I don’t even know what the bad words mean! My daughter keeps asking me about it and I DON’T WANT TO ANSWER HER, GUYS!
Thus, as my wife looks at me with a mixture of concern for our child and confusion as to how that particular stream of profanities even makes sense in context, I am left with a quandary of whether my son is old enough for the “bar mitzvah” of gaming – the headset. Free rein to talk and converse with the pulsating masses that make up a given online community is a big deal, and while it might add to the gaming experience and afford him privacy to have his own adventures outside my input, that very privacy makes my job as a parent harder when it comes to moderating my child’s online usage.
Since the age when telephones had wheels of numbers and meat was made of meat, parents have been trying to sneak a peek into their children’s inner lives (and in doing so be a vital screener for worrisome trends). Whether this was done via reading diaries or holding their breath as they listened on the other landline receiver, technology and parental supervision have always been locked in an escalation war. As we entered the digital age with diaries replaced by message boards, email chains, and texts, parents have a need to continue rapidly escalating their skills to… well… parent. While it’s important to allow modern kids to be connected, monitoring children’s online use and experiences has become exponentially more difficult.
But how can I in good conscience give up my control in actively monitoring what my child hears and whom he speaks to online? What if he’s cyber-bullied and I don’t know about it? What if he’s cyber-bullied BY CYBERMEN?! Studies have shown that in adolescents the risk of cyber-bullying can be partially addressed with increased parental participation, so am I helping the (cyber)terrorists win by no longer being able to participate? Bursting through the wall like the Kool-Aid man (but with vital insight instead of cherry flavored sugar-water), Dr. David Epstein weighs in on the conundrum of granting freedom in exchange for a loss of parental access.
According to Dr. Epstein, the tricky part is that the game doesn’t necessarily denote the audience. He could remember playing a tennis game on Xbox Live and his online combatants would “fill the airways with highly racist things. Not necessarily to attack due to lack of skill,” which he admits he was fair game for, “but simply creating an atmosphere of emotional toxicity.” And a tennis game isn’t necessarily something that screams out attracting that type of audience, so the safe assumption is to treat all online games with the same need for monitoring.
Dr. Epstein spoke about the need for something called value confirmation. This speaks to verifying your kids have values that match the ones you try to enforce and, if they don’t, coaching them on why those values are important. If successfully taught, the child will internalize these values and react to negative situations the same regardless of whether you are present or not. “You must coach your kids on safe behavior, everything from dealing with the insults to not acting impulsively and giving out personal information. Most importantly you must tailor that coaching to your child’s cognitive sophistication.”
This is a fancy way of saying that you use the language you think your child will understand the most, but the message will be the same – teach them not only what you feel is inappropriate behavior online, but why you feel it’s inappropriate. According to Dr. Epstein, “If you instill your morals, whether they be religious-based or otherwise, into your children and give them the same mental content referee that you have, they’ll have the same adverse reaction to negative content as you would had you been there.”
This excited me, the prospect of self-monitoring kids that cringe at negative language the same way I would, avoid bullies at the same points I would advise them to, and ultimately behave the same with me present as without. It does insist on a few more “fireside chats” ahead of granting permission to game online, but that’s the job of being a parent. This also answers the question of when it’s appropriate to introduce the headset — when my child (or yours) has the ability to absorb and internalize the standards I’ve taught them. Plus, I can always check in and intervene when necessary.
I realized there’s a scene in the recent Avengers: Endgame that drives this final point home. Recall if you will the glorious moment when we were all collectively introduced to “Bro Thor.” The hilarity of his physique and the shock of witnessing his PTSD-fueled demeanor almost eclipsed the fact that Thor demonstrated a very healthy (if not overly aggressive) parental online monitoring. First, Korg announced that an online bully was harassing him during his session of Fortnite. (Notice Korg is wearing a headset.) Thor dropped what he was doing (admittedly not much) and walked over to speak directly to the offending troll. While Thor’s response was a little over the top (pretty sure he promised to murder the child), the underlying message remained: Korg and Thor were on the same page on what online activity was considered inappropriate, and Korg felt comfortable enough to come to an “adult” when harassed, with Thor as that “adult” intervening as requested.
Bet you didn’t think Bro-Thor would teach you how to monitor your child’s online usage, but there you go. Much like his gut, Thor’s wisdom is ever expanding.
Additional reference: 2009, Parental Mediation, Online Activities, and Cyberbullying, CyberPsychology & Behavior, Gustavo S. Mesch, https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cpb.2009.0068