Times have changed. The birds and the bees talk isn’t what it once was. We can either wax poetic, or adapt with the times.
Irregular maturity. I’m not sure if that phrase has been used before in psychology. If it has, then I didn’t make it up. If it hasn’t, then I hereby coin it. When I say “irregular maturity,” I’m referring to children maturing earlier than previous generations, but without the physical and mental cognizance to back it up properly. What I mean, is that kids are exposed to more and more “adult” material, whether it be violence, porn, data, or even the world news forcing them to a level of maturity that they are not prepared for and generally cannot handle with any semblance of responsibility.
Part of this irregular maturity is the availability of pretty much everything at the light touch of a finger on a portable device, found in the hands of many children. More than none really, and I question the ignorance, hypocrisy and apathy of most parents, handing their children an Internet-capable device while still “monitoring” their Internet usage at home on their desktops or laptops. To be clear, when I say “children” going forward, that’s what I mean. Nine to 14 is the age group that I’m discussing here. Male and female. Fourteen and up is puberty in most cases, and you can’t stop that runaway train.
So because of the availability of the world through smart phones, tablets, and other portable devices that kids have and through the failings of other parents to properly prepare and discuss with their children the things that are available to them, we’re having some very new conversations with our children. Where once the sex talk was the talk that was feared by most parents, and confusingly accepted by children, we now have the “tech” talk. The problem is that parents don’t fear having this talk with their kids; they just aren’t having it at all with their kids.
I think there are a couple factors at play here contributing to the apathy I see with parents when it comes to the technology they are putting in their kids hands. The first factor is age. I’m a young parent, my oldest child is a 13-year-old step son, behind him is an 11 year old son and a six year old daughter. I’m only 33. Whereas most of the parents I know with similar aged kids (outside of my online tech circles) are at least ten years my senior. That makes a difference. There is a technology disconnect. Along with that comes ignorance and apathy, which are the other factors. It’s not for lack of trying; it’s for lack of concern and a misplaced sense of trust in the tech and understanding the tech.
So I asked the 11-year-old what he thought the biggest dangers of portable technology were to his age group. His answer was vague, but showed he has at least some awareness of the availability of the world in his hands. “You could see a lot of things you shouldn’t see, shouldn’t know about. Like certain inappropriate videos on sites like YouTube.” He was unable to go into any further detail and adamantly claimed that his friends were good, responsible kids and didn’t misuse their devices for things they shouldn’t. I’m tempted not to believe him, but he rarely lies, especially when it has nothing to do with him. (His lies are mostly of the “he started it variety.”)
He did point out that one child that he knows (and does not like) has bragged about looking at porn on his laptop. That I believe, because the kid in question has absentee parents (they don’t care), and I would easily believe that they never follow up with his activities or even give a shit if he’s eaten three square for the day. Which again, brings it back to parenting and knowing what your kids, who are still learning the morality of responsibility when applied to their mental capacity for information not geared towards their age group, are doing.
The 11-year-old added that there are some genuine benefits to having the power of the internet in your hands, “Sometimes I’m where I can’t do research for school due to lack of Internet availability, or even a computer. Having an Internet phone (which I’m not allowed to have) would probably help with that.” Of course, he failed to mention his apt ability of procrastination, in which he’s usually at home to use the community computer because his presentation or whatever is due in a mere seven hours.
Needless to say, with this particular child, the tech talk was quite easy. He goes to gifted school and his logic and maturity is beyond his 11 years. He understands my trepidation with letting him have an Internet-capable device (his phone is an old school clamshell phone) and was also quick to point out why I’m so pissed that the 13-year-old’s never around dad bought him a Kindle Fire without taking a moment to ask me first. While the 11-year-old has a good concept of responsibility, the 13-year-old has none. Part of it has to do with being a teen; the other part is just his general lack of common sense.
So there is a danger there, and even after the tech talk he still wonders why I won’t allow him on my WiFi in the house. Could you imagine a teenager in their room with an internet capable device in their hands? With no restrictions? Unlike a desktop or laptop, restricting content on a tablet is next to impossible. Of course, with him he’s more likely download games on my account than look at porn or Internet weirdness, but the concern is still there because with him, the responsibility is clearly not there. Allowing him to irregularly mature would be a failing as a parent by me. And that’s just not an option with me. Not in my house.
Defining or coming to any clarity on what constitutes “adult” or inappropriate content these days is difficult, to say the least. You’ve all been on the Internet. One second it’s innocent boredom; the next it’s weirdness. There are surprises around every corner. Add in the unpredictable nature of children and their devices that you can’t control, and there are no “For Dummies” books that can correctly counter or advise how to proceed. Which is why all you can do, all you have control over is your own children and how their reality interacts with technology.
My kids don’t have smart phones; that’s part of it right there. Kids can’t send them links to porn or weirdness; they can’t get to it. Of course, there is hypocrisy there. When I was a kid, there was “stuff” out there, it was hard to come by and as many have pointed out, it was mostly just dick pictures. That shit didn’t scar me, but it certainly warned me off the medium (and most BBS forums) for quite a while. Now though, there is so much at our fingertips that it’s taken the challenge out of it. Before you had to somehow steal your dad’s Playboy magazines (as I did) when the interest was piqued. Now, any innocuous search can turn up undesired results, forcing the piquing of said interests before they are ready to be piqued—irregular maturity. As parents, this forces our hands into many conversations we didn’t think would come so early.
So what do we do?
Unfortunately, in order to avoid irregular maturity we do have to have those conversations earlier, to guide them into the tech heavy world of the 21st century. We have to explain what is appropriate, what their friends are going to try and show them, and why 11-year-olds don’t need Facebook accounts. Actually, explaining that Facebook was to stay in touch with people you hated in high school seemed to be a good enough explanation for him. But all his friends have Facebook accounts! Why? Why in the hell do they need Facebook accounts? They see each other at school! It’s because their parents don’t give a shit, so soon their 11-year-olds will be getting dick pictures on Facebook (as was prevalent in MySpace), so it’s only a matter of time.
We have to swallow our perception of what it’s like to be a kid. Yes, we were kids once, but the environment changed. They are growing up in a 24-hour news cycle, world news, and Middle School gossip. They are all going to have hunches because of the texting. They are all going to have long term carpal tunnel in their little thumbs. They are going to see things that their minds can’t handle with rationality and maturity. They are going to say, do, and be exactly what we don’t want them to be. At the same time, and with our involvement, they are going to be who we want them to be, with a moral compass that hopefully points to a reasonably mature magnetic pole.
Notes: Parenting is about being there; it’s also about spying on your kids. Can’t be avoided, trust is built. You have to let them know you are there and watching them. They won’t understand it now, but they will when they are older. So if talking isn’t enough, and you need some tech help check out this handy article on setting up some non-annoying parental controls.