My daughter came into the living room with tears in her eyes, a big pouty lower lip and a look of pure devastation on her face one Saturday morning. I asked her what was wrong – did she fall off her chair? Bang her knee? Stub her toe? No. It’s turns out that while playing Club Penguin someone had come into her igloo and pronounced it “lame.” She proceeded to tell me through her tears how hard she had worked to decorate her igloo, the coins she had spent on a multi-colored dance floor and disco ball. I am not kidding, she had spent the last two weekend mornings obsessed with decorating her igloo and planning every inch of that ice filled room. And now all it took was one lousy penguin to deem it “lame” for my daughter to deflate and wither in total despair.
At first I couldn’t help but laugh. Not the best reaction I know, but it sounded so absurd. To find out that an imaginary penguin had insulted her imaginary igloo and that this little virtual interaction could cause so much real life grief was hard to take seriously. But, then I realized I did have to take it seriously, because to her this world was an extension of herself. This was her creation, her thought and planning, her online identity. It’s hard to imagine having an online identity at eight years old – but there it is.
My daughters started playing Webkinz about 3 years ago. That progressed to Club Penguin, then Build-A-Bearville a stop at Zwinky Cuties and now to Fantage. Lest you think we’re creating screen zombies you should know that my daughters don’t watch TV – they just don’t like it. Their computer time is limited to weekend mornings before the days’ activities begin. I think this has made their computer time even more precious and special than perhaps it should be, yet seeing how completely and utterly absorbed they become in these virtual worlds made my husband and I lay down ground rules for the computer at a very early age. Just as they’ve been taught to not talk to strangers on the street or go with anyone that hasn’t been explicitly approved by us first, they also know not to give out any personal information online, to never tell their passwords, to not click on pop-up windows or ads and how to spot strange behavior even in these virtual worlds.
However, other lessons have to be learned the hard way – through experience. It’s not easy to face the jerks and mean kids in real life and it’s not fun in 2D either. Some sites like Club Penguin put the onus on the kids and tell them to report bad behavior. I’m not too keen on that. I know it can be empowering but it has also turned my kids into tattletale police and I don’t know if that’s the best lesson either. I’ve seen them stick up for other avatars that are the victims of insults and I’ve seen others do the same for them. Those are the times where I really appreciate these sites as a safe place for kids to figure these things out. You can’t have a completely sanitized virtual world any more than you can have a sanitized real world even though these sites purport to be as regulated as possible. It’s hard to regulate the “poo-poo head” slingers of the universe in any realm.
My daughters are growing up in both worlds. They are the first generation to truly straddle the virtual and the real from the get go. Being a part of these online communities, creating avatars, engaging in pretend commerce, fashion, decorating, sports, games, conversation – all of this adds up to a very rich experience in a truly interactive way. The fact that my daughter’s feelings can be hurt online is maybe not a bad thing. It shows an investment and a pride in something she’s produced. Above all she has to learn to stick up for what she’s created and stand behind it. Perhaps not quite like artists have always done, but certainly along those lines. And hopefully these lessons will translate later into standing up for herself against cyber-bullying and all of the other new media ways that kids have come up with to torture each other. A girl who has already learned to stand up for herself online back when her igloo was dissed might have a thicker skin when confronted with other e-bullies.
Either way the whole idea of Internet safety needs widen its focus away from the pedophile stalkers and cyber bullies and deal with the fact that the virtual is just an extension of real life. It seems scarier because it goes on silently, it seems clandestine and secretive, but it’s no more so than a tree house full of plotting kids or a late night sleepover party where all sorts of bad ideas are hatched without adult supervision. So I think I’d rather my daughters be prepared for life in any realm; have the self-confidence and sense to navigate both fake igloos and real city streets. The two worlds are not separate entities but one universe that their generation is exploring and creating in ways that have never been done before.
This is an original beccarama.com post and is featured on this month’s Yahoo! Motherboard.