In Which Your Child’s Laptop Comes Preloaded for Independence
Should your middle-schooler have the virtual freedom to roam?
Recently my 13-year-old provided me with yet another opportunity to bore him to tears by talking about the Olden Days. He wants a laptop for his birthday so that he can “do homework in a quiet part of the house.” By which he means, a part of the house where his brother will not be singing boisterous parodies of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” He even proposed a plan to pay for most of it himself.
I may have been born in the Olden Days, but I was not born yesterday. I said, “You’re not taking a laptop that’s hooked up to the Internet and shutting yourself in your room.”
He said, “Mom, if I want to look up THOSE sites, I don’t need a laptop. Besides, I’ve seen it all on Google images already.”
I wavered between alarm at the “seen it all” comment and the certainty that “all” was really NOT all… given that we do have parental controls on the existing desktop.
Him: “I just want to play video games where my brother can’t bug me.”
I know that he’s telling the truth about that, but I’m not sure it’s any more comforting. When it comes down to it, which is worse—hours spent on Lord of Ultima, or surreptitious minutes spent googling the “dirty” words that slip past parental control software?
But there were other aspects of this request that triggered my skepticism. Has owning a laptop somehow become as ordinary for a middle schooler as an iPod (which my kids don’t have), an iPhone (ditto), or any number of other technology-based communication and entertainment devices that didn’t exist—except in prehistoric versions—when I was that age?
When I was around age 13, I started hearing about other kids getting TV’s and telephones in their bedrooms. These were the same kids whose families rushed out and bought a Betamax the moment it hit the stores. Do you know how much a Betamax cost when it first came out? One thousand dollars. For a VCR. Which should serve as a warning to early adopters everywhere.
Anyway, the kids who had phones and TVs in those days were the ones the rest of us considered “spoiled.” Sure, it’s what we all wanted. With a TV you could have access to all programming at all times, and with a phone in your room, you had total privacy for your “important” conversations—except when your parents were listening in on the extension. This was before the cordless phone, so your privacy was further limited by the length of the phone cord.
The justification for those items would have been very different than for a laptop. You certainly couldn’t have argued that a phone would help you do your homework. And try producing a jazzy Powerpoint presentation of questionable educational value on a black and white Sony. I promise you, it can’t be done.
I had neither a phone nor a TV, which meant I had to wait until my grandmother, who lived with us, was away in Florida before I could sneak into her room and watch Monty Python while everyone else was asleep. She had a TV in her room! I had that to look forward to at age 70, I guess. This stealth TV-watching actually started when I was in kindergarten. Batman was my favorite show, probably because I wasn’t allowed to see it. It was too “violent,” what with the cartoonish fighting, punctuated by “Pow” and “Bop” graphics, predictably occurring twice in each episode. So, I would go to my friend Brian’s house and watch it there. My parents eventually found out, maybe last year? Lesson: If your child wants to do something badly enough, she’ll find a way. Even at age five.
Back then, parental controls included the following words: You’re grounded. ‘You’re offline!’ doesn’t have quite the same threatening ring. And today’s parental control features primarily control the parent. The higher you set the restrictions on a computer, the more often you are called on to override them, because searching and viewing the most innocuous sites, even for educational purposes, becomes impossible.
Were the Olden Days simpler? No, just different. Kids had more freedom to roam back then. Now, their freedom to roam is more virtual than physical. I grew up in the shadow of the Lyon sisters, the unsolved case in which two girls disappeared from Wheaton Plaza one day back in the 1970s. They were never found. They didn’t meet their kidnapper on the internet. As long as you can trust that your child is not making a date to meet a psychopath at the mall, or giving out your credit card number on eBay, maybe it’s okay if you don’t know everything he does—or views—every minute. Maybe there’s serendipity in that exploration. Maybe every child needs something to hide.
Finally, there is always this: The laptop is valued, after all, for its portability. If the privilege is abused, it can easily be taken away.