The number I assigned is entirely arbitrary – it’s actually higher up on the list – but I haven’t actually sat down and enumerated my list of fears quite yet, so we’ll just have to guess.
By the time my son is 13 years old, I anticipate all phones to have a user interface similar to that of the iPhone. Web 3.0 (ubiquity) will already be on the way out in favor of whatever the hell Web 4.0 will be (telepathy?) and the speed of the networks that carry it will be at an all time high. The promise of convergence will be absolutely delivered and we’ll all have one little device that will be easy to use, easy to carry and, thanks to its fold out screen, easy to read. It will be a personal computer, media center and communications device all wrapped up into one. With it will come the delivery of another promise made decades ago – live, hand-held video conferencing. Like text messaging, this will be something the older generation rarely uses but that my kids will immediately glom onto.
And that’s where my fear comes in. I got to thinking about this all the other day when I was daydreaming about the joys and pains of being the father of a boy. How will I handle it when he first falls in love? How cool will I be if it turns out to be with another boy? What about the traditional heterosexual male things, like little league and such? Then I got to thinking about how I’d handle certain situations, like how cool will I be when I stumble on the stack of Playboys he hides under his bed?
But, wait a minute – I’m pretty sure I can say with certainty that this will never be an issue. My son will never read Playboy Magazine. Not because I’ve instilled in him some anti-porn lame-ass “objectification of women” argument (it’s called biological imperative, and women obsess over the same sexual things when you let them) but because Playboy Magazine, assuming it even exists in paper form in 13 years, will be far more difficult to get a hold of than any number of the porn websites already on the Internet. And, with the introduction of faster networks and better interfaces, I won’t be able to monitor his Internet use by keeping the family desktop in the living room. No, he’ll have everything he needs right in his pocket (think longer on that to get the joke).
I don’t think exposure to porn is in itself a bad thing for young folks, but I do think porn is bad for anyone when taken out of context. And what is the context? Porn exists to entertain and stimulate its viewers sexually. Sometimes it literally ends there. Some use it to enhance their own sexual relationships, to learn something new (seriously – sex education in this country is so crappy that hardcore porn is actually educational to some degree) or to explore their own fantasies in a safe, non-committal, non-threatening way.
Simply exposing a child to porn does not screw them up. It raises questions most parents would rather not address and it does force us to think of our children as potentially sexual beings, which taps in to all kinds of societal taboos that it’s easier to ignore rather than confront. Children are often exposed to adult materials for a number of reasons, but most of the time it’s passed from child to child. Think about this for a second – when were you first exposed to your first Playboy and saw it as something lascivious? I stumbled upon my father’s collection as a very young child and really thought nothing of it at first. It wasn’t until an older cousin also stumbled on it and wanted to share his findings that I got any sense of its real “naughtiness”. And where did he learn it? Well, he had an older brother who, no doubt, had either another family member or kid at school first show him some pictures and teach him about their prurience. It becomes learned behavior – “Oooo… look at the naked woman. She’s hot!” At seven years old I had no idea what “hot” even meant, but I certainly repeated it when I was subsequently shown such images by the kids at school.
My parents knew nothing about any of this and, unless they’re reading this, will never know. I was exposed to quite a bit of adult material as a child despite my parents’ best efforts. It had nothing to do with them and everything to do with the otherwise innocent seeming kids I saw at school or played with in the neighborhood every day. It didn’t turn me into a bad person, though it may have messed up my sense of beauty for a while. There is a good argument in there about adult materials creating an unrealistic expectation of beauty for impressionable individuals. I was fortunate, though, to have people in my life who consistently worked, whether intentionally or not, to break me of those expectations.
So what does any of this have to do with my son? When adult materials are so easy to acquire that I can view them at my leisure in a public setting while riding BART with a reasonable assurance that no one is really able to see what I’m looking at, I know they’ve become too easy for anyone to acquire. It concerns me that my son will be born into a world where his consumption of information – not just porn but ANYTHING, including political information, science facts, religion, etc. – will be so great, pretty much from birth, that my wife and I will have little ability to filter and control it. Sure, at first we can, but the second we unleash this kid onto the world, he’ll be inundated with so much data that intelligently sifting through it will become a huge challenge. The best I can hope for is to spend those formative years preparing him for that onslaught by focusing on critical thinking skills at as early an age as possible.
And this is probably going to require a younger than normal education on human sexuality. Not so much getting into the nitty gritty details, but trying to help him understand the idea of boundaries, respect and knowing the difference between reality and fantasy in a world where those lines keep blurring.
My associated fear is that of learning how to properly socialize. Once we have these devices in our pockets that have non-stop, high-level access to the Internet and real-time video, sound and photo sharing, we’ll see tons of new artistic and entertainment endeavors. On the seedier side of these will be on-call, one-on-one “private dances” with women who would be able to accept a credit card through a secure transaction, then set up their device to capture them on video providing instant adult entertainment to the person doing the purchasing. Now, in such a scenario, I think a young child would be hard pressed to talk a grown woman into doing this, even for money. Looking at someone on a live video feed, combined with a credit card in their name, is a reasonably secure version of age verification. That doesn’t concern me. MySpace concerns me.
Who knows what MySpace will be like 13 years from now, again, assuming it still exists. But the current crop of MySpace faux pas, where young women share nude or scantily clad, sexually charged images of themselves with various “friends” then find them “accidentally” spread around the public Internet, clearly demonstrates for me how young people with little impulse control, who are exploring their “adultness” in the only visible ways they know how, can really screw things up for themselves. So what happens when you take away the time necessary to upload such material to the Internet? Any chance of rethinking things goes right out the window. Not that these devices won’t have some kind of built-in recorder so that you can play such videos back whenever you want or even share them and spread them around.
It’s one thing to try to explain sex and adult materials to a kid who stumbles across them or has a friend show them to him. It’s another thing entirely when it’s one of his friends who is the star of this particular piece of material. And, while I can go all Gestapo and look through his phone each night, that creates an atmosphere of distrust and doesn’t actually keep him from gaining access to such materials – he’ll probably wind up so tech savvy that he’ll be able to delete all traces of such activities before I even get a chance to look.
My even greater concern is that all of his social interactions will take place on this device. When gamer kids say they’re going to hang out with their friends, that often means sitting in front of the computer in their room and playing World of Warcraft with them. This is fine as one kind of social interaction, but it is no substitute for getting out of the house, meeting face to face and exploring the real world together. Hunting wombats in Azeroth (can you tell I don’t play WOW?) is fun, but so is hunting for frogs at the local creek, one of the many ways I spent my idyllic Orange County summers. And, yeah, I also spent many an afternoon playing Sega with my best friend Bill, which also did no harm. It’s not about outside vs. inside or reality vs. computer, but about having different experiences that each build up the kinds of skills we need to get by in the world. Socializing online is wholly different than socializing in person, even if they do share some of the same components. I hope I can raise my child to understand this and teach him how to use technology as a tool for creating relationships that exist both online and off.
As with all parenting issues, I can only do my best. As I said, I think my best line of attack is to concentrate on giving my son the critical thinking skills he’ll need to navigate this new world. He’ll see naked boobs as a teenager, this I can’t avoid and I certainly wouldn’t want to keep him from that. That first exposure to the forbidden world of adult sexuality is a hallmark moment of growing up. I suppose I could just out and out expose him to it and completely control that first experience, but that’s not only creepy, it robs him of a sense of secrecy and surprise that I think carries forward when he’s old enough and ready for a mature relationship that actually adds to its excitement. But I hope he’s not overexposed too quickly and, if so, he has the mental and emotional tools necessary to soak it in and not muck around too much with his sense of values. One could make the argument that I simply not expose him to this magical device I keep referring to until he’s much older. I think that’s the same as saying we should just become Amish and shun technology. It’s more or less unavoidable – if his friends get one, he’ll eventually need to have one as well or he’ll be as out of the social loop as those few folks left who don’t have consistent Internet access. It’s a competitive advantage. Having such a device is ultimately a good thing – it’s a window into the whole of human knowledge right in your pocket. But, without the tools to be able to process that knowledge, both good and bad can come of it. I just pray I’m prepared.