I remember when the internet was born. I was in my 20’s, newly married, and thought it was the Coolest. Thing. Ever. The ability to browse for information, talk to new people, and communicate through email… all from the safety of my home, in my pajamas?? An introvert’s dream.
And as the internet grew, I grew with it.
I remember when everyone had dire warnings about meeting up with people you connected with online. Stranger danger! Now, all of my closet friends are people I met online.
I remember when everyone was afraid to shop online, for fear that it wasn’t secure and that their credit card numbers/identity/life would be stolen. Now I shop for everything online… from prescriptions, to Amazon, to Etsy. We even order our groceries online.
My kids never knew a world without the internet. How lucky they are! Like it or not, we live in a digital age now, one in which everything you can imagine can be learned, bought, consumed, transmitted, created, and communicated online. It doesn’t replace 3D life of course (and the intricacies and experiences and connection that go with it) but good grief does it enhance it. I feel so fortunate, and so glad for my kids, that there are such endless opportunities to explore, to learn, and to connect, right there at their little fingertips. For years the big joke has been the math teachers from years ago saying, “You need to learn to do this manually! You won’t be carrying around a calculator in your pocket.” Now, not only do we carry calculators in our pockets, we carry powerful computers. Portals, if you will, into an entire other world, a world that is seamlessly integrated into our physical lives. Pretty cool, right?
This is 2017.
Which is why I’m surprised and well… saddened… at the number of people who still want to so tightly control and limit when it comes to the internet and social media. At the number of negative, fear-mongering articles that still come across my Facebook news feed. At the amount of disdain aimed at apps, programs, and websites that allow kids (and adults) to express themselves in creative ways.
There is still so much FEAR.
But it can’t be overstated… this is the world we live in. The internet is only going to continue to grow, so it only stands to reason that we should equip our kids to grow with it. Case in point: A friend of mine has a son who was rejected for a program he really wanted to take. Why? Because he didn’t have a big enough digital footprint.
Now, is there yucky and dark and stuff to potentially stumble onto on the internet? Sure. Does learning to navigate social media in a healthy way require an involved and connected parent, someone who’ll stay close and present as they figure things out? Of course. But keeping them away is not the answer. Especially in a time when there is so very much for them to gain – important things for them to gain! – by letting them explore and learn from the digital world and everything it has to offer.
Here are 5 things my kids have gained or are gaining from the internet and social media (and this is by no means a comprehensive list!) In no particular order:
1) Knowledge This is an obvious and broad one, but it couldn’t be left off the list. Remember growing up with those sets of Britannica Encyclopedias? Well, the internet is just like a million different sets of those encyclopedias. On steroids. In Disneyland. On the fourth of July. It is a constantly updated, ever expanding, veritable treasure trove of information. Want to know how far a person sprays when their sneeze goes uncovered? Google. (200 feet, in case you’re curious). Want to see a detailed map of the world, of your country, of your town? Google. Can’t remember the name of the guy in that movie with the song you like? Google. Want to learn a new language? Google. Want to learn how to knit, how to build a shed, how to bake a souffle, how to apply a perfect cat eye with eyeliner? YouTube. I’ve finally learned to stop asking my kids, “Wait. Where’d you learn that?”, as the answer is always and inevitably somewhere in their travels on the interwebs. There are websites for everything. There are more formal classes if that’s what they like (lots of which are free!). There are tutorials and history lessons and peer-reviewed articles. As long as you can figure out the right search terms, you can learn about anything your heart desires. Which brings me to,
2) Critical thinking skills Learning to navigate the internet means learning the nuances of searching and browsing in general. And you may not have looked at it this way, but these are critical thinking skills that are easily transferred to other areas in life. These are the skills that help us to be clear in our thoughts and in our questions. These are the skills that help us to be discerning. To learn how to scan, discard, and sort information. To think about what it is we’re learning, and how it does or does not apply to our lives. To make decisions about what we do or do not want to be filling our heads, and where we do or do not want to spend our time. It teaches us to ponder, to question, to go deeper. To jump down that rabbit hole of vast, intense learning, and smoothly and expertly ride down all the never-ending little trails and offshoots it has to offer, stopping only when we’ve had our fill, and picking it all up again (or not) when we are ready.
3) Enhanced relationships. My daughter is the biggest example of this, but no one in this family is excluded. The only extrovert in a house full of introverts, she lives for and thrives on her play dates, and theater practice, and sleepovers. But when she can’t be with her friends in person? Skype to the rescue! She learned to navigate Skype at an extremely young age, and my house is always filled with the sounds of her and various friends chatting, playing games, and singing together. And if a friend does not have Skype? No problem. They just email. Dozens of emails shot back and forth, in real time. (This is a great starter email for kids, if you’re looking for one. It’s parent-moderated and extremely user friendly) And my boys? My oldest has been in two long-distance relationships online. He regularly chats with, and games with, friends from all around the country. He watches movies, virtually, with friends who are thousands of miles away. My younger two boys recently made friends with two sisters at our unschooling conference. They spent hours and hours and hours together at the conference, playing board games, and strategy games, and bluffing games (This feels important to mention, as some detractors of giving kids freer reign on the internet think that it causes them to be unwilling/unable to play and interact in person, without a screen in front of them. Not so much.) They live just down in Tucson, so meeting up in person is not at all beyond the realm of possibility, but in the meantime the internet – and Discord in particular – have allowed them to continue to grow their friendship online. They have spent pretty much every evening together, chatting, laughing, and playing cooperative games together. And for me personally? I have one invaluable group of women that laugh with me, cry with me, and give me honest advice … all mostly within the confines of a private Facebook group. And last month, one of the hardest months I’ve had in a long time, I had one friend who just refused to leave me alone (in a good way). She doesn’t live particularly nearby, so she texted and messaged me daily. To check in. To encourage me. To push me. To remind me to get dressed and take care of myself. None of that would have been possible if we didn’t live in a digital world.
4) Conflict resolution. Lest I give the impression that digital interactions are always smooth sailing, this is the real world. Stuff happens. I’ve helped my kids navigate disagreements, deal with unkind behavior, and understand the nuances of playing and interacting with large groups of strangers. I don’t know about you, but I would much prefer that they go out into the world already having this foundation of knowledge to stand on, and letting them interact digitally allows them to do just that. They’re able to figure it all out at home, with me by their side… whether it means involving me or my husband to help sort the problem, or talking things through, or standing up for themselves, or – in some cases – utilizing that “block” button. My kids are far more adept at skillfully and confidently handling any interpersonal problems that crop up than I ever was (heck, than I am at the present time as well), largely because of their ability to practice online.
5) Entertainment. People are really weird about this one, as if there is no inherent value in being entertained for entertainment’s sake. But as a lover of all sorts of creative arts, AND as someone who’s worked really hard to learn how to protect my mental health, I can tell you that it’s not only okay to let yourself be entertained, but vital to a balanced and healthy life. And the internet makes it so easy! From streaming movies, to satire websites, to the ubiquitous funny cat videos, they is no shortage of ways to relax, reset, and enjoy the hard work and creative output of others. My 13 year old loves to cook, and he’s been watching a YouTube channel that is part comedy, part recipe tutorials. I love walking in to the room to find him laughing over its latest funny antics. (Side note here: As parents, we’re not always going to understand or appreciate the same sorts of things as our kids. That’s okay! We can still enjoy it through them, and appreciate their appreciation, and share in their excitement.) It always breaks my heart to hear a parent talk about their child’s interest as “stupid” or “a waste of time.” If they find it valuable, it’s valuable.
6) A creative outlet to express themselves. You know those apps like Facebook, and Instagram, and Snapchat, and Musical.ly that so many people love to hate, and choose to fear? They can be amazing tools for expressing yourself, for interacting and sharing with your peers, and for staying connected with others in a fun, real-time, meaningful way. If I wasn’t able to follow my kids on social media, to see what they have to share, and how they choose to express themselves, I would be greatly missing out! It has allowed me to see and appreciate a whole new facet of their personalities that I might not have otherwise gotten to enjoy. It gives them an easy way to create. To communicate. To stretch their social muscles. The argument, of course, is that those apps are dangerous. And I mean, can they be used in harmful ways? Can they give them possible access to people with less than positive motives? Well sure. But that’s not unique to digital interaction! When I was in junior high, I was horribly bullied. I once had a group of girls chase me into the bathroom, where I hid in a stall, and they proceeded to lean over the walls and spit on me. I had no “block” button. And I wouldn’t have had the confidence and emotional fortitude to use it even if I did. My kids though? They have confidence and emotional fortitude in spades. And they possess this confidence in part because of apps like this, not in spite of them. The answer isn’t to live in fear and forbid these apps (because, let’s be real for a minute, if they want to use them they’re going to find a way.) And would you rather that decision be an acrimonious one, filled with resentment and secrecy? Or a transparent one, happy and respectful? The answer is open communication. If you’re worried about a particular app, ask your kids about it! Do they use it? Do they want to? How does it work? What do they hope to get out of it? My kids are always more than happy to talk to me about what they’re using. And because I know that 1) they have a healthy amount of self-respect and personal boundaries, 2) they’re skilled at navigating interactions in a healthy, constructive way (see point #4), and 3) that they would be comfortable coming to me if they ever did encounter a problem, I truly don’t worry. Instead I’m genuinely happy and grateful that they have so many fun ways to communicate and express themselves, and that they are so savvy in a world that didn’t even exist when I was their age.
The internet isn’t going anywhere. It’s something to embrace, to enjoy, and to learn to use responsibly. It’s not the boogeyman. It’s a valid and useful (and important!) tool, for both the present and the future. In the very wise words of my friend: