A sound something like chimes emanated from my computer recently, a screen within the screen popped up, and I suddenly found myself conversing with one of my daughter's 11-year-old classmates, home sick from school.
"Hi how r u?" she asked in age-appropriate computer jive.
"Fine," I typed back, perhaps a bit impatiently.
"Is this Lucy?" she demanded.
"No, this is Lucy's father."
"Oops. Sorry!" and she was gone.
As innocuous as our exchange had been, it suggested a disturbing new truth: We no longer live alone. My wife and I and our two -- I like to think -- reasonably well-bred daughters have been joined by a supporting cast of dozens who have access to our home whenever the computer is turned on, thanks to such technological marvels as instant messaging and Buddy Lists.
Admittedly, they don't show up in person, but their presence is nonetheless pervasive -- especially, it seems, while my oldest daughter is in the middle of her homework. There she is doing research on, say, the American Revolution when one classmate comes online, then another, to discuss not the Stamp Act but the latest tank top on sale at dELia*s.
My daughter tried to reassure me, unsuccessfully, when I brought the Buddy List's mischievous potential to her attention. "A lot of people, if they want to go on the Internet and do work by themselves, they'll have a second or third screen name and they just won't tell anyone about it so no one will IM them," she explained confidently, using shorthand for instant messaging. "I usually go on using your screen name for stuff like that."
The computer screen caught us unaware -- we failed to set limits.
For those who remain in the technological wilderness, a Buddy List is a list of friends whose presence online is noted in a small box in a corner of the screen. Instant messaging allows Buddy List members to type messages back and forth to each other in something approaching real time.
The danger of Buddy Lists and instant messaging isn't only that they interfere with homework. It turns out that they're an unparalleled medium for creating interpersonal conflict, as well as disseminating gossip, rumors, and in some cases even death threats against other children.
"People can take things the wrong way, because it's hard to show your emotions online," explains Zoe Zimet, a sixth-grader at the Village Community School. "I was joking with my friend" -- calling her a "sykick," an inside joke that apparently denotes unpopularity. "She thought I was serious, and she got mad at me."
"On AOL, one of the big topics is who you like," explains Alison, a sixth-grader who attends public school in Bronxville. For example, a close friend might inquire about how deeply you feel about some boy in the class, then forward that confidential information to everybody on her Buddy List. "And I answer them and if they tell someone else, they can instant-message you, 'I heard you like . . .'
"You say, 'Who told you that?' And then a whole fight breaks out between three different people."
One school's eighth-grade Parents in Action meeting was recently roiled by rumors that had spread across the Internet. "There had been very defamatory gossip about something that went down between boys and girls -- who had been with who or went somewhere with someone," said Victoria Goldman, the co-author with Catherine Hausman of The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools and a parent at the school where the incident occurred. "There had been profanities, slurs, and horrific gossip without even a shred of truth. It was a gradewide social issue, and actually it's a schoolwide social issue."
Thus far, much of the concern about children's using the Internet has centered on their easy access to pornographic Websites and the possibility of encounters with pedophiles in public chat rooms. But there's another, more subtle and more profound way in which the technology has infiltrated our children's lives: It allows them to travel daily, or more often nightly -- after they've finished their homework, if we're lucky -- to a world where parental supervision is almost impossible and where a Lord of the Flies ethic rules.
"You used to be able to say, 'No phone calls until you finish your homework,' " one mother said. "Now if she's on her computer, you don't know what she's doing."
It's ironic in a way. A generation that prided itself on turning parenting into an art form and choreographing every aspect of its children's happiness -- starting with mothers' groups, continuing through play dates and the right schools -- seems to have been blindsided by this latest twist. Never before, to my knowledge, has the world faced a technology where the average third-grader is more proficient than the average CEO, not that that's saying a lot. One dad told me with a mixture of alarm and pride about the way his 10-year-old daughter managed to jimmy the parental controls he'd placed on the family computer.
"Somewhere along the line she figured out what my password was," he said. "So she was able to go on and take off the restrictions on her account, and also change her password so that I can't get into her account and find out what she's doing."
To keep up in this escalating cold war, parents are using every underhanded espionage tactic at their disposal. One man I know received a somewhat plaintive call from the mother of a friend of his daughter's, asking if he happened to know her daughter's AOL password.
"We were protecting ourselves against the television screen, but the computer screen caught us unawares," observes Ellen Freudenheim, the mother of two computer experts -- one 15, the other 12. "Because of our desire for them to stay ahead of a fast-moving technology that will define their lives, we basically failed to set limits."
One mother recalls a recent play date where her son and the daughter of a friend spent the entire afternoon on the girl's computer -- to her mother's consternation. "She actually begged them to watch TV instead," the boy's mother said.