Parenting: Is Aol Worse Than TV?

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.

Buddy lists have become a new arena for competition and a symbol of social status. Those with the most names are considered the coolest. I asked my daughter how many names were on her Buddy List, expecting her to say four or five.

“I have the smallest Buddy List in my class,” she said mournfully. “I only have 33 people.”

To prove it, she went online and asked one of the more precocious kids in her class – “She lives online,” my daughter explained – how many names she had on her list.

“Ninety-three,” came the reply. “G2G. Bye.” G2G means “got to go.”

“See?” my daughter said triumphantly.

Kids pad their lists with all their classmates, their friends’ friends, and everyone they know from summer camp. Zoe Zimet has 98, and Alison is maxed out at 97. “I had to take some off,” she confides, having decided to jettison some of her younger sister’s buddies, whom she’d used to pad her list when she first went online. “In the beginning, everybody had a lot of buddies and I didn’t because I’d just gotten it,” she explained.

In this sort of environment, leaving someone off your Buddy List is a stinging rebuke. “You’re friends with somebody since the first day of nursery school, and they leave your name off purposely to hurt your feelings,” says a mother whose daughter apparently suffered that fate. “There’s all these cliques and formations in the classroom, and this is another tactic to put it to each other. It’s mean, it’s sadistic, and this stuff doesn’t get talked about at parents’ meetings because no parent will own up to their child being mean.”

When I asked my daughter whether she or her friends ever indulged in such exclusionary behavior or spread malicious gossip about others, she denied it. However, her explanation for her moral rectitude provided small cause for comfort. “We don’t like typing full sentences,” she explained without evident irony.

I don’t let them go on the Internet without me in the room – the First Amendment is over ruled by parental privilege.

Daniel Smith, a handsome, soft-spoken sixth-grader at an Upper East Side private school, spends all evening, every evening, on his computer. “The second I finish my homework, I come online until I go to bed,” he said as he sat before his screen while names popped on and off his Buddy List, signifying friends’ coming online or leaving cyberspace, as swiftly as numbers on the nasdaq. “Homework doesn’t take me that long, so that would be like five hours.”

Daniel’s mother denies that he spends that much time online. “It may be three hours,” she said, acknowledging that even that is too much. “I’m not going to make a big deal of it until he goes to camp. After he goes through detox by being away, next year there will be hard-and-fast rules.”

On a recent evening, Daniel and a classmate were discussing Rachel, Daniel’s new girlfriend, who’d just signed off. “I hate her,” the friend volunteered. “No you don’t,” Daniel typed back, sounding wounded, even in the affect-free dialogue of cyberspace.

The friend seemed to be jumping to conclusions. He’d never met Rachel – in real life. But then again, neither has Daniel. If there’s one thing for which cyberspace seems ideally suited, even among tweens, it is its ability to spark romance.

Daniel had made Rachel’s acquaintance two weeks before while playing Sudika Sabre, a text-based Internet fantasy game created by a 15-year-old computer prodigy and friend of Daniel’s that thoughtfully allows combatants to lower their weapons long enough to exchange pleasantries.

“We get along really well,” Daniel explained earnestly, adding that he’d already told Rachel he loved her and that she’d reciprocated his feelings.

“It’s easier to express yourself online,” he added. “When you say it face-to-face, your stomach starts to grumble.”

It’s unlikely Daniel and Rachel will ever consummate their relationship, even with a kiss, since the 13-year-old lives in South Carolina. However, that doesn’t appear to have dampened Daniel’s ardor for a girl who describes herself as five feet six with green eyes and blonde hair and already appears to have mastered the art of wrapping young men around her little finger.

Daniel scrolled back to Rachel’s conversation before she signed off.

“Don’t tell her I said this,” Rachel said, referring to a South Carolina girlfriend as if Daniel, sitting in his Greenwich Village apartment, might run into her in their school cafeteria, “but she’s always trying to take someone away from me. Like when I was going out with this boy here she’d always talk to him and tell him she loved him and that she wanted to go with him.”

Daniel has never seen Rachel’s picture. “She hasn’t got one online yet,” he explained. Neither does he. His family bought him a scanner, but they haven’t figured out how to install it.

Daniel’s mother says her son chastised her when she innocently suggested they exchange pictures through the U.S. Postal Service: “He said, ‘Mom, she’s not going to give me her address.’ “

Often, the first and only indication that his child has committed some sin online – not of the flesh but a violation of AOL’s code of conduct – is when a parent attempts to go online himself and finds that his service has been suspended. “So you call a number and they tell you the reason,” explains a mother whose daughter was a serial offender – in the third grade. “She sent a bunch of e-mails – like four or five hundred – within a short period of time. I don’t think she knew what she was doing, but it caught their attention.”

This wasn’t the family’s first run-in with the AOL cops. “She did, at one point prior to this,” the mother says, choosing her words carefully, “have a situation where she told somebody – not to go fuck themselves, but she said something to somebody on the Internet, and we again got our service suspended.”

AOL finds out not because it eavesdrops on children’s conversations but because kids turn each other in. If love and romance is one side of the Buddy List, then retribution is the other. “You know, when we were young, if there were kids we didn’t like, we drew terrible pictures,” says Parry Aftab, author of The Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace. “The kids notify AOL all the time to turn in kids that they don’t like. It’s their new tool to get other kids back.”

In one recent case, a sixth-grader received threatening e-mails on her home computer. “It said, ‘I’m going to get you, I’m going to kidnap you, I’m going to torture you,” says a parent who knows the family.

Law-enforcement authorities were supposedly called and a search was conducted for the culprit. As it turned out, the letters were sent by a classmate. “At the end of it, the kid was reprimanded,” says the friend of the family. “The offending family didn’t even take it seriously – ‘Oh, please, that? It’s just a practical joke.’ “

Part of the problem is that different families have different attitudes toward their children’s use of the Internet and how much oversight is too much to exercise online. In the old days – which means maybe two years ago – parents could at least draw some comfort from the knowledge that whatever weird behavior and warped values our children were exposed to during the day at school, we had several solid hours to deprogram them. Home, for all its problems, remained a relative oasis of right-headedness. But with the ascendance of the Buddy List, it’s as if my kid’s entire fifth-grade class – some of whose parents are strict, not even allowing their children to have their own screen names or use the Internet when they’re not in the room, whereas other parents exercise no oversight – has moved into our apartment. Life has become one big sleepover.

Some parents rigorously regulate when their children can use the Internet. “I don’t let them go on the Internet without me in the room,” one mother says flatly. “No chat rooms. She isn’t allowed to have her own password. She isn’t allowed to open mail from screen names she doesn’t know. She isn’t allowed to pester people with those stupid chain letters. I periodically do check her sent and old mail to see if she recognizes all the screen names. I explained to both my kids that the First Amendment is overruled by parental privilege.”

Other parents feel that to read their children’s e-mail is equivalent to reading their diaries, an invasion of privacy – though they may do it anyway. One mother says she was astonished at a recent parents’ meeting at her daughter’s school when another mother stated proudly that she read all her child’s e-mails. “It was accepted as if it made perfect sense,” the mother reports. “I thought it was appalling. Parents are in their children’s lives too much. If you can’t write a goddamned letter to a friend, what’s happening to the world?”

At the Parents in Action meeting, where the malicious gossip was discussed, some of the parents were all for shutting down their kids’ access to the Internet – with the exception, of course, of letting them do school-related research on their computers. “But there’s rebellion,” says Victoria Goldman, the mother who attended the meeting. “The kids don’t like a limit. How much is a kid going to like a curfew? And there were parents in the room who felt like they didn’t have to do that. And there were yet other parents in the room who felt this was a complete bullshit nonissue.”

Back at Daniel’s, a new name pops up on the sixth-grader’s Buddy List – Flirtatious.

Daniel explains that she’s the girlfriend of D.D., a popular boy in his class, who also happens to be online. “I know when they’re both on, because they won’t even answer me,” Daniel says glumly.

“Watch,” Daniel says, instant-messaging a question to Flirtatious, who apparently comes by her name honestly.

“Please leave me alone for fifteen minutes,” she replies.

After D.D. and Flirtatious’s online assignation, D.D. condescends to answer a few questions about his love life. (Unless the three of them go into a private chat room, Flirtatious doesn’t know what D.D.’s telling Daniel.) Daniel calculates that D.D. picks up as many as seven screen names at the average inter-school dance. But D.D., whose modesty is apparently part of his appeal, says the number is closer to two names on a typical evening and that girls are much freer about giving out their screen names than their phone numbers.

Boys, it seems, come off better in cyberspace than they do in person, pip-squeak Cyrano de Bergeracs. “Juliet said to me, ‘Oliver is a really, really interesting person online,’ ” one mother says, referring to a male friend of her third-grade daughter. “She said he was a jerk in real life, but online he was really nice. I thought it was interesting that kids they know have different personalities online.”

Alison reports she has received instant-messaging declarations of love. But it’s not the same thing as having a boy tell you he loves you in person. “It’s a bigger deal,” she says. “It’s actually harder to say it.”

When that sad day comes to break up with your paramour, the Internet would also seem to be the perfect vehicle. One mother remembers looking over her son’s shoulder when he received an incoming missile from a girl with whom he’d just broken up online. “You’re fat and your friends are ugly,” she wrote, dispatching him and his Buddy List in one fell swoop.

Always the gentleman, however, D.D. says he always breaks up with his women in person. “It’s more professional,” he says.

A few months ago, my wife insisted on putting our computer in the living room, instead of in my daughter’s bedroom where she wanted it. At the time, I thought she was overreacting. I no longer do. And I’m not alone. While my evidence is anecdotal, it seems that PCs, laptops, and iMacs are migrating back to family rooms such as the kitchen, where parents can look over their children’s shoulders, literally, as they navigate cyberspace.

My daughter, of course, is angry about our decision. She’s aware of the dangers of the online world. For instance, she doesn’t go into chat rooms. “They can get your screen name and IM you,” she says. But she also feels that I’ve violated her rights by stealing her computer. “When I got it for Christmas,” she said huffily, “it said on the tag FROM SANTA TO LUCY.”

I sympathize with her – but not enough to give it back.

Parenting: Is Aol Worse Than TV?