Online friends versus friends IRL

I knew something was up when I asked my nine year old who he was playing with online. He was chatting away into his headset, eyes flitting between the TV screen and the laptop while his fingers tapped the various buttons on his controller – multi-tasking in the way that kids seem able to do. Normally my question prompts the exasperated throwing out of a name of a friend. But on this occasion, I got instead a wave away with the hand and a silently mouthed ‘later’. Like I say, I knew something was up.

Of course, he wasn’t playing with one of his IRL (in real life) friends. He had ‘met’ someone online and was playing a game with him. I’m sure this other kid was perfectly fine and indeed, he did sound around nine years old when I sat and listened to the typical gameplay chatter that went between them. Whilst this particular kid might have been fine, and the next one and the one after that too, who knows when a bad situation might have come along. And the bad situation might never have compromised the safety of my son, but it could have led to inappropriate or upsetting language or chatter.

Now my son is not a stupid kid – far from it – and we talk about internet and digital safety a lot. But this was first time that his conceptual knowledge had become personal. And of course, as we all do, his self talk was that this particular situation was ‘different’ to all that he had been warned about. His indignation was visibly rising as I laid out the reasons for not friending people who you have not met IRL. I did not want him simply to comply with my directive to unfriend this person. I wanted him to really and properly understand why he needed to do this. It took a few attempts using calm and rational (at least on my part) discussion but we got there. How do I know we got there? He self-imposed his own punishment. And I agreed that it was acceptable punishment for what had happened.

Being a parent is no easy ride, and when you’re doing it solo, it sure is tougher because you have to be all things at all times. Nurturer. Police. Homemaker. Earner. Rule maker. Rule enforcer. Football player / goalie. Seamstress. Maths whizz. Car service. And now, digital expert. While I know where my skills lie in traditional areas – or lack of them when it comes to playing football – I don’t always know what I don’t know when we’re talking about digital. And even if I think I know at any point in time, I probably don’t know in the next month as digital is constantly developing and changing. And I’m probably one of the more informed ones as a result of what I do and have done professionally.

I’m not a digital luddite. In my view, there are so many fascinating opportunities and joys that come with learning online and connecting virtually with (real life) friends. Let’s not forget too, that digital is quite simply an important part of business and the world generally. But navigating the line between acceptable and unacceptable is pretty tricky.

So, as a result of this recent episode, added to the ‘contract’ that I have with my son and which is pinned up in the kitchen is a new agreement: it’s OK to talk online to, and play online with, and ‘friend’ online someone you know IRL. But it’s not OK (for which read: banned) to do it in the reverse direction, ie talk online to, or play online with, or ‘friend’ online someone you only met online. I have a feeling that the contract will be running into several pages before we know it.

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