Opinion

My teen wants a computer in his room. I say no. Here's why.

How can I teach him to be discerning if I can't be involved?

By

"Mom, you just don't trust me. Everyone I know has a laptop in their room," said my son as he sat at the dining-room table and logged on to the Internet.

"I don't trust any 14-year-old boy alone with a computer," I replied, trying to make a space of my own among the science and math textbooks scattered about.

"You can always check the parental controls," he said.

I performed a quick mental reality check. My son is indeed the odd guy out. He owns a laptop, but the screen is within my sight at all times. Now he argues that he is mature enough to handle private access to the Internet.

I called a few friends for advice. "At a certain point you have to trust your kids," said one mom. "They need to make their own choices and make their own mistakes," said another.

Confused, I called the local police for help. "It's up to you. If you want him to see it all, it's all out there," said an officer who suggested the computer remain in the dining room.

And when I talked to the local youth officer who gives talks on Internet usage, she told me 14-year-old boys are especially vulnerable.

Then one day as I passed by my son's laptop, I saw a music video that had been sent, via e-mail, by a friend. Women, locked in cages, were being taunted on screen by a variety of menacing creatures, all to the tune of some very dark music. I asked him not to watch the video. I told him his time was more valuable. Sure, we argued a bit, but I think my point got through.

What if my son had been alone in his room? How would I then cultivate a conversation as to what constitutes time well spent? How would I teach him to be a discerning human being, and to ask, as Aristotle does, "What is it?" when sifting through an onslaught of disturbing images. How would I ask him if these are the lifelong habits he wishes to establish?

So I geared up for yet another battle against the prevailing philosophy of the day, just as I did with PlayStation, Facebook, and Instant Messaging. I aligned myself with the wacko, overly protective, computer-hovering mothers.

My husband and I devised a plan. We would tell our son that the less time spent on the Internet, the better. One evening at dinner, my husband read from a newspaper quoting a Starbucks executive who said customers yearn for more conversation, and that Starbucks will provide community tables that encourage patrons to talk to one another.

The next evening, we read from "Always On," a book by Naomi S. Baron, professor of linguistics at American University. Ms. Baron quotes college students who regret time spent online and who say Facebook causes procrastination and wastes time.

I ask my son to question his use of technology. Is it okay to be interrupted by a "waz up" instant message while writing a book report on "The Diary of Anne Frank"? Should he peruse a slide show of "hot girls" provided by AOL's instant messaging service while studying the Gettysburg Address?

The Internet landscape offers children some grim realities better left for later years. If he's in his room, I can't help him navigate that landscape. And in a world where it seems as if children are being forced to grow up faster and faster, what is wrong with helping to guide them along until they are out of the house?

My friends warn me that if I don't allow my son more freedom now, I'll pay later. I picture myself a few years from now piling into my car for the long drive to my son's college dormitory for an Internet intervention session.

Maybe.

But I think I see signs of progress.

A few months ago, my son saw one of his friends, headphones on, chatting with an unknown opponent in an online computer game. "Boy is that a stupid way to spend your time," he said later as he rushed in the back door.

"Victory," I thought to myself.

Janine Wood is a homemaker and writer in Deerfield, Ill.

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