Do512 Family Featured Babymaker and contributing writer, Claudia Weber, has been struggling with what’s acceptable for her daughter when it comes to social media. Since this is probably a common theme among parents these days, we thought we’d share her concerns and open up the conversation to our readers.
How old does your kid have to be to use games and apps that allow online comments and chatting? Twelve? Ten? Seven?
I don’t know. I’m sure there are many opinions – strong ones – out there. But lately in our house we’ve been trying to figure it out and I do know one thing. It’s not easy.
Our daughter is eight and an only child. She’s a smart kid who’s never been a fan of, or great at, entertaining herself. Even when she does activities meant for one, she wants our input and approval – seriously, even coloring. So when she gets into something that absorbs her completely, it’s truly a relief. Her most recent obsession was a game from National Geographic Kids called Animal Jam. Maybe you’re familiar with it, maybe your kids play it, maybe you think it’s harmless. I mean, it’s from National Geographic – it must be good. Maybe it is, for some kids. But clearly not all.
According to the website, “Animal Jam is an online playground for kids where they can learn about the natural world while playing with friends.” What that really means is that kids, using an email/parental approval to set up accounts, create an animal avatar identity that lives in a fictional animal world. While playing, kids can get creative as they accessorize their avatars, decorate their dens, and adopt virtual pets. They interact with one another through chatting, trading/gifting, or by participating in multiplayer games and parties. They earn gems, which are online currency that allows them to do even more.
Sounds like fun, and it must be – the game has experienced 500% year-over-year growth with millions of players worldwide (PR Newswire). Our daughter learned about it from her third-grade friends and became instantly addicted.
As her interest grew – and grew, and grew – so did the game’s influence on real life. All of a sudden, Animal Jam became all she and her friends would talk about during free moments at school. They discussed codes and “glitches” and avatars and gems, all of which was okay for a while. Until she got irrational when we told her it was time to shut down. Or when a “scammer” hacked into her account and took her prized virtual possessions. Or, in a super-proud parental moment (but in all honesty kind of funny), when she casually let it slip that the “only” bad words she’d seen (and yes, we’d set parental controls and filters) in the game were “f#$k” and “crap.”
We both felt uneasy but my husband, who works in the digital space and has been trying to convince me of social media’s “why” since its inception, was more forgiving. He thought the game was okay, the kid was having fun, interacting with others and learning about online communications. He didn’t want to take it away from her – everyone else was doing it!
I, on the other hand, thought eight years old was just too young – not emotionally mature nor socially aware enough to handle all of it appropriately. It’s hard enough for a kid to get sarcasm and understand boundaries in real-life, and virtually impossible online.
Ultimately, things came to a head when we found her sobbing in front of the computer one day, upset about a real-life friend who’d taken something from her in the game, and with whom in a series of live online chats, she began to fight. Her virtual life was interfering with her real, live friendships, punctuated by the fact that she got in trouble at school for pushing the friend because she harbored a grudge about the fight they had resolved the day before.
That was that – her Animal Jam days were over. As that reality settled in and the angry, disappointed tears subsided, she moved on.
Or so we thought.
Sure, she dove into reading. She had real play dates. She rediscovered crafts she’d abandoned. Then, she stumbled upon Draw Cast, a fairly elaborate digital drawing app.
Although we wished she’d do something that didn’t require a screen, at least it was art, right? We still limited her screen time, in keeping with the widely held beliefs and recommendations of most parents and “experts” around us. What we didn’t realize for weeks, though, was that Draw Cast, too, had a social media feature that lets user comment on others’ or get feedback on their own drawings. Curious but uncomfortable, I began to scroll through her chats.
I don’t know why, but I had a visceral reaction to seeing her interactions with other players, despite the fact that both the drawings and the comments were completely innocent. Maybe it’s because we were burned by Animal Jam. Maybe it’s because I’m distrustful and overprotective. Or maybe it’s because one of her comments talked about being lonely and grateful for the “friends” she’d made on Draw Cast. Something about that broke my heart a little.
So what do we do?
She’s having fun, being creative, socializing, learning – literally how to use the app’s various features – from others. She’s communicating in a way that we do all the time and that her generation will do even more. I don’t know if I am being ridiculous and old-fashioned, trying to buck the obvious trend. After all, seems like everything we do these days has some sort of social media component. Can’t a kid just have fun?
Of course I want to hold on to her innocence as long as possible, because I can see what’s coming as she edges towards tween-hood. If that means keeping her away from social media for a few more years, I want to. I hope I’m not fighting a losing battle.
What do you think?
Claudia Weber is a transplanted Austin mom, local realtor who loves to share the best of Austin with families like hers – whether they’re moving to town or just looking to embrace the best Austin has to offer. Find out more at www.claudiasellsaustin.com.