Weekly Column: The Antidote to Internet Challenges Is Presence (The Real Kind)

By | March 11, 2019

Like all parents with school-age children, I received the district heads-up letter about the Momo challenge. By now most have are familiar with the strange, creepy face of the Momo character and the internet storm it has created. My eldest had heard about it, while my youngest had not. I passed on the heads-up. They shrugged. There are just so many wacky things out there, my eldest said.

True. The many things that lurk in the virtual darkness of the internet are not reduced to Momo or another challenge. It’s an ongoing thing. There are controversial videos and memes that are inappropriate for kids but they access anyway because they are there; there is pornography (see Katie Neustaeder’s column from last week); there are violent or troublesome-imagery games parents sometimes approve as OK because ‘so many people are doing it so it must be fine’ – which only confuses things.

We can all agree that whoever created Momo has a sick, twisted mind, but then again, that is the category we can (almost) place so many of today’s online happenings, including the addicting features of apps and games. As we know, children respond scarily well to that and get hooked easily.

The reality is, the internet murkiness and disturbing at times content will not go away. I say this with profound sadness. I grew up without the internet and loved it, and I love it even more now, retrospectively. It had all the magic in it a kid could want.

One of the reasons for it was nature: I was outside a lot. Aside from time spent reading, doing homework, or helping my parents with various chores around the house and garden, time was spent outside, rain or shine, with or without other kids, but to be fair, lots of it with kids because that’s what was considered the norm for children.

The challenges of those days had to do with climbing trees, riding bikes up crazy hills, being delegated to do dares as we were all sitting around a fire on a given late summer evening (when you live near a cemetery and the theme of the night is ghosts, you have to conjure a decent amount of courage to overcome the ‘no way I am doing this.’)

Now mind you, we weren’t instructed by my parents on every aspect of safety but given the occasional advice on what is safe and what not, and why. Nor did they have to sign a waiver if we were at somebody’s house climbing trees and building forts (with real tools, by ourselves) because it was part of the picture: kids did real things, and they did a lot of problem solving through various activities. Running into mischief added its own educational quotient.

What made it so darn good? For one, when you are around your significant adults and do various things alongside them, you learn as you go. They’ll stop you from doing this or that, until you learned the safe way to do it, but they would let you try things that were not deadly so you could make mistakes too. Hence the ongoing challenge of learning things. The best two things about that was that you really strived to learn how to do it right, and then it felt pretty good when you could put your skills to work when the situation called for it.

We went up on the hills near my house and we went to the local swimming pool in the summer. Being out and about and learning so many of those ‘invisible’ like skills by osmosis really, was the best and most valuable gift that I was given.

The times have changed and there was nothing any of us could do to stop the evolution. With the good (and the internet has brought a lot of that, everyone agrees,) came the bad, and this, again, no amount of vigilance from parents or responsible adults can stop.

The one thing we can do, and no one can change that, save for our own decision to not do it, is to spend enough time with our kids and teach about balance and healthy challenges, not by preaching to them but by exposing them to situations where they can experience that. Indoors and out.

If adults take time away from the internet and screens in general and instead dedicate it to spending it together with our kids, there is a chance they will get to experience some of that magic that the ‘no internet’ kids once experienced.

Any time spent together inside or outside, be it hard work that brings in both frustration and a sense of accomplishment, or fun times spent having adventures of all kinds, such as camping, hiking, and exploring any given corner or nature – there is a wealth of goodness and magic there waiting to grow. We have the means to challenge our children in a way that helps them grow confident and able to discern. It’s no perfect solution, but it’s something that no one loses anything by trying; on the contrary.

It’s been said many times: you cannot change the world around you but you can change how you react to it.

Now that’s a challenge worth taking.

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