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I hit the delete button as my 8-year-old daughter screamed and cried next to me.
“Don’t do it, mommy! Please,” she begged. She was about to hit the 30-day mark on a gaming website about caring for babies that she’d recently become obsessed with, which apparently meant all sorts of exciting bells and whistles that she’d been anxiously awaiting. She even marked the event on our family calendar in the kitchen.
But deleting her account was my only recourse, given that I couldn’t change her name on the profile—her almost-full name—out there on the Internet.
I quickly got rid of her picture, too, the pretty one I'd taken of her before her dance recital. She loved that I had allowed her to put on a little makeup for her big stage performance. I’m not surprised that she had picked that one for her profile photo.
Then I realized she had figured out how to upload her profile photo.
I scrolled down to find her welcome message, seeking congratulations for her virtual babies and talking about her interest in Harry Potter and Sisters Grimm. And her age.
She might as well have put out a welcome mat to all the freaks on the Internet.
“Who are these friends?” I asked her, pointing to Hello_Kitty33 and a few other people. Their profile photos were of gummy bears and cats, their messages full of emoticons and poor spelling.
“Oh, just people,” she replied. “You can send messages to each other!”
“Messages?” I screeched. “Have you sent messages?”
And then there was silence.
She had been introduced to this fairly harmless website through our babysitter’s sister. And after giving it a quick thumbs-up, I've let her do chores to earn time to play, in place of an allowance.
She’s asked me if I want to get my own account, but I told her that I have enough babies to take care of. “That’s not actually fun for me, since I do it all the time,” I told her, laughing.
But apparently my once-over of the website wasn't enough.
And the truth is, I know better. She doesn’t.
I’ve gone on record publicly about having the “tech talk” with kids—or the “21st century sex talk,” as I’ve called it. The one that makes us uncomfortable and jittery in our stomach, but if we don’t do it then they’ll figure it out on their own, and BOOM: It’s their full name, photo and age on the Web for all the freaks to see.
Like the sex talk, this is not a one-off discussion but rather a fluid conversation that starts at a young age and continues throughout their entire childhood.
It’s not that I hadn’t talked to my daughter about using the Internet. She knows not to click on anything without permission. And I know I’ve told her several times that she is not allowed to disclose any personal information.
But, clearly, that was not enough.
And because I could not change her screen name, no matter how many links and “help” questions I clicked, my only recourse was to delete her entire account. A small price to pay for the potentially harmful consequences.
I want to believe that people are inherently good, and that “MamaBear78” is just another little girl, in another little town playing a fun little game and not someone prowling kid websites trying to find children to prey on.
But with my own extensive experiences on the Internet, I know that’s not always the case.
As much as I love the Internet and the respite, support and community it’s offered me, as well as the opportunities it has afforded me, I know the downside. I’ve seen it with my eyes and felt it in my heart.
The anonymous comments, the hateful messages. I know it all too well.
And while it can’t be avoided, even with all the Net Nannies, security software and eagle parenting eyes, I can arm my children with the tools they need to harness its power for good and to remain safe.
And I need to be present and aware of their activity.
So through her tears, and mine too, as she told me she was sorry and that it was all her fault, I apologized for failing her. And I gave her the talk I should have given her a long time ago, the talk that all parents need to have with their kids when they become of Internet age.
It’s sooner than you think.
And then I sat her down and created a new profile, with a screen name that had no personal information and a photo of an inanimate object instead of her real face. I blocked messages, sent and received.
And I promised her that I’d be there watching, not because I don’t trust her, but because I don’t trust everyone else.