published 8 Dec 2007, MST
Two Wednesdays ago, I rushed into the Isla ballroom of the Edsa Shangri-la to attend the Second International Congress on the Education of the Youth in Love, Sex and Life organized by Intermedia Consulting, Educhild Foundation and the Developmental Advocacy for Women Volunteerism, in collaboration with I Am S.T.R.O.N.G. Foundation and the Department of Education. My friend Jing Gomez of Tanglaw University Center invited me, supposedly to appreciate the congress as an outsider, a member of the media.
I had already missed the previous day’s talks but still, the topics for discussion on the second day seemed interesting. And interesting they were—as well as diverse, thought provoking and debate inspiring. Being a parent myself, it was difficult to stay there the entire day wearing only a journalist’s hat.
Since I could not cover everything in this column, I decided to focus on what seemed to me the more timely and relevant topic. Definitely, as mother to a teener (Beatrice,13) and a tweener (Joshua, turning 12 soon), the subject “Today’s Interconnected Adolescent World” was very appealing to me.
The speaker was Keith Liu, Nokia’s head of its Internet and games experience unit, who flew in from Singapore that same day. I wondered why he looked vaguely familiar, and when I leafed through the pages of the souvenir program, I discovered that he used to be an anchor and technology editor for CNBC Asia.
But anyway. Liu’s presentation was brief and straightforward. He started by discussing the popularity of social networking sites. He cited Facebook, Bebo and mySpace, among others. In the Philippines, of course, the most popular sites among adolescents (and those who fancy themselves to be young still) is friendster, except that if you think it’s too jologs [commonplace,mass-based], you can always try Multiply and other similar sites.
Anybody can create such an account, load it with photos and use a wallpaper one feels reflects one’s personality. There is a profile where one answers slumbook-type questions. There is a tab to click when one wants to share one’s thoughts to the world via blogs. Most importantly, one can have “friends” here. Having a“friend” in this context doesn’t mean having a shoulder to cry on. A”friend” is also known as a “contact,” somebody whose page others can view with equal ease. And “friends” exchange messages, music videos, comments and much of everything else with one another.
Liu said that the following, in this specific order, comprised adolescents’ activities online: Communication with existing friends, networking with new friends (getting to know the friend of a friend or the friend of a friend of a friend), entertainment(music and online games), information (research for school assignments) and self-expression (writing of blogs).
But of course, the Internet could be a dangerous place even when the child is seated inside his room, or anywhere in the house where the computer may be situated (The danger increases greatly in computer shops). There’s the risk of encounters with sexual predators. There is gambling, pornography, financial scams, intrusion into privacy, defamation, malicious software or plain addiction. All these occur because parents can’t peek into their children’s screens 24/7. Or monitor their whereabouts every single minute.
(The American poet Emily Dickinson said: “There is no frigate like a book.” She just meant books took people to many places. I wonder to what mode of transportation she is inclined to compare the Internet.)
And imagine how free kids feel especially if they know their parents cannot quite catch up with them anymore—not knowing the rudiments of the games they play, the music they listen to, or the technical language they speak. Liu said it well: “Parents lose power when they know less than what the children know.”
There have been a lot of horror stories, here and abroad, of kids conversing for hours with total strangers in chat rooms or eyeballing newfound “friends” who turn out to be maniacs. Probably a natural reaction would be to just put your foot down and say “No Internet!” But this would be hilarious. Parents can’t—shouldn’t—keep children away from the Internet. They can instead make it a safer place.
Liu ended his presentation with a few priceless pieces of advice. To kids—avoid chat rooms. Never give out personal information. Never eyeball. Stick to friends you already know. And to parents—agree on terms of Internet use (time, number of hours). Control hardware (Web cams are cool but not a necessity, for instance) and software. Position the computer in a common area in the house, like beside the dining room, for instance, where passers-by can see the monitor even from afar.
Chastity was the underlying theme of the congress, but I’m not dealing with it in conventional no-sex-until-marriage terms. Because of you really think about it, chastity simply means discipline—tempering one’s wants, desires, or even plain curiosity.
Children nowadays cannot be dictated upon. They are more confident than their counterparts from a generation ago, bolder to question rules and ask “why?” instead of simply muttering “opo, mommy.” How, then, to get the message across to them? How to tell them it’s wiser (and more fool-proof) to be whole first on their own instead of rushing to share themselves with yet another person? How do you prevent them from being a statistic or committing the same mistakes you did when you were young?
Experts would say the key to all this is communication. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. A household has to have a climate for good communication. You can’t just blurt things out in the middle of dinner (“by the way, kids, do you know the difference between a boyfriend and a lover?”). They will just stare at you like you’ve suddenly grown a second head. Perhaps it will be easy if, in the beginning, parents refrain from talking and instead cultivate a relationship where kids could overcome their inhibitions. Sit for hours in a coffee shop and gawk at a fireworks display at the rooftop of the newest mall. Find occasions to laugh together. LOL.
And since, as I discussed in the first part of this column, technology is a significant part of kids’ social lives, parents can use this to their advantage. Why not create your own social networking account (okay, I have 71 friends on friendster) and link up with your children’s site? It’s also good for you because you can find yourself reconnecting with your seatmate from high school chemistry class, knowing how she has turned out — has she gained weight, acquired (or disposed of) a husband, sired children, pursued a real career? Does her status say "it's complicated"?
Moreover, this is a good research tool, since you are enabled to view the profiles of your friends and even your friends’ friends. Post your photos and view others’ too. See if the girl your son is taking a fancy to is at the very least cute. Post a shout-out. Read your daughter’s blogs (mine is prolific) and comment on them.
Here’s what we can do, as our precious ones, no longer little, prepare to embark into the vast, Level 200 terrain known as The Real World.