Imagine the scene: an eight year old girl with a Facebook account – allowed for by her parents. I will call her Maria. Maria’s parents both work full time and after school she stays at home with the maid. She has full access to the computer and knows how to navigate the Internet quite well.
Several hundred kilometers away, a grown man creates a fake Facebook account using childhood photographs of a famous teenage singer. He contacts Maria and she accepts him as her online friend. They chat. At one point he says he loves going to the beach and sends her a picture of the singer, when around age eight, at the beach. “I also love going to the beach!” she says and, when prompted, sends him a picture of herself at the beach wearing a bikini.
The friendship progresses over several days. Maria is happy because she and the cute boy seem to have a lot in common. One day he asks for her phone number. He says his birthday is coming up and he wants to invite her. Using a child’s voice, he talks to her briefly and then asks if she can talk to his father. The “father” says the “birthday” will be a lot of fun: he will pick her up at school and take them to the mall, to the movies, for ice cream and other fun things.
He also tells her not to worry about talking to her parents. He will call them later and they will work everything out.
The day of the “birthday” arrives. The man gets to Maria’s school and tells the porter he is her uncle. The porter says he will have to call Maria’s parents to get permission for her to go with him. “No problem,” he says, “while you call I will go pick her up in her classroom”. Her parents deny the story and the man is not able to leave the school grounds with Maria. At this point the school staff has started to get suspicious and they are able to record the number of his license plate and inform the police.
The man is later intercepted at the state border. He has a criminal record and has already spent time in prison for molesting children. Unfortunately, as there was no formal accusation, the police are not able to arrest him.
The scary situation I described above is a true story that happened to the daughter of one of my husband’s colleagues. The topic came up in a talk how nowadays children are so computer savvy, and my husband commented on how we limit the kids’ screen time: we have no TV set at home; the eldest has limited time on the Internet and no social media or e-mail accounts; and, more recently, we have cut all screen time for the two smaller kids (both under four) with the exception of days at grandma’s and the rare trip to the movie theater. At that point the co-worker stated that nowadays it is impossible to control kids’ screen time and recounted what happened to his girl.
Valdemar Setzer*, a professor at the Computer Science Department of the University of São Paulo (USP) researches the impacts of screens on children and advocates that kids – for lack of maturity – should have no access whatsoever to the Internet (teens included). I recently heard him talk and a lot of what he said only confirmed my own opinions and reinforced the hard decision of eliminating all screen time for my two youngest kids at home.
On the other hand, it also got me thinking about how part of the problem doesn’t have to do with the screens themselves: it is much more about parents and children who spend way too little (quantity) time together, parents who overwork to make ends meet and are (understandably) too tired to play or do outdoor activities with the kids and the end of the day or during the weekends, or simply parents and kids which communication needs to improve a lot.
I am not trying to be judgmental here – I am grateful my job is flexible and allows me to have a lot of time with my kids, but I know other parents are not so fortunate.
However, even in my case stories like this make me once again rethink my priorities and find ways to organize our family life, as there is always room for improvement. After all, there is nothing more important to me that my children, and I believe that is the case for most parents. Also, despite all the benefits the Internet and other new means of communication have brought about (such as bringing together mothers from around the world in this blog!), for me real, active life is always better than the passive life that goes on “behind the screens” – not only for children, but for adults too!
And you, do you control your children’s screen time? If so, how? Please share your story!
[*] Prof. Setzer’s website is loaded with information on the effects of screens on children, including stuff in English – http://www.ime.usp.br/~vwsetzer/
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Eco Ziva of Brazil. Photo credit: Sinistra Ecologia Libertá. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.