Monday, July 7, 2014

Slenderman, Content, & You: How to Screen Content For Your Child or Teen

After reading about the Slenderman killers, I've reflected on content. A lot. Did you hear?  Two twelve-year old girls stabbed one of their classmates 19 times, in an attempt to kill her and gain access to an online wiki whose supposed owner is Slenderman.  The girls maintained that in order to "creep into his realm," one must kill someone.

Reportedly, the girls have read online horror sites for a very long time. One of them, Morgan Geyser, was just found incompetent to stand trial.  The report did not include details on whether or not the girl was mentally ill, that will be determined later.  But the fact that she is incompetent leads me to postulate that she may be incapable of discerning truth from fiction.

I'm not writing because of the atrocity committed by these girls.  I'm writing because they were reading content that was intended for a much more mature audience.  And that's what we talk about around here.  Reading.  And content.

I've maintained through several web-battles that children and teens should have their content monitored by a parent.  My opinion hasn't been very popular.  I believe that the parents know what their children and teens can handle more than the child or teen does, and that they should have an active role in helping their child or teen select material that is good for them.

The other side says that teens can't be free to learn about things in the world with parents hanging over them.  That they need to be able to read things with swear words and horror elements because that's what real life is like and why shouldn't they be exposed to elements of real life while in a fictitious world?  How are they supposed to learn to make up their minds about issues if parents are lording over them and making decisions on their behalf?  No one says that children shouldn't have their content monitored, but many argue that rating systems are in place for a reason, so that parents don't have to pre-screen or research anything.

And I agree with them - to a point.  Children and teens need to be able to select what they are reading and decide for themselves if it is appropriate for them... under the supervision of a parent who can veto a choice that is actually inappropriate for them.  Parents need to read along, or seek out sites who detail potentially objectionable content, so that they can address the behaviors and morals being taught.  They need to be parents!  They need to reinforce good behaviors and correlate poor ones with real world examples of why these behaviors are considered poor.

I'm not going to dare comment on whether or not the Slenderman girls' parents did their jobs as parents correctly.  That's not for me to judge.  What there is for me to do is to tell you that PARENTS NEED TO BE INVOLVED IN ALL FICTION YOUR CHILDREN AND TEENS ARE CONSUMING. Our brains aren't fully developed until we're 25.  Children and teens are considered minors for a reason.  We need to guide them.  Is it a daunting task?  Yes.  Can you possibly read everything your child does?  No.  I'm not saying you should.  But you should take the time to research content and to provide content to your child or teen that you feel you can discuss with them.

"But I have a voracious reader/watcher, and I can't possibly keep up with everything they take in."  Not only can you, it is imperative that you do!  And here's how:

  1. Establish the process of choosing material with your child or teen.
    • Be present when they are choosing what to read or watch: be it the library, the bookstore, Amazon, or Netflix. 
      • If you are unable to be physically present, use all the parental controls at your disposal.  Netflix has them, and you have an account password on your Amazon and Hulu accounts.  Remember, our job as parents is not a convenient one.  Change passwords and passcodes if your children already know them.
    • Create a culture of checking-in with your family.  
      • Talk about what you are reading.  Ask what they've read about that you might not know about.  The key is not to sound like a warden.  It's to be interested.  And if you can't bring yourself to be genuinely interested in what they are consuming?  Fake it.
      • Use methods like tracking charts and free book programs from local and national businesses (like this one from Barnes & Noble) as a platform for monitoring and recording what your child or teen is consuming.
  2. Read and watch with your children or teens.  Yes, even your teens!
    • We all interpret what we hear and see differently. Children don't always see the allegorical inferences apparent in their books or shows.  Teens don't always recognize that a behavior is destructive when everyone else is doing it.  We, as adults, see the destruction, but they just see it as stuff everyone is doing.  They don't see the long-term perspective.  Teens, you see a lot of it! You do!  It's the little bits of it that are unveiled through the experience of getting old that you miss.  Sometimes those little bits are the key to understanding the whole picture, and even though it can be really hard to trust your parents because sometimes they screw up, you have to know they have your best interest at heart.  They want you to be cool, they want you to fit in, they want you to get asked out by the hot girl/guy... but they have to weigh that against your safety and your mental health, because that's their job.  That's their job that's more important than the one that they leave the house every morning and get paid for, to make sure that they do everything in their power to see that you become a healthy, responsible, happy and contributing member of society.  And it's the one they're scared to death they'll screw up the most.  Part of that job is monitoring what you consume - both with your mouth and with your mind.  Don't hate on them for doing something right.  Even if it sucks.    
      • Think about contemporary teen books such as Pretty Little Liars.  Fiction?  Absolutely.  More drama and raunch than I experienced in all of my high school and college days combined? Absolutely.  But to your teens, these books are set in our world.  So in their eyes, there are some parallels to what they are going to experience and how they are going to behave.  Trust me.  I've had multiple discussions with teens about PLL specifically.  Discussion is a must. 
      • Books like We Are The Goldens and #scandal are great books to read alongside your child so that they can discuss with you the issues that they are seeing.  Teacher-student relationships and cyberbullying were almost unheard of when we were in school, but now?  They're everywhere.  Use fiction to your advantage!
    • Talk about what you are reading and watching. The great thing about reading as a family vs. watching as a family is that it's easier to discuss.  We all assume that what the other person saw with their eyes is what we saw with ours, but we all know that words have multiple interpretations from the get go. 
    • Buy two copies of a book. Expensive? Sure.  But worth the investment to have that experience alongside your teen.  Or, buy one and check-out one from the library.  Read separately and have some amazing discussion. 
  3. Research what you can't read or watch.  There's no way you can actually view everything your child does, but you can find out what's inside.
    • There are blogs, such as this one, which tell parents what content is inside a book that might need to be discussed. Address these topics in creative ways:
      • Ask them what they think about a news story whose criminal had a similar path as a character in one of their books.
      • Ask who got in trouble at school that week and discuss why, then relate it to a book you have read.  Allow them the opportunity to do the same, to relate that behavior to one they've seen in fiction.  Teach them how to make the real-world connection with a fictional character's behavior so that they can learn from said character's mistakes.
    • Talk to other parents about what their children or teens are reading.  Be each others' helpers! There is a water cooler at work, and its job doesn't only have to be hosting office gossip or discussion about last night's TV show.  Ask what their kids are reading or watching.  If they don't know, maybe it will prompt them to find out. 
  4. Don't glorify bad behavior in fiction as a way to relate to your children. 
    •  It's tempting.  I know.  This means not calling a character a slut.  Do you want your children calling someone who did what that person did a slut?  No.  You don't.  Even if you're the meanest mean girl in the world and you think you do.  I promise you, you don't.
    • Don't do something questionable in an attempt to relate to your child.  You are not your child's friend, you are their parent.  Act accordingly. 
  5. Don't be judgemental.  
    • When being open and relating these things to or with your child or teen, don't put your parent face on and expound on why these things are bad ideas.  You are sneakier than that.
      • Listen.  Hear what they think and what their perspective is.
        • "Dad, in that scene, Hargrave said that he wanted to kill her."
      • Repeat.  Tell them what you think they are saying, in your own words.
        • "Hargrave said that he wanted to put his sword through her heart..."
      • Addend & Ask. You've let them know that you heard them.  Now ask what they think. 
        •  "...What do you think about that?"
      • Frame.  After listening to their answer, add perspective where necessary. 
        • "I think that's awesome.  She deserves to die."
        • "Well, if she was your sister, that would make me sad.  Do you think she might deserve another chance?"
      • Guide.  This is your chance to weigh in on what they think.  
        • "No.  She's a horrible person.  She killed all 14,000 of the Doinhelm with one swipe of her sword and she burned all the bodies so that their relatives couldn't bury them.  Then she let her horse pee on them. And she didn't even care."
        • "But the Doinhelm killed her brother."
        • "So what, that didn't mean she had to wipe out all of them!"
        • DISCUSS.  Play devil's advocate, hear what your child or teen is thinking. Give them food for thought.  Then follow-up.  
  6. Say No.  If it's inappropriate, don't give them permission.  Will they do it at a friend's house?  Maybe.  Will you find out about it?  Maybe.  
    • Get to know your child or teen's friend's parents.  Be involved. 
      • Stances like, "No porn" or, "No violence" don't really get heeded if a parent isn't like-minded, but if you explain that Billy doesn't handle violence well, or that you believe porn is very harmful, you're more likely to have another parent be cognizant of what media they're feeding your child, much as if you'd mentioned a food allergy.
    • Don't give them access to something they're not ready for as a reward. Even if they think they want it.  Guard them.  Prepare them.  Help them by saying "no."
      • This also means finding age-appropriate material for advanced readers and for curious kids who want to learn more about a subject.  Make sure it's something they can handle.
The key is to know what's going on so that if a questionable behavior arises or an incorrect perception forms, you can correct it.  Your children are exposed to so much that you don't have the opportunity to know about, but books, movies, and online content are something that you can monitor and you can keep your eye on.

I know the majority of this is common sense. I'm not advocating censorship.  I'm a grown woman and I know I can't watch zombie movies, but there's no one there to stop me, so I do.  And I pay the price with nightmares and minor panic attacks that a zombie might be at my front door.  It's in our natures to push our limits, but as parents, we are the ones who set those limits.  What I'm advocating is to be involved in your child's fiction and to make sure that they know that Slenderman is photoshopped and that you can't join his cult by killing someone.  Be there.  Be involved.  What they read and what they watch matters.

1 comment:

Tawnya said...

This is awesome. And timely, I think summer is when I let these kinds of things slip. We're more laid back, less scheduled - so I'm not keeping up as much. It's also when the kids are home and more likely to be consuming books, shows, movies. And if they're not yelling at each other I'm less likely to check on them.
And it is so much work keeping up with them and technology and all the things that go into being a parent, but then I remember that it's my job. Thank you for being real about how hard it is, and how important it is. I think you gave great ways to do this- very empowering instead of preachy.