My middle-school daughter climbed in the front seat after school, her long face meant to alert me something was wrong. I didn't have to ask how her day was. Obviously, it stunk.
“Some guy at school says on his profile that he hates me,” she explained.
“What profile?” What do I know? I thought a profile was a sideways view of someone's face.
“His IM profile. You put your favorite things and list people you hate. Two of my friends told me they saw his profile and he says he hates me.” She conveys this as she's choking back tears.
I'm incredulous. “He put your name on the Internet?” Not to worry, I reassure her. We'll call his parents and get the nasty reference to you off the World Wide Web by dinnertime. She is relieved, but I'm frankly riled.
Instant messaging is quite honestly the bane of my parenting existence. One of them, anyway. Not because our kids are online night and day sending cyber chat to faceless friends, but because they are not. We are among the few parents on planet Earth who own a computer but don't permit instant messaging. And to be honest, the only other family I know is my sister's.
We don't allow it because instant messaging is just plain bad. I can find no redeeming use for it, but on the other hand, it's become a serious problem across the country. It lets kids hide behind anonymity, deceive their schoolmates, spread rumors, and even trash reputations beyond repair. They're saying things online they would never say face-to-face or even over the phone. The stories of hurt and humiliation are rampant, and school administrators struggle to harness its destructive power. Like they don't have enough to worry about.
Not surprisingly, we know kids who are falling behind in school, but whose parents are convinced they're writing a thesis every night because of the time they spend in front of the computer. So in addition to being a dangerous tool that depletes real communication skills, I'm convinced instant messaging is the information superhighway to academic underachievement.
But the worst part is, our decision not to allow instant messaging leaves our daughter completely out of every social circle. Her absence from the chat room speaks volumes about her social status. Even the “unpopular” girls are online, because by collecting screen names, they can get into the “popular” clique in cyberspace.
Ironically, it's not that she feels like she's really missing anything… it's that she wishes she had one or two friends who weren't racing home after school to boot up their social lives. At 12 years old, she wants friends who'll come over to play.
Unfortunately, since we're not going to allow instant messaging just so she can be included, we'll have to hope other parents figure out how bad the IM habit is and exterminate the mouse in the house.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from first grade to freshman year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She also has worked in marketing and public relations positions in corporate and agency settings. Mostly, she spends a lot of time in her mini-van, where the real work of parenting actually happens. Learn more about Marybeth and her column at www.marybethhicks.com.)