Nearly 12 years ago, the OB/GYN maneuvered the ultrasound wand against my belly with the aid of cool gel and announced we were having a daughter. We looked adoringly into each other's eyes and reveled in that special moment, as new, first time parents do, while I tried to ignore a small part of my heart which refused to participate in the glow of Finding Out Day. Later, alone in my thoughts, I wrestled with this anxiety-ridden piece of my soul and it responded by scrolling through a preview reel of my daughter's impending life. It was a black and white film with flashes of boldly footed words like, "BODY IMAGE," "JEALOUSY," or "SHAME." On and on the reel turned, a collage of my own personal neuroses and struggles in life crudely imposed on my yet-to-be born baby, a girl like me. It was the first of many more moments to come in my parenting years, in which panic seizes me at the tender vulnerability of letting my flesh and blood walk around in this wild world.
Fast-forward to last Christmas when among the presents under the tree, she found herself a shiny new iPad mini with retina display. She had reached the literacy age where most of her reading materials are available as ebooks, and like decent parents, we opted to give her the gift of reading. Now, a month or so into her possession of the tablet, I can feel the familiar panic rising up, and the squeaky wheel of All-The-Terrible-Things reel begin to turn again. The time had come when we've handed our tween daughter the Internet in a 5 by 7 portable gadget.
This is unknown territory. I did not get my first email account until I was in high school. The Internet was not around when I was 10 going on 11. I am unclear how one navigates the murky waters of tween years, a time of tumultuous body changes and increasing self-awareness, with the Internet woven into the fabric of life. How do I parent, and impart wisdom into a situation which I have no knowledge of? What is Snapchat and what is this I hear about sexting with it? I feel like an unhip mother at the tween cultural fringe, frazzled by the race to keep on top of things in order to lead my child.
One time, my daughter began telling me, "Mom, my friend Googled 'naked' and..." at which point my brain instantaneously went numb. Adrenaline driven alarm shot through my body and I tried to inconspicuously bring my eyes back down to a normal size while nonchalantly nodding along to her story. There are so many brutal images out there not suitable for human beings, much less tween human beings. Pictures that cannot be unseen are waiting inevitably to be viewed by my child. The thought makes my insides clench. My daughter, who had trouble sleeping for days after watching The Christmas Story, cannot possibly be ready to be exposed to graphic images available online.
Even more powerful than visuals are words that can debilitate. I worry about insidious sexist or racist messages delivered in seemingly harmless voices for my biracial girl. Editorials, news clips, comment sections -- Oh, the comment sections -- how they pose a threat to misdirecting my child's sense of self-worth. With that powerful tool in her hand, snuggled innocently against her favorite pillow, how will she handle the blows to her self-esteem when I'm not around to counteract the poison with love? Am I equipped to help bring nuance to the media she consumes?
Further down the line, when we allow her to be on social media, she'll be susceptible to cyber bullies and sexual predators. More likely, though not any less frightening, her own friends' interactions online will threaten to wear her down. Behind the veil of the screen, will classic social manipulation grow into even more vile of a beast with claws that scratch nasty messages on her wall? Will feeling left out be amplified for my tween because there are now more avenues than ever at their disposal to exclude and ignore? "Nobody liked my status, Mom," I can hear her say, and my heart is breaking already.
Our generation is scrambling to make sense of our new reality where online and offline life bleed together. I struggle daily to strike balance in responsible use of our screens, and I am an adult with fully-developed brain functions and years of experience to aid in my sanity. A tween still has a long journey ahead in which to grow, to try, to make mistakes and amends. I hate that some of her growing will take place in the public and permanent eyes of the web.
The movie of all my worst case scenarios continue to play, and like a ferocious mother bear, I am ready to bust through the screen and shut it all down. I am tempted to consult with my husband and work out an airtight, no exceptions, no electronics household code. I am terrified. I am reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who writes, "Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world." When it comes to the Internet and my tween, I feel an acute, crippling defeat.
But I also recognize the other side of the coin of fear is love. The intensity of my fear correlates with a persistent desire to maximize the well-being of my child. Eleven years ago, I birthed a baby into this unkind world, but I didn't clue her in at birth. I held her close and whispered love into her ears. We kept her warm, fed and safe from harm. We made sure she knew only tenderness and security. One day, she let go of our fingertips to take her first steps and we began to warn her of sharp edges and heavy doors, kissing boo-boos and wiping tears. At school we remind her to be kind and to share, but also to stand up for herself and for others when meanness occur. Slowly, as her world expanded, we helped guide her and gave her room to make mistakes within safe parameters. We gradually introduced the ugliness that seek to harm while doing all we can to live out the goodness to be pursued. I feared for her, but also loved her enough to let her fly.
We now find ourselves on this precipice of another release. There she is, the Internet at her fingertips, her world once again expanding. She checks email and chats with her friends. She looks up words through online dictionaries for school. She is currently obsessed with Disney wikipedia pages. I don't know when she'll stumble upon the first disturbing image or watch a commercial objectifying bodies like her own developing self. I'm not sure when her friends will hurt her by not responding to an invite or by posting photos of a party she isn't invited to.
This is what I do know: we will not parent out of fear, but will speak words of love and gently show her, that out of ugliness in a world which haunts and destroys, there is beauty to be found.
And we will apply parental controls on her devices.