Category Archives: parenting

Young Lives Online

A recent New York Times article discussed how some American companies, before employing young people just out of college, are looking at how they present themselves in online communities such as MySpace and Facebook.

Not surprisingly, many kids in high school and college use these “protected” online spaces to try on personas, indulging in the posturing common to adolescents, such as claiming attitudes and behaviors that they rarely, if ever, actually indulge in. This is no different from teen posturing in real life, except that, instead of being performed for an audience of their peers, it’s available for all the world to see.

” ‘The term [companies have] used over and over is red flags… Is there something about [a potential employee’s] lifestyle that we might find questionable or that we might find goes against the core values of our corporation?’ ”

It seems to me that any company which decides NOT to hire a person on the basis of their MySpace profile falls into three errors:

  1. Assuming that what’s presented there is real.
  2. Assuming that, even if true, high school or college behavior reflects how someone will behave in adult working life. Many working adults smoke dope or drink on weekends, without letting it affect their working lives. A sign of adulthood is in fact the ability to behave appropriately in each of the different spheres of your life.
  3. Rampaging hypocrisy. Could all of these puritanically-minded recruiters truthfully say that they did not behave like adolescents during their adolescence? Could they say the same for every current employee of their organization?

A few of the companies contacted for the NYT article said that they do not conduct such investigations of potential employees, some explicitly stating that they felt such material to be irrelevant (good for them!). Nonetheless, I suspect that the phenomenon is more likely to grow than shrink, given America’s Puritanical bent.

That being the case, how should young people behave online?

The key is to realize that the Internet is a hyper-public piazza, in which you should assume that everything you say, no matter when or to whom, is being recorded – and may someday be held against you. We’ve all made the mistake of accidentally copying an email to the very person denigrated in it. There have been well-aired cases of regrettable emails being publicized, to the humiliation and sometimes material damage of the originator. Even Microsoft has been hoist with its own petard by internal emails which became public knowledge thanks to subpoenas or leaks.

The only way to be absolutely safe is never to say anything online that you might someday regret, or that you might not wish some third party to hear. An oft-cited rule of thumb is: “Don’t put anything out there that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see.”

Which is, of course, extreme and unreasonable – we all have sides to ourselves that we don’t share with our grandmothers. Perhaps a better rule of thumb is: “Don’t put anything out there that you wouldn’t want your parents to see.” And then for the parents to actually go and look.

A newly-published study on teens’ use of MySpace and their parents’ perception thereof is enlightening. It shows that, while parents profess to be concerned about what their teens may be doing or experiencing on MySpace (their fears heightened by media hysteria), “38% have not seen their teen’s MySpace page and 40% never look at their teen’s MySpace pictures.”

Furthermore, “Less than half the parents say they have limits on both computer use
(46%) and MySpace use (32%) but kids say that those limits are not followed.” And: “One-third of the parents are not sure about whether their teen is giving out personal information; even when they think they know, they underestimate how often their teenagers give out their name, school name, phone number, e-mail/IM, and social information. For example, 34% of parents were not sure if their teen had given out the name of their school and 43% were sure that they had done so, while 74% of the teens stated that they had provided their school name.”

In other words, parents claim to be setting limits on how their kids use MySpace, but are not actually checking to see how they are using it. Which is very easy to do: most MySpace pages are open to the public, and it would be a very duplicitous child indeed who actually set up two MySpace profiles – one for parental consumption and one for friends.

My own daughter has a MySpace account, but uses it only occasionally to stay in touch with her American friends. Ross is far more active on Fotolog, and my readers already know that I keep close tabs on her there – not because I don’t trust her, but because it’s entertaining. I also have both a professional and personal interest in understanding how online social networking works and how people use it; Ross’ Fotolog is a handy case study that’s easy for me to follow because I actually know some of the people and their back stories.

Ross knows that I see almost immediately whatever she posts (one of Fotolog’s features is email alerts whenever a friend adds something to their Fotolog). Does this affect how she behaves there? She says: “No, but you and I have a weird relationship.” (She did once change a post on my advice; I thought it a bit harsh on one of her friends and that she might soon regret having said it.)

But I have talked to Ross a great deal about online reputation management, and the wisdom I’ve passed on (based on my own online experience as well as reading) does seem to inform her online behavior. She’ll do fine in the working world. (Unless she applies for a job at the Temperance Society…)

Helping Kids Stay Safe Online

A guy (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch) came to meet Rossella at the pre-vloggercon dinner. He teaches kids about computers, and had searched online for young videobloggers, finding Dylan Verdi, Ross, and some nine-year-old playing the piano.

The man wanted to ask Ross and me what we thought about the safety issues of kids in online video. This has also come up in the vlogging group lately, so I thought I’d share my own experience and perspectives on keeping kids safe online.

I’ve been working online since 1992, so Ross has grown up with the idea that computers are primarily tools for communication. Somewhere around age 11, she expressed an interest in trying it herself, specifically online chatting. I was happy to encourage this, in part to get her writing more in English. So I sniffed around and found, which seemed to a safe place to start. Discussions are moderated by adults, and the atmosphere is/was friendly and relaxed (disclaimer: though it seems to still operate in much the same way, I have not followed Kidlink closely in years, since Ross outgrew it, so I cannot absolutely vouch for it). I also had her go through a Yahoo tutorial on Internet safety for kids, with a quiz at the end, covering the basics such as “don’t give out your phone number or address, don’t tell what school you go to.”

In the early days, I was always aware of what Ross was up to on the computer: she had to use my home office computer, or the other one sitting right next to it, so she was literally right under my nose most of the time. She enjoyed chatting with kids all over the world on Kidlink. Later on, when she tried things like MTV chat sites, there were a couple of incidents that I didn’t like, e.g. she and her friends ganging up electronically on someone else and exchanging obscene comments. That wasn’t and isn’t her usual style.

I never attempted to filter what Ross could see. Although it’s easier to find disturbing material on the Internet than in real life, it ain’t exactly difficult in real life – just watch the news on any given evening. Kids are curious, especially about anything that seems forbidden; that’s part of growing up. The less a big mystery you make of it, the less fascinating it will seem to them, and the less they’ll go looking for it. Ross told me she has looked at some gross-out sites that her friends were talking about but, again, I don’t think it’s a habit. After the fact, all I could do was shrug and say, “Well, I hope it doesn’t give you nightmares.” (It didn’t – she has a far stronger stomach than I.)

As for protecting Ross from others’ evil intentions, the best defense for any kid is to know how to react wisely to whatever comes up. Early on in Kidlink days there was a possibility of her meeting a Romanian boy who was coming to Milan for a vacation with his parents. I agreed that we could all meet up in some public place (though it never quite came together).

Far worse was the real-life incident when some dirty old man muttered obscenities to her on the street on her way home from school. Then only 12 years old, Ross was shocked and frightened, but she kept her head: as soon as the light changed, she crossed the street to where a traffic cop was standing, and the nasty guy of course disappeared.

These days Ross mostly chats online with people she already knows from real life, but she’s aware that it’s possible to make entirely new friends online. I have done so many times in my long online career, a recent example being the videoblogging group that we both met face-to-face in New York.

Kids should be protected, but at some point they have to learn to judge for themselves: they need the opportunity to develop their own gut feelings about situations and people to avoid. Parents can talk things over with kids and help them evaluate, gently guiding them towards the day when they’ll have to do it for themselves anyway. So, for the Internet as for practically every other issue in child-raising, the best we can do is to accompany them into new adventures, and try to keep lines of communication open.

July, 2006

Note: Ross now has her own website, but she needs my help to manage it, so she’s more active on Fotolog.

2014: Ross has had her own website for quite some time, though I still do technical stuff for her from time to time.

The Family That Eats (and Drinks, and Talks) Together

News sources reported recently on a survey of American teens which shows scary correlations between the habits of the people kids spend time with, and the likelihood that they themselves will do various things (drugs, alcohol, sex). It seems that hanging out with the proverbial “wrong crowd” really can lead to trouble.

The New York Times goes on to say: “The survey suggested a simple way for parents to reduce the likelihood that their teenage children would smoke, drink or use drugs: have dinner with them. Teenagers who reported having fewer than two family dinners a week were one and a half times likelier to abuse these substances than those who had five or more dinners a week with their parents. They were also more likely to have sexually active friends or spend more than 25 hours with a significant other. But as teenagers grow older they are less likely to have family dinners, the survey found; older teenagers are also more likely to be substance abusers or engage in sexual activity.”

I have written before about the central role of family meals in Italian culture, and how they help Italian teenagers to grow up civilized. Eating together isn’t a panacea; drug and alcohol abuse do exist in Italy, and alcohol abuse seem to be on the rise particularly among young people.

But Italy has a long way to go to “catch up” on that front, and there is hope that it won’t go that far. After all, many Americans are attracted to Italy’s more leisurely, family-oriented lifestyle – there’s even a book about how to live an Italian lifestyle in the US. (NB: I have not read it, nor am I likely to.)

A New York Times opinion piece today on curbing teenage drinking says: “This summer, we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the minimum drinking age of 21, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. That legislation has saved an estimated 20,000 lives.” The author calls for more funding for enforcement to prevent underage drinking.

At 18, Americans are old enough to vote, and to make life-or-death decisions such as joining the military. They’ve been driving since they were 16, unlike European teens (driving age is 18 here), and most are leaving home to go to college or enter the work force – they are legally independent of their parents. Yet they’re NOT old enough to drink. Huh?

As usual, American culture focuses on the wrong things. You don’t stop teenagers doing stupid things by telling them not to – which is simply hypocritical when most of their parents did the same, or worse, when they themselves were teenagers. Teenagers can spot hypocrisy miles away, and rightly despise it.

You also don’t stop kids doing “bad” things by “shielding” them. In spite of the censorship of American television, most kids are very familiar with the word “fuck” by third grade or so.

And you don’t stop teenagers having sex by pretending it doesn’t exist, or that it only exists within marriage. I’ve recently been told by a friend, who works in pregnancy prevention in the US, about studies showing that, in households where sex is freely and openly discussed, kids tend to start having sex later.

Adults drink, and swear, and have sex, and it’s useless to pretend that we don’t. Teenagers are growing up, they want to feel adult, and want to do these “grown up” things themselves. You can’t stop them doing things; you can only try to prevent them from hurting others or getting hurt themselves. (Morally and emotionally, as well as physically.)

The solution is honesty, openness, and responsibility. Let kids learn to drink responsibly, by starting at home, at family meals. Teach them to have safe sex, by talking with them about it, answering any and all questions, and getting them to a clinic for birth control. As for swearing, I learned about swearing responsibly from my dad long ago, when I was about 10 years old:

“When you drop a hammer on your toe, it’s okay to swear,” he said. “But you don’t sit at the dinner table and say: ‘Pass the fucking salt.’ “

Rossella and Hamish: A Love Story

^ above: “Jump? What jump? I don’t see any jump.”

video shot August 14, 2004

music copright Patrick Doyle; buy it here

May 25, 2004

“Okay, I see it. But I ain’t jumping it!”

“Whoa, did I jump that?”

“Well, might as well do this one, too.”

“And this one…”

“…and this one and this one and this one…”

girls who love horses | home for a horse


The NYT reports on the phenomenon of daytime movie screenings at which parents are welcome to bring babies – presumably the entire audience understands and tolerates baby noise. If people were a bit more tolerant in general, this kind of thing wouldn’t be necessary. Bringing a baby to a usually baby-less venue doesn’t have to mean that everyone around the child suffers, as long as the parents behave with common politeness, and expect the same from their child (within the limits of his/her age and abilities).

We took Rossella to movies practically from birth (lots before birth, too). We love movies, and she was a tranquil infant, if a breast was readily available. As soon as she made the tiniest noise, I put her on the breast, she fed herself to sleep, and we went on enjoying the movie. (She could sleep through any kind of movie, no matter how loud.)

No one ever objected at the many Yale film society screenings we attended during her first months. One of the societies was at Yale med school, where we were objects of delighted attention from young med students, eager to display their new knowledge: “Look! There’s the fontanel!”

When I visited my aunt in Texas, we went to see a Woody Allen movie. We got there well ahead of schedule and settled into good seats. I left Ross with Rosie for a minute to go to the bathroom before the film started. While I was away, Ross started to fuss. A lady sitting nearby frowned at Rosie. “Don’t you think you should take that baby out of here?” “No,” replied Rosie calmly. The lady got up in a huff and changed seats. By the time the film started I was back in my seat, and Ross was quietly feeding.

I suppose the lady thought that we were going to allow the baby to disrupt her movie. Certainly not. If Ross had a problem that couldn’t be cured by a breast, I quickly took her outside. This, to me, was simply polite, and anyway I couldn’t concentrate on a movie with a fussing baby nearby, any more than anyone else could. We finally gave up going to movies with her around six months, when she was sleeping less and more active, and we could no longer keep her happy and quiet for the length of a film.

What everyone most dreads is babies on airplanes. Get onto a plane with a baby in your arms, or toddler by the hand, and see the pained winces, furtive looks, and muttered prayers: “Oh, please, don’t let it sit by me!” I got so tired of being on the receiving end of this that now, when I see a family with children coming to sit near me, I make a point of welcoming them with a smile, no matter how much I’m cringeing internally.

Ross and I travelled a lot when she was small. The trips were exhausting for me, because I worked very hard so that she would NOT annoy fellow-passengers. Several times, as I sat limp and drained (literally) at the end of a flight, exiting passengers would compliment me, with some relief, on how well my baby had behaved. “You have no idea how hard that was,” I would think to myself.

Ross was by and large cooperative, wanting only to be entertained. The one really bad flight we took was when she had just become extremely mobile (crawling). The plane was a double-decker 747, and our seat was on the aisle near the stairs to the upper deck. Ross was entranced with those stairs, and I spent the entire flight (Rome to NYC) chasing her. I didn’t mind her moving around, as long as she wasn’t about to trip somebody, but every time I let her go, she bolted immediately for those fascinating steps.

Ross was maybe a year when an older woman, seeing my struggles to keep her occupied during a flight, suggested: “Give her paper and a pen.” This hadn’t occurred to me; I assumed she was still too young. But she went right to it, happily scrawling away, and thereafter I made sure to have markers and an ample supply of paper for every flight. Perhaps the artistic ability Ross has now owes something to that kind lady.