It’s Time for Free-Range Parenting to Enter the Digital Realm

Reading Time: 4 minutes

FRKcover“What’s this?” my newly 16-year-old daughter asked.

“It’s a username and password: one for Netflix, the other for TMNGO [the Canadian equivalent of HBOGO].”

“Why are you giving this to me?”

“You’re sixteen now. You now have free access to the internet.”

And off she went to finally watch Orange Is the New Black and Game of Thrones–shows she claimed her friends were allowed to watch.

Now before you go jumping to any conclusions, let me explain what this was about. It was not about giving my daughter free access to the internet. The internet has free access, and, if she wanted to find those TV shows (or anything else), she already had the power to do so. Whether she had or not, I don’t know. I’d found out that she had discovered the Gilmore Girls so, frankly, anything was possible.

Instead, what I had given her was our permission to freely access this stuff that was previously off-limits. This meant she did not have to look at it in secret, nor was she tempted to do something outside the confines of the copyright system.

Most of the people who read this blog probably watch Game of Thrones, and many likely have kids under the age of ten. We geeks also tend to know what’s out there on the internet, and there are lots that we surely don’t like. All of our parental instincts tell us to shield and protect our kids when faced with what is essentially the Wild West. I mean, if you think letting your kids walk to the park on their own is something to worry about, the internet is a whole other matter.

As parents, my wife and I subscribe to the free-range parenting philosophy. Founded by Lenore Skenazy, this is a movement that looks objectively at the dramatically fallen rates of violent crime and says that we should not “cotton ball” our kids. Instead, if it is as safe as the 1950s out there, then kids should be able to roam freely as they did in that gentler time. You should let your kids go to the park unsupervised, and let them take public transport to see their friends across town. The thinking is that this will breed a more independent child and also save you, as a parent, a ton of time you would have otherwise spent starting up that helicopter.

But the free-range movement always stops when we get to the digital world. It wants to get kids out and about outdoors, which is laudable, but the philosophy is first and most about independence. And there is no place like the internet where children are far from free to roam.

I’ll admit that I started out seeing the internet as a place to cotton ball our kids. I wanted them to have email but I worried–Why? I no longer know–about predators so elaborately as to set up filters and redirects so I could see what was going on. A decade or so later this looks downright foolish, as they don’t use email and have gone to places I could equally have worried about. I also worried about their images and names on the internet, but now that too looks crazy, as these are all over Facebook.

What we did have was a plan and some consideration. It just seems dated, and also likely counter-productive, given our free-range goals. The idea of independence is that you let kids explore–and explore pretty much anything that is part of normal life (and the internet qualifies)–and then you monitor that independence so that you can help them learn. Learning how to navigate the digital world is as important, if not more so, than learning how to deal with public transport. For starters, just as we found, the kids will have to learn to deal with new technologies without getting into trouble: new technologies we can’t yet even imagine.

Which brings me back to Netflix and HBO. Think about yourselves at 16, especially what was going on in your mind. Yep, it’s not pretty. Your kids aren’t going to be any different. They will roam. They will explore. But if you require them to do it by stealth, that is what they will likely do. That is not what we wanted. Instead, I wanted my child to find it safe–not to explore–but safe to come to me and her mother if something came up that was disturbing. And better for it to be something disturbing that we ourselves have seen.

In our case, an interesting thing happened with Orange Is the New Black. Our daughter loved it, and I think has watched it several times over. But I did walk into her room one day to find her watching something new. She was watching a documentary on prisons in America. I asked her why. “Do you know how many people are in prisons? It is a huge amount. I wanted to understand how that came to be.”

Now the notion that this would somehow lead to a desire for deep, genuine learning? That’s what I call an unintended consequence.

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