Can technology solve our problems with technology? That seemed to be the question a mother next to me in the Apple Store last week wanted to know the answer to. She had come in to purchase a phone for her ten-year-old child and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop as one of the staff “geniuses” offered assistance.
The mother wanted to make sure that she could filter the kind of information her daughter was receiving on her phone. She wanted to limit access to social media and even eliminate the Safari app from the phone. (One might wonder why she didn’t just order a flip phone.) But the store representative said that he didn’t think this was possible. Instead, he offered her some parenting advice.
“Did you ever hear the old Indian legend of the boy who went fishing with his friend?” the man asked.
You have to be kidding me, I thought to myself. But no, he continued.
The man explained: “The boy was tired of waiting for the fish to bite. But then he spotted a fish on a rock across the stream. His friend warned him that he should be wary of things that were out of their place. But the boy ate it anyway. And he turned into a snake.”
Why was this woman continuing to listen to this nonsense? I have no idea. But then came the moral of the story. He told her that she should tell this same story to her daughter. So that the daughter would know that if she sees something on her phone that shouldn’t be there, she too should be wary.
Which is a long way of saying that there is really no way to prevent your child from seeing pornography on her phone, but she should tell an adult when she does. Well, that’s comforting.
On the one hand, this helpful Apple staffer is exactly right. There are no effective filters for your child. And it’s not unlikely that giving your ten-year-old a phone will result in her seeing pornographic images relatively soon. Even websites that parents don’t worry about are not what they seem.
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times reported on parents who let their kids watch seemingly appropriate videos on YouTube, like PAW Patrol. But because YouTube’s algorithm is not particularly discriminating, a child might end up watching instead “PAW Patrol Babies Pretend to Die Suicide by Annabelle Hypnotized,” which was “a nightmarish imitation of an animated series in which a boy and a pack of rescue dogs protect their community from troubles like runaway kittens and rock slides. In the video [one boy] watched, some characters died and one walked off a roof after being hypnotized by a likeness of a doll possessed by a demon.” In another PAW Patrol video, the characters appear in a strip club.
All of which is to say that even parents who are relatively involved in their children’s screen choices, even parents with the best of intentions, are likely to find that their kids encounter some fairly inappropriate material. So when we give kids their own devices and let them explore on their own—advising them only to be wary of things that are not in the right places—we are bound to be disappointed.
But we are also bound to be disappointed if we expect that the people who sell us technology are looking out for the best interests of our children. I’m not suggesting that this particular salesman had nefarious motives. But in general, the idea that we would be taking advice about childrearing from companies that want to get more technology in our hands and the hands of our children is fairly absurd. Just like the fish on the rock, finding parenting advice in a technology store is “out of place.”
The real moral of the story is this: We can’t keep our kids in a bubble forever, but if we want to keep them sheltered a bit longer, we should remember that parents are the only effective filter.
Image: By Cryptic C62 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons