A couple of years ago an acquaintance told me about her fears of cyberstalking. Her two sons were in their early teens and had their own mobile phones. She was one of those people who believe that past times were better, that she was more free as a child than her children are now because back then there were not as many pedophiles as there are now. Accordingly, she acted as an overprotective controlling mother. She got nervous every time one of her sons locked himself in his room to play or text on his phone. So she would constantly invade their privacy to ask them what they were doing and who they were texting. She was so paranoid about them being cyberstalked that one night, when her oldest was apparently texting and it was past ten, she lost it. She demanded to see what he was doing. Her son said, 'Chill out, mum. I'm just setting the alarm.'
I listened to her, trying not to judge. But I couldn't help thinking: Yeah, mum, chill out! I also thought: My kids are too young and haven't been exposed to this yet. I guess some day I will have to deal with it, and I might also feel at a loss about what to do.
I know a lot of people like this. They are worriers. I'm not one of them, mainly because I don't think it's true that times past were best. In fact, it surprises me how many people believe this myth. Pedophiles and stalkers have always been around, and there are no more now than they used to be. What there is more of now is awareness and openness. Now there are anti-bullying policies in schools and campaigns about nearly everything. So, things are better now except for the fear and paranoia that comes with the awareness. But of course the internet and mobile phones have brought a new way of stalking. At least, this new technology didn't exist when my acquaintance and I were kids.
I get stalked through social media. It's annoying but it's the price I have to pay for having five thousand friends on Facebook. I accept everyone who asks to be my friend only because I'm a writer and I'm always hoping people want to be friends with me because they like what I write. It doesn't always work like that, though. There are a lot of bored or lonely people out there. No matter, I ignore them, or block them. It doesn't affect me, because I know it's their problem, not mine and I can't help them. I have a real life after all.
I've seen bullies and stalkers in action all my life. I know what they're like and I'm not afraid. This is my approach and what I hope my children's will be. We are stronger than them. Bullies are insecure people who have been bullied themselves. Because they don't go to school, Dave and Alex don't have to deal with bullies on a daily basis, and I think that's really good.
A few weeks ago, one of their cousins downloaded the Minecraft Hunger Games multi-player for them. So now they play with and against other players whom they don't know. They are from all over the world and of different ages too. When they first showed me the game I instantly saw how good it was. Apart from playing, they needed to type and read short messages, mostly in English and Spanish (but also other languages!). So, in the last month both Dave and Alex have been typing a lot, still with my help, but most importantly because it was something they wanted to do and thought it was fun. I still had to do a lot of reading for them. Some messages were not very well written and we laughed and said they were probably typed by a kid without the help of a parent. It was all done in a very friendly and respectful manner. Only a couple of times someone typed something that was out of line.
When they asked me to read it I said, 'Oh, that's nothing. Just someone being silly.' And the game went on. And then a voice inside me said: Wow! And you thought that woman was an overprotective control freak? Listen to yourself! Yes, I was really shocked at my own reaction. The message I had just read was: 'Who wants to fuck?' and I said to the kids that it was nothing. I had just missed a great learning opportunity for the three of us.
Luckily, another opportunity came up, as many others will, of course. This time I was prepared and read exactly what the words said. Dave asked what that meant. I said: 'Fuck is slang for having sex, so it means "Who wants to have sex?"'
'And what does it mean to have sex?' he asked.
'Putting a penis into a vagina is having sex,' I said trying to be patient. He was supposed to know that already: I told them both when they were three or four, and we've read books about it and have seen animals doing it. It took me a few minutes to understand that if he still didn't know (or didn't remember) was because he doesn't find it all that interesting, certainly less so than other more fascinating subjects like volcanoes or the mysteries of the universe.
I commented then that this game was no place to try to hook up, especially because most players were children. Dave and Alex agreed and decided to just ignore that player. Someone else immediately wrote that they were going to report him or her. Another day someone else wrote a message to Dave asking him to be their boyfriend. Dave laughed and asked me to help him type: No, I'm a child! Another day he asked me to help him type: This is a game, not a place to pick up boyfriends. And so it went.
I must say, this only happened a few times. Mostly, the players just play and have fun. They team up to kill the more powerful hackers and often they ask to spare each other's lives, which they do, so they can go exploring the world together. All the while they type each other short messages, and I help them when they need me. I read everything they ask me to read and we talk about it. Dave asked me why people who want to meet someone romantically don't do it face to face, in 'real life', rather than in a virtual game, and we talked about that. So, so far we're good. As long as we talk about it openly, the kids are safe. I think the key is to give them the power to deal with it.