Monday, May 12, 2008

The Scary Truth About Kids Internet Games

My kids have branded with me the title, "strictest mom on earth". If I had a dollar for every time I heard the words, "but everyone else gets to do it!", or "my friend's mom's don't care!", I would be a rich woman.

I admit, that Michael and I are more restrictive about what our children can and cannot do than many other parents we know, but we know in our hearts that we are trying to raise them in a Godly home and teach them good traditional values, even though we live in a non-traditional society. These restrictions include the normal parental type things, but also very limited computer usage, primarily because we have been stung before with the internet teaching our kids about things they had no business learning about at their ages, and the peer pressure they experience to visit certain sites. So as a result, they can use the computer for homework and a couple internet games that I checked out and deemed safe. Despite the trends among teens today, my kids are very internet deprived: they are not allowed to have a My Space page, or visit other people's My Space pages; they cannot have a Facebook page, or visit Facebook; they cannot search for videos on YouTube; or visit any other non-monitored sites where potential predators could be stalking, or where other teenagers are ranting and raving about everything under the sun, while using every curse word that was ever invented in the english language.

Normally my children are frustrated and even aggravated by not being allowed the same unsupervised internet freedom as their friends, but today, my two sweet middle school daughters are giving me a little more credit than usual.

Last night after being at the beach for three days, and enjoying a long but pleasant mother's day with three important "moms" in my life, we returned home around 8:30pm. We had only been home for two hours in the afternoon in between mothers day gatherings, and I was ready to rest for a while. But no sooner had I sat down, the doorbell rang.

I opened the door, to find a policeman standing in front of me. Knowing that I had not committed any crimes and had no reason to bolt out the back door, I politely greeted him, as he confirmed my name and address with complete accuracy. He then proceeded to inform me that someone from California had contacted the local police department because they thought someone in my house had threatened to commit suicide while playing an online internet game. The purpose for his visit was to check on the well being of our family.

What??!! I was appalled at the thought, but then just laughed it off. What a ridiculous accusation. I was sure that he was at the wrong house, but after calling the station to doublecheck his info, he confirmed he was at the right house.

I assured him that there was no one in my home who was emotionally disturbed, and that we certainly did not have any family members with suicidal tendencies. Since my 11 year old daughter was the only one who had played on the computer during the brief interval that we we had been at home, I calmly asked her if she had said anything about suicide on the game she had been playing, and with wide eyes, she adamantly said no. After a brief private discussion with the officer, and after convincing him that me and my family were safe and mentally stable, he said goodnight and left.

I came back into the house, only to find my daughter having an emotional breakdown, because she was convinced that she was either going to be arrested or seriously punished. Since she had previously told me she had not said anything about suicide, I was a little taken aback by her reaction. After wiping her tears, consoling her, and assuring her that honesty is always the best policy, she admitted that while she was playing the popular children's internet game of Club Penguin, she had playfully said to another penguin who turned down her request to play, "I hate myself, I'm going to kill myself!". But she was just fooling around, and thought nothing more of it. For some reason, kids in her school run around saying that, just as a funny expression in response to silly comments, but not with any real meaning. We had a long talk about the severity of that statement, and that it should not be said again and she sniffed, and agreed to comply.

Here is the scary part - when the officer had arrived, and explained the reason for his presence, he informed me that the caller from California had provided them with all the information they needed to check up on me. The caller had somehow tracked down my personal computer's IP address from where my daughter had been playing the game. The caller had somehow researched and confirmed my internet account and retrieved my full name. And the caller had looked up my home address. This mystery caller; this mystery stranger from across the country whom we have never met; this person who was playing a game with my young child on the internet, on a children's play site, mind you -- knew enough information about me to send an officer directly to my front door.

Until yesterday, I thought Club Penguin was safe (www.clubpenguin.com). I thought it was merely a site where kids played against or with the computer, not against or with total strangers from around the world. I had no idea that a complete stranger could track down all of our personal information and be able to end up at our house.

The shocking fact that total strangers can find out so much personal information about me, down to the IP address of the computer sitting in my kitchen, is a scary revelation that has stuck in my mind all day. I was disappointed in myself that I didn't check this site out a little further. Me, the official strictest mom in the world, had allowed her kids to play on a site where they could interact with people unknown to me. ........... but in my defense, it was a kid's game, with cute little penguins who waddled around and scooted innocently across the screen!! Who knew?!

Obviously, Club Penguin website play is no longer allowed at my home. This time we were lucky. It seems that the person who tracked us down was only looking after our best interest. But what if that had not been the case? What if the person who showed up at our front door was not an officer, but a violent criminal, or a sexual predator, or a kidnapper? The thought sends chills up my spine.

This goes to show, that you never know who your kids could be talking to online. You can never be too careful. If you are like me, you would assume that only kids would be playing on the kids game site, but that is not so. And like me, you may think that your kids are great kids..... they would never visit pornography sites; they would never bad mouth other kids on IM or start painful rumors about innocent school mates; they would never upload inappropriate pictures of themselves to Youtube or to their My Space page; they would never talk with strangers online. NEVER SAY NEVER. Good kids make mistakes. Good kids get caught up in the ways of this world, and the temptations of the amazing technology that is available today. Good kids get hurt.

I am just a mom, not a perfect mom, not an all knowing mom, but just an average mom. But I know with all my heart that the internet is a scary place. It is a boiling pot that holds millions of poisons that are just waiting to seep into the minds of innocent children, and adults. It holds millions of opportunities for child predators to seek out and locate children who think they are just playing a safe and innocent kids game. It holds bits of information that allows total strangers to show up on our doorsteps.

I truly believe that most parents today give their kids far too much internet freedom, even if they think are strict parents, and it can only come back to haunt them. Just a few words of advice from an average, every day mom trying to raise good kids:

1) never let your kids have a computer in their room
2) always have the computer in the family room where constant supervision can be monitored
3) invest in some internet security to block inappropriate sites
4) talk to your kids about child predators and the dangers of talking with strangers online
5) check the history on your computer frequently
6) check out every site that your child visits, even if looks innocent; play the games yourself first
7) never assume that your child knows better

Sometimes I think how much easier it might be to allow my children to do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it, with whomever they choose. It would be much less hassle to not try to keep track of their friendships or get to know their friend's parents before they can spend the night at their house. It would prevent a lot of arguments and headaches if I just said "yes" to every request pertaining to their ever evolving social life, and said "that looks great honey!" to every t-shirt and mini-skirt that reveals just a little too much. Life could be so much easier if I just trusted them to make good decisions, and put all my faith in the hopes that I have done a good job raising them so far and that they know right from wrong.

But God didn't call me to just be the friend, the supporter, the pal, or just the one who pays the bills, cooks dinner and washes their clothes - He called me to be the parent. He entrusted my precious children to my care, and God expects, and commands, me to care for them just as He would do. I know they are His, but they are mine in this life, and it is my duty to raise them.

So today... I'll take that extra credit that my girls are bestowing upon me, even if it is for brief time. Today they have seen first hand how people can find out who they are, where they live, and how to get to them. They now truly understand the dangers of the internet, even though my husband and I had tried to warn them many times before. Today, they saw a policeman standing at our door, and the warnings of danger hit home.

Today, I'm proud to wear a big sign around my neck that says "Strictest Mom In The World". I know that one day, they will thank me for it, and possibly, if I am lucky, they may even ask to wear it themselves.

Proverbs 22:6 Point your kids in the right direction – when they’re old they won’t be lost.
(The Message)

Proverbs 22:15 Young people are prone to foolishness and fads; the cure comes through tough-minded discipline (The Message)

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2 comments:

Dawn @ My Home Sweet Home said...

What an amazing and disturbing story! Oh, my! I'm glad it was someone looking after your best interest, instead of otherwise.

Charlene Kidd said...

Tracie,
I really appreciate your post on this. We are very similar in what we allow the kids to do, I too have let them go to the penquin site. I am also guilty of not researching that one very well. I am glad all is covered by grace and God.