Spoiler: give him a smartphone with internet access. That's the answer. And give it to him when he's young. The average child receives his first smartphone when he's 9 or 10, and getting younger. Soon we'll have a nation full of Snapchatting toddlers, no doubt. And their parents will look on contentedly, feeling no regrets about depriving their children of an actual human childhood. It's much more important, they figure, to stay up with the trends and keep their kids equipped with the latest tech gadgets.
I was thinking about this issue earlier in the week as controversy briefly raged over some guy named Logan Paul. Paul, if you recall, was so desperate for #content that he went into Japan’s “suicide forest” and filmed himself giggling over the corpse of a suicide victim. Paul eventually apologized and begged for forgiveness, and everyone has since moved on, but those of us above the age of 17 are left, still, asking one important question: Wait, who is Logan Paul?
As I discovered, Logan Paul is a “YouTube celebrity” with millions of young and devoted fans. He is one of many internet superstars who provide our children with hours of entertainment every day while we remain entirely oblivious of their existence. If Paul’s latest video hadn’t generated widespread outrage, your 11-year-old daughter may have spent 15 minutes watching a video featuring a dead man hanging from a tree in suicide forest without you ever finding out about it. Indeed, if your kid is like the statistically average kid, she spends about nine hours a day — nine hours — consuming media, mostly on the internet. And if you are anything like the statistically average parent, you have no clue about the nature of the images, sounds, and ideas she ingests during that span.
Naturally, we take this all for granted. We assume this dynamic is natural and normal and basically healthy. Our children are disciples in the cults of various idiots on YouTube and Snapchat, all of them obscure to us, and we imagine that this is how it must inevitably be. Our kids have their own culture, their own celebrities, their own world contained primarily on the internet, and all of it is foreign to us, and we think it's always been this way. It must be this way. There is no other feasible option.
We're wrong, of course.
While it's true that older generations have always worried about the younger, and the younger have always exhibited characteristics that the older generations find puzzling and troubling, it's not true that young people have always existed in their own universe, with their own language, their own society, their own leaders and icons and prophets, their own religion, their own customs, all of it designed to be indecipherable and unaccessible to the older generations.
In fact, in the bad old days, kids were (if you can imagine) raised exclusively by their parents. Not by the internet, or TV, or even public school. Kids didn’t have a whole life set apart from their mothers and fathers. They may have had friends — a few, not 40 — but it was their parents who exerted the most influence over them; making and shaping and forming them, as parents are supposed to do.
Things started to change with modern schooling, which sent kids out of the home for most of their young lives and into the care of strangers. And then the divide between generations became even more vast with pop culture, as kids began to develop tastes that differed so dramatically from their parents. Yet, even then, it wasn’t like it is now. Yes, kids in the '60s worshiped the Beatles as gods, and their parents thought the Beatles were agents of Satan (their parents were much closer to the truth, by the way), but their parents at least knew who the Beatles were. The Beatles were accessible, equally, to both parent and child. You saw them on TV, you heard them on the radio, you bought their records at the store, and that was about it. That’s how you encountered them.
Then, the Internet. Now kids have their own version of the Beatles — they have, in fact, a lot of Beatles — a lot of little Beatles that they follow and worship and imitate, just as kids of the '60s did. But they encounter these new icons in the void of the cyberspace, mostly on their phones, out of sight. And there aren't four Beatles but 400 hundred, and they pop up and fade away and change on a dime. The trends move at the speed of light and the only way to follow along is to be totally immersed in it and surrender to it.
So, our kids are pulled along by the tides, shaped and molded by forces we don't see or understand. And we are rendered irrelevant. Indeed, if your child is on her phone nine hours a day, it's the phone — and the people she interacts with and watches when she uses it — that will form her. It's the phone that parents her. You're second fiddle at best, and she won't hear your tune when you play it because she'll be on her phone anyway.
This is not normal. Not healthy. Not natural. Not how it's always been. There is nothing analogous to this in the history of human society. Our kids are being destroyed by these gadgets that we spend exorbitant amounts of money to provide to them. And we have no idea how bad it will get, as our lives migrate more and more into our phones and our children are resigned to an existence that can barely be called human.
So what do we do about it?
Well, I think there are two possible paths forward:
1) The path most parents take: just go with it. Hand your child a smartphone with internet access when he's 9 or 10 or whenever most of his friends get one, and trust that it will all work out okay. Sure, he's 100% guaranteed to develop a porn habit. Sure, he'll spend all day absorbing messages and ideas that are anathema to his intellectual and spiritual development. Sure, he'll probably be sexting by his 12th birthday. Sure, his entire life will now revolve around this damned thing. Sure, all of that. But what's the other option? To deprive him of this technology that everyone else uses? Why, that might make him look uncool! Worse, it will make you, the parent, look uncool! People might think you're poor and can't afford one! And the trends! How can your family keep up with the trends without a smartphone! You can't be untrendy! Dear God, anything but untrendiness!
2) The path less traveled. The path some people — because they are shallow and silly and weak — would consider "extreme": keep your kid away from the internet as much as humanly possible. Do not let him have the internet on his phone. Do not let him access the internet in his room. Give him access to one computer, strictly controlled, in a visible area of the house, which he can use with your permission, for a limited amount of time, with the knowledge that you, the parent, will review his internet history after he is finished, and go back and watch any videos he watched, and click on the links he clicked, and read every message he received. Give him no privacy on the internet. None. Do not "trust" him with the internet. Treat the internet like a very powerful and potentially dangerous tool, which it is, and treat him like a child who can't be allowed to use it unsupervised, which he is.
I think the second option is probably best. And I say that as someone who makes a living on the internet.