Our first experience with the internet came back in 1993. Those were the early days of the World Wide Web when most folks were connecting using either AOL or CompuServe. Connecting required the use of a phone line, so a large part of the competition between the two companies had to do with which had the most local telephone numbers. The more numbers they had in your area, the better your chances were that your modem would be able to get a connection instead of a busy signal. Using any of the numbers outside your area meant long distance charges. There were a few 1-800 numbers available, but your chances of getting through on one of those were pretty slim.
Our situation was further complicated by the fact that we were stationed in Germany while all this was going on. The German phone system is notoriously expensive compared to the states, so the prospect of dialing in from there was a scary one. When CompuServe announced that they would provide local phone numbers in Germany our choice between the two rivals was sealed. Almost twenty years later I can still remember our CompuServe email address. It was all numbers and it was just assigned to us. There wasn’t any option to select your name back then.
Even with local German phone numbers available, we had to be careful on the internet. There’s no flat rate for local calls in Germany; you pay for however much time you spend on the phone. There was even a little counter on the phone to help you keep track. When you made a local call it advanced another click about every 10 seconds or so. If you made a long distance call the little clicker would spin so fast you could barely see the numbers. I can’t remember how much each click cost, but many a homesick soldier found out the hard way at the end of their first month deployed in Germany.
This all happened when Gerrit was about five and Tucker was two. There wasn’t much reason to worry about them logging-in at that point. The process we had to go through to get logged-in involved stretching an extra-long phone cord from the computer desk across the living room to the only phone jack in the house, which was behind our china hutch. And even when we did get online, most of what was out there at that point was text. Not much to keep a little boy entertained for very long.
Of course, that all changed.
Eventually the boys got bigger, logging-in got easier, and the web got a lot more interesting, so we had to consider how we were going to deal with the potential hazards. Doing a Google search these days for “internet filtering and monitoring” yields over 2.7 million results, but in those early days there wasn’t much available. In fact there wasn’t even a Google! We had to come up with our own solutions. We wanted our boys to be protected from the ugliness out there but we also wanted them to develop the skills and willpower to avoid them on their own. So, we set up the following rules:
- There’s one computer and it’s in the living room. At first this was a practical matter, since computers were so expensive and everyone wanted access to the one we had. It wasn’t long though before prices came down and lots of parents were buying kids their own computers to put in their rooms. We already a rule that our boys couldn’t have a TV in their rooms, so it followed that we wouldn’t allow this either. Having all that access available in the privacy of your own room just seemed like too much temptation for a curious young man. The chances of giving-in to curiosity seemed a lot lower if the computer was in the living room and mom might be walking by at any minute.
- We decided not to use filtering software. We wrestled with this one for quite a while, especially since the purveyors of porn on the internet seemed for a while to be so intent on tricking people to go to their sites. Thankfully spam filters and virus detectors have pretty much clamped down the possibility of accidentally landing on one of those sites. For the more intentional excursions we decided that filtering software didn’t really make much sense to us. Eventually the boys would be at the keyboards of computers other than ours, so we thought it would be better for them to develop their own internal filters. That way, no matter what computer they used, their filter would always be the same and would always be available. To aid them in the process of developing those filters we installed software that took snapshots of whatever was on the screen every few seconds. I demonstrated the capabilities of the software for each of the boys, making sure they were aware that there was a record of where they surfed. They all developed very good filters.
- They had to give us all their passwords. With the advent of smart phones and the proliferation of social networking sites our ability to keep tabs on our boys could have gotten a lot more complicated, but we simplified the process by having them give us all their passwords. We had access to all their email accounts, Facebook, and Twitter. Every now and then I still ask Philip to hand me his phone so I can read through his text messages and look at his pictures. He doesn’t really like it, but he’s got nothing to hide. I know because I checked.
Our rules for helping our boys navigate the uncertain waters of the internet have evolved as both they and the internet have developed. It was a moving target, but our principles remained constant: we wanted to equip them now for the time when there wouldn’t be anyone checking on them. They were going to be men someday and we wanted them to be men who didn’t require someone looking over their shoulder to do the right thing.
Men of character.
originally published 1/2/12| next post Going Out