My 7 year old was playing on the website Webkinz the other day. Webkinz is a web-based virtual reality world with animals that are based on stuffed animals that come with codes. You input those codes and are rewarded with your stuffed animal, animated, living in the Webkinz world, where you have a house and toys and food and can ‘interact’ with your animal. You play games to win currency to ‘buy’ other things for your animal.
There is also a ‘chat’ function, where people can add you as a friend and then trade pre-programmed comments. My daughter had some KinzCash to use so she went and bought a new outfit for her online dog. (Yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds.) The automated ‘cashier’ added her as a ‘friend’ on her list. My daughter told me immediately that she had a new friend. “She was the girl working at the store where I bought my dog’s pants. That’s how she became my friend.”
“That’s how she became my friend.” What a weird thing to hear a kid say while talking about a computer program.
It seems to me that we need to really need to consider our definitions of friends and strangers, these days. “Friends” used to be the people that you interacted with, in real life. People you played with, hung out with, invited to your birthday parties. Now, our friends can be ‘virtual.’ And how many of us have “friends” on Facebook who we really don’t know very well? Or at all?
I have been a member of various online message boards for many years. One of the biggest ones that I’ve been on is a board with approximately 1000 members, mostly from across Canada, some from the U.S. and around the world. When I joined, I knew no one on that board in real life. I called them my Imaginary Friends. In order to fund the board, the members had t-shirts made and we bought them through CafePress. They said “I liked you better online.” It was a fun statement about how most of us would never meet in real life. About 5 years ago I arranged with one of my IF’s to meet up with her and her family while on a holiday in Winnipeg. I knew she had boys about the same age as my son and daughter about the same age as mine. We got along well, online. So, when we went to Winnipeg and met them at the Children’s Museum and I told my kids we were meeting a friend of mine and her family, I also had to explain how I wasn’t entirely sure what she’d look like because I’d never actually SEEN her in real life. That was a strange conversation. We have now been friends for about 8 years. We have camped with them and they have been guests at our home.
A couple of years ago, unbenownst to me, two of the members from that board who I had become quite close to contacted my husband through some stealthy emailing and arranged to surprise me by flying here to celebrate my birthday, staying at our home. My husband and the kids had planned to be away at camp that weekend and even the dog was at the kennel, so I was at home alone. When my first friend showed up, a total surprise, I had a moment of absolute terror. “What if she doesn’t really like me in real life??” “What if she’s a mass murderer?” (I was pretty sure she wasn’t. 🙂 ) We met up with my second friend a few hours later, also a total surprise! Now, my son and my daughter had been in on this with their Dad. They knew that Dad was arranging for some of my ‘friends’ to come for the weekend. The thing that we had to explain was that they were people I had never met, yet they were my friends. Last year, I flew to Toronto to meet some more of my IFs from the message board. Some of those friends know me better, now, than some of my real-life friends! I have interacted with people on Twitter who I don’t know at all, but who I think would be great real-life friends. What kind of role-model am I being for my kids, meeting “strangers” like that after telling them about the anonymity of the internet?
Me and my Imaginary Friends:
How could they possibly be my ‘friends’ given the definition of ‘friends’ and ‘strangers’ that we had taught our kids? “A stranger is someone you don’t know. Never go anywhere with a stranger without asking Mom or Dad, first.” I taught a class called Stranger Smarts for a company called Kidproof Canada. Strangers. Friends. Can someone be both?
Of course they can. But what is the best way to explain that to our children and our students while still keeping them safe and aware online? I fear that I am giving my children mixed messages but hope that I am setting good examples for them. I hope they can always talk to me about their friends, real and imaginary. And virtual.
I have questions, parenting in this digital age, about how to ensure my kids’ safety online. I am, however, excited for the chance that they will have to interact with people globally, easily, with things such as MSN messaging, Skype, message boards, and any number of other digital interacting tools at their fingertips.
It’s “penpals” for the new generations, I suppose.