Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ethan Meets "Fake News"

A few weeks ago Ethan asked to play on my phone for a few minutes before school. This is a sometimes-privilege granted when he's completely ready for school, chores done, good attitude, etc. He nearly always goes to YouTube and looks up videos about Minecraft.

This day seemed different, however. And while I'd like to say I monitor every moment my child is online (because God knows what's out there!) I don't always see everything he's doing, especially if he's on for a brief period of time. It wasn't until we were walking to school that he sighed, "My greatest wish in the world is to be able to fly." This isn't the first time he's said this, along with sharing his love of bald eagles and how he wants to be a bald eagle -- so he can fly, of course.

But this time there was more. "Mamma, do you know there IS a way you can fly? For real?"

"And what's that?" I asked slowly, suspiciously.

"Well, I saw it on this video..." Warning bells went off. Loudly.

"What video?" I asked, my voice rising.

"On YouTube."

"Is that what you were just doing??"

"Yes. There are these videos, and the people said if you do it you really will be able to fly, and they weren't lying. And they even showed them flying. I swear!"

I didn't even know where to begin with this. "Ethan, what did they say to do?"

"Well, one said you had to think really hard about being able to fly, and drink a lot of water, and then say these words and spin around, and you would really start flying."

Again I was left speechless, and yet it was almost time to see him off to school. How to start a discussion with a very literal child about the evils of the internet, about not everything you see online being true, about special effects and people who will say anything to get followers and about when someone is kidding or doing a little "spoof" versus real life?

All I could think about was when I used to work for the hospital full time, and they had the "Safe Kids" program that was dedicated to child safety and educating people on issues like drowning or choking. They had an ad campaign called "Kids Can't Fly" that highlighted the way some children, in their longing to be superheroes, were actually seriously hurt trying to do things like jump out of windows, believing that yes, they could indeed fly.

"Ethan, I'm sorry, but people can't fly on their own. And you can't believe anyone who tells you that. I need you to come to us always and check before you try something you see online." He said he understood as he headed off to school, but I wondered.

In fact, I fumed about the incident on and off while he was at school. Yes, there are practical jokes and parodies. But where do they cross over to downright dangerous? What if one of these "tip videos" had (even jokingly, which he might miss) told my child to jump out of a window, or do something else that bordered on unsafe?

The first lesson is, of course, to know what my child is watching, or not allow him to watch at all. True. But I can't always be there. Already he has the opportunity to Google sometimes at school. I can't always see what he's taking in.

So, as with all kids but even more so, we have to give him the tools to distinguish between fantasy and reality; to use his judgment; to not take things at face value; to go to his parents or another trusted adult and ask before just believing.

These issues have come up in other ways already. Recently he started quoting some fact that I knew was inaccurate. I asked who told him that and he said a kid in his class. When I told him the boy was wrong, he insisted that was impossible, because this person had told him, and he'd found it online.

Ethan thinks Google is a person. He's not yet completely convinced that the internet is run by people -- people with all kinds of different biases and motives. He sees it as almost an all-knowing God-figure. "Just ask Google," he'll say, not wanting to believe that it's actual people feeding the information TO Google.

Later that day I caught Ethan closing his eyes really tight and saying something. He got embarrassed when he saw me and acknowledged, yes, it was something about being able to fly.

"I'm sorry, Ethan. You can't fly..." I really do feel for him.

"But they said...they promised they weren't lying!"

"I'm sorry, buddy. They were."

I hate that he has to learn this, yet I'm desperate for him to learn this. Such is the world we live in.

To cheer Ethan up about the flying thing, we are seriously looking into indoor skydiving. I told him that IS a way he can fly. Who knows? This could be next year's birthday surprise.

But I'm not naïve enough to think this isn't going to come up again. I just pray, in time, he has the tools, the discernment, to navigate these murky waters.

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