Darlena Cunha

Special to The Washington Post

Weeks after Momo flooded our computers, the tremors of fear in the parenting world are calming down. Although the danger posed by that viral monster statue may have been greatly exaggerated, the warnings we issued to our kids to be careful out there linger.

Those warnings, like a collective parental expression of anxiety, represented not this “Momo Challenge” but the undefined darkness of the internet, where so many of our children play as we apprehensively sit by, trying to monitor them while also granting them autonomy. All it took was one compelling narrative for parents to rise up against the glow of computer screens across the world with fear or anger or judgment. Because it’s not about Momo. It’s about adults trying to guide their kids through childhoods that, thanks to technology, are foreign to us.

By now, most people have heard about the YouTube videos that imitate innocent children’s shows such as Peppa Pig and Mickey Mouse. And we know about YouTube Kids and the restrictions we can set at the bottom of the screen. These work okay for younger kids, barring the content that can slip through anyway, but as our kids get older, simply setting these restrictions isn’t going to be enough. Our savvy kids will be able to find videos we don’t want them to, if they choose to do so.

But, despite our fears and the rebellious tendencies of older tweens, most children aren’t purposefully looking for those videos. They stumble upon them. And then they don’t know what to do.

When kids accidentally find videos with scary or dangerous or rude messages, they know enough about the world and the rules not to tell their parents. They can sense trouble, but they can’t separate that trouble from themselves and their actions. In the tween world, just seeing something they shouldn’t see puts them in the wrong, in their eyes, and they don’t want to face consequences for something they didn’t mean to do. When they don’t talk to you, they don’t get in trouble. So they conceal.

This is what leads to danger, because when parents don’t find out about the videos their kids saw, and the kids don’t get in trouble, the kids loosen their own guidelines. They begin to figure it must be okay. Nothing bad has happened. Their friends are watching it. Maybe it’s not a big deal after all.

It all started in our house with Jeffy, a puppet show run by SuperMarioLogan, a name that doesn’t raise alarms on first glance. To parents walking by, it looks like a Mario Brothers puppet show dealing with family issues such as eating healthy and car safety. It wasn’t until my 10-year-old daughter jerked her pelvis back and forth at dinner, thinking it was funny, that my husband and I dug deeper. When I pulled up the show on my computer, my daughter hovered over me. I clicked on an episode, and she said, “Oh good. That’s a good one.”

In this “good one,” Jeffy screams at his adoptive father Mario that he’s “high as f—.” He slaps a diaper he wears outside of his pants, and he hits his dad. The show’s bio online says Jeffy was born in a port-a-potty to a prostitute who was addicted to drugs and who abused him severely. It’s not a show for kids.

My daughter knew from the second she saw these videos that they weren’t appropriate. But kids at school were talking about them, and she was curious. Then she didn’t want to tell us about it, because she knew we’d be upset. Over time she began to normalize them.

She had an intense meltdown when we told her she couldn’t watch them anymore. Other parents have experienced this with the same show. There are stories about negative experiences with Jeffy, and how it has affected kids and parents’ relationships with their kids.

After our daughter calmed down, we talked to her. We discussed how Jeffy wasn’t funny but hurtful. He mocks the disabled, and he insults and physically attacks people. Those aren’t behaviors I want to encourage in my daughter; in fact, they are the opposite of what she strives to be. And then we let her have the computer back, with no further restrictions. The idea was to give her boundaries that she was to adhere to independently. Yes, we set a boundary, but we made it clear we trusted her to follow the rules.

Instead of shaming her and limiting her access, with that discussion, we made her part of our team. My goal is that when my children see videos that have spliced suicide scenes in them or other harmful material, they tell us immediately, because they know they’re not fighting against us. They know their privileges won’t be taken away. I want it to feel more mature to them to tell us than to illicitly watch banned content behind our backs. They’ve even told us when they see a commercial for “Birdbox.” We’ve made it us and them against the videos, not us against them and the videos.

My kids don’t want to side with videos over their parents, but if we don’t guide them, that’s what could happen. We can police our children rigidly until they move out, but if we don’t teach them to police themselves, we’re doing them a disservice.

That’s the area parents of preteens need to focus on. How do we get our children to tell us when they see something they shouldn’t? Parents need to make it common practice to navigate the internet with their children, and talk about it openly, rather than putting up barriers and hoping they hold.

Kid safety measures and parental monitoring are important tools, but they are rudimentary at best, and can be harmful to the parent-child relationship at worst because they take away self-agency and they inhibit that bond of trust we can build with our children. Instead of blocking the wrong road with cement barriers they will eventually climb, we need to inform our children of both roads and give them the information to choose the correct one.

Children grow up. Ours are growing up with the constant presence of digital media, and we aren’t going to be able to keep our fingers in the dam forever. As parents, we have to make sure our children know how to swim when that dam breaks. We have to get in the water with them and teach them.

Kids will find a way to access content, regardless of our intentions. Let’s help them know what to do when they come across it. It’s a lot easier in the long run to give our kids the skills and knowledge to traverse the internet on their own than to try to keep them away from it forever.

Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned stay-at-home mom to twin girls.

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