Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Internet Trolls

Gather round mamas and papas with internet access in your homes and lend me your ear (eyes?) for a minute. As many of you know, my boys love video games, especially long-form, sweeping narratives, where you follow a character through an adventure (like Undertale), or cooperative games they play with their friends online (like Overcooked). They play these games online with their friends and even out of town family members like their cousins or uncle. We have plenty of rules around the types of games they play and when they play them but that’s not the point of this post. What you need to know is I’m raising two tween boys with internet access and that means I have a ton of work to do to both protect and prepare them for life online.

When my kids were little, before smartphones and tablets, I started reading up on “the dangers of the internet” and nearly everything emphasized the pervasiveness of pornography on the web. And it’s true – porn is ubiquitous online, and merits conversation. But what people weren’t talking about, and still aren’t talking about enough, is the ease with which my children would be able to access totally public message boards dedicated to radicalization and white nationalism, message boards that encourage racism and genocide. Everyone told me to talk to my babies about porn and stranger danger, but nobody told me to talk to my kids about 4Chan. So when I read this article , I sent it to the most trusted gamer I know, my brother. He had heard of 4Chan, and here’s what he said: “I have no idea what they’re up to now, but ten years ago 4chan was full of toxic people. They would tell people to die and post images of nooses and such.” He went on to say that he’s been aware, peripherally, of this online toxicity since 1992, and he was very sad and disillusioned that it is now coming into fields of view of more people. And I agreed with him, it was sad. I didn’t know whether to share this widely, or to tuck it away.

This was months ago. I felt paralyzed honestly, between wanting people to understand what is out there and not wanting to shine a light on darkness. I feel that way a lot. But one thing I know is we can’t push back against something we refuse to admit exists. Heads up – if you’re one of those people who can’t handle one more Harry Potter metaphor, just skip my next sentence. But we’re basically in book five of the series, and we all know it was a lot harder for the Order of the Phoenix to get anything done when no one would listen to their warnings. If you need to see this for yourself, you can find the links online, but I won’t post them here. They are vile, they are profane, they explicitly discuss mass genocide. I’m sitting right in that tension between wanting to share this information and not wanting to signal boost evil. But here’s what’s at stake if you brush this off as not a real threat to our children. A boy you love becomes indoctrinated. First, he espouses some beliefs online and at school that you don’t agree with. His teachers push back, to no avail. Then he grows up. He attends a few rallies. Exercises his free speech. Maybe you disagree with some of his views, but we all agree that Americans have the right to freedom of expression. So you don’t say anything. Then he says he’s traveling across the country for a rally for the alt-right. You don’t know what the alt-right is, but it can’t be white supremacy because this kid is not a racist. He has a black friend. Then he stands at the rally holding signs that signal his white supremacist values and you have to google the symbols because you aren’t familiar with any of this. Then he gets in his car and plows down a group of people, murdering a 32-year-old woman.

Is that an extreme example? Yes. It also happened this weekend.

For all the talk we have in this country about the reality of Islamic radicalization (which, by the way, also happens online), we are fools if we remain blind to this other radicalization that is happening on our own soil, in our hometowns. These online spaces can be used to forward any agenda. So mamas, when you talk to your kids about the internet, yes talk to them about porn and stranger danger. But also talk to them about 4Chan, and about online radicalization in general. This goes beyond setting limits and blocking sites (though those are important and useful tools) because at some point, your child will be old enough to leave your home and make his or her own decisions about how and where to engage online. Talk to them about how the relationships they build, both face-to-face and online, should be relationships that lift people up, relationships that point them towards their highest values, relationships that value human life. Talk to them about when to simply walk away, and when to engage, when to seek help from a trusted adult. This is an action step we can all take if we are so privileged to be trusted with the raising of the next generation.

Okay, that’s all. I know you are bombarded daily with things to worry about as a parent (make sure the solar eclipse glasses fit, etc.), but I do want you, my beloved friends, to be aware of this. Now go love those children well, and share their back to school pictures and soak up your last days of summer. Keep raising them with all the love and light I know that you are.

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