In 2011, when my eldest was in 2nd grade, I had a major holy crap moment. One of those moments when you realize something you thought *could* happen to your kid – actually does.
One evening at the dinner table she asks “Mom, what’s the most dangerous animal?” I told her I wasn’t sure. “Is it a chimpanzee?” I said let’s look it up and asked what had her interested in dangerous animals.
“I saw a woman who was attacked by a chimpanzee and wondered if they were dangerous.”
Queue fire alarms going off in my head. Trying to remain calm, I asked more questions until the full story emerged. In class that day, they were assigned an animal to research. She chose chimpanzees.
When she typed “chimpanzee facts” into Google, the search box began auto-populating the drop-down menu with other popular chimpanzee related searches. Unfortunately, the phrase directly below “chimpanzee facts” is “chimpanzee attack”.
On purpose or by accident, she clicked on “chimpanzee attack”. The page she saw at school looked like the image below, with Google images across the top, and article/news story results. Even worse, the screen resolution of the school computers is very low, which made the images appear about twice as large as the image you see below.
Granted, there is much worse a child can stumble upon on the web, but for an 8 year old, images of mutilated human faces are really scary and disturbing. They should be browsing nerf guns on amazon not being exposed to horrors. She looked horrified as she described the images she saw. For me, it was a major wake up call.
We did our best to explain why images like this are even published online, describing how the news takes shocking events and publishes stories, photos and sometimes video online. She came to understand why the “attack” search result popped up under her “facts” search and why, as disturbing as it is, a search such as “chimpanzee attack” may be a popular search term.
Kids may be Afraid to Talk
We asked if other children in the class saw the images, so we could contact their parents. Each kid is different, and the way she communicated what she saw taught me a lot about how she processes difficult situations. Some kids would have mentioned it the minute they walk in the door. Others may never bring it up. We didn’t hear about it until dinnertime and it was brought up in a roundabout way.
I wanted to learn more about why she didn’t bring it up sooner, and dug a little more at bedtime. She said she was afraid she would get into trouble with her teacher, or us. My guess is she typed in “facts” and out of curiosity clicked on “attack”. Another hunch is she was ashamed for clicking on “attack” and didn’t want to admit she was curious about the meaning of “chimpanzee attack”. All totally understandable reasons for hiding, but I emphasized we love her no matter what. And if something scary or inappropriate happens, regardless of how it happened, she needs to tell us right away.
Getting Kids to Open Up
I referenced a book we’ve been reading to each other for a couple of years, called “I said No!” A friend shared this book with me when my kids were 4 & 7 and I’m so grateful. You can see from the cover it’s about “keeping private parts private”, but it teaches a philosophy that’s applicable to any scary situation kids may find themselves in.
It helps children define their “green flag people” and “red flag moments”. Green flag people are people they can trust and talk to about anything: mom, dad, grandparent etc. Red flag moments are any situation where something just doesn’t feel right, or they see, hear or are asked to do something inappropriate. A friend borrowed the book to read to her 12 year old and was surprised that the material wasn’t “too young” for her. It’s a great way to give kids tools and a language for expressing themselves when bad stuff happens.
Talking to the Teacher
The next day I contacted her teacher to discuss the matter. He was very empathetic and sad to hear about what she saw. He explained that with a classroom of 20 children, all working on computers, it is difficult to monitor each child’s activity. Periodically he checks a log that shows each computer’s web browsing “history” to see if the children are visiting sites they shouldn’t. He admitted the school’s internet security firewalls (at least at the time) were “unreliable”.
While in the classroom, I duplicated the “chimpanzee attack” search and noticed that Google Safe Search was enabled on the school browser. However the Google image results still appeared along the top of the screen.
Regardless, the search “chimpanzee attack” isn’t going to be blocked by a school system firewall. It falls into the same category as homographs – words that have multiple meanings. There’s really no way to guard against it – it’s up to the kids.
Young People Have to Look out for Themselves
It’s hard to say and hear, but the truth is children need to be taught how to quickly identify scary stuff and make wise decisions for themselves. There are no firewalls we can rely on 100% of the time. Teachers can’t watch over every shoulder or be held responsible for every click. No matter how vigilant we are at home or school – on the internet – shit happens. It’s about figuring out what to do before it hits the fan.
What Can We Do?
First let me say I don’t have all the answers. I’m just a mom trying to figure this stuff out too! My hope is that by opening up the conversation, others can comment with their own stories and wisdom.
One thing I do know is that I’m grateful this happened to my daughter. And that she told me. And that we had a hard conversation – that led to many more conversations. And that it is something that she uses to make good decisions about the content she consumes today.
Based on all of that, one thing I try to do regularly is surf the web with my girls. Looking for nail painting videos, crafting tutorials, whatever. I’m still surprised by the things that pop up while we’re searching around. One day we were looking at nail art designs on Pinterest and clicked on the image for the tutorial. Up popped a page full of half naked women. Huh?? Shit happens!
I’m just glad I’m around when *some* of it happens to help them make sense of this crazy, wonderful world.
Do you have a similar story?
This post isn’t just about me and my daughter and how we defeated the scary internet. It’s about all of us and how we’ll never defeat the scary internet! 🙂 The scary internet will always exist, but the more we share our stories and collect wisdom, the stronger and wiser young people we raise.
Share your story by commenting below. Thank you! jen 🙂