Friday, January 12, 2007

Sneak-googling and the slippery slope of literacy

With every new skill come new challenges, and we've been seeing a lot of both around here lately.

Bud's been proficient on the computer since he was about 2 years old, and even before he could read he could recognize familiar words (PBS, Teletubbies, Noggin) well enough to surf the internet with ease. After a while, we discovered that his digital self-sufficiency gave us some (otherwise rare and highly-coveted) time to get our own stuff done while he was happily pointing and clicking. In other words, we stopped paying close attention to what Bud was doing on the computer.

Many months ago, Bud discovered Google and started doing searches by typing in words he had memorized (mostly "teletubbies.") Then he got creative and started hauling favorite books and videos to the computer, so he could copy the words for new searches ("teletubbies hat" or "teletubbies windmill"). Then he discovered Google Images, and a whole new world opened up for him.

His literacy skills continued to improve and he tried typing phonetic approximations of words into Google, until the day he tried sounding out "Tinky Winky" and landed himself on a pornographic website. Luckily, Nana happened to be in the area and quickly put the kibosh on it. I talked to Bud that evening about The Evils of Google, and told him that he could only use Google when one of us was with him. He agreed to my terms and I walked away relieved, because Bud had always been a rule-follower - if we told him not to do it, he wouldn't.

So I was surprised several weeks later when I walked into the family room and found him with a screen full of thumbnail images that were obviously the result of a search.

"Bud!" I said. "We said 'No Google' unless someone is with you."

"It's not Google, Mama," he said calmly. I peered over his shoulder and looked at the screen.

It was Yahoo Images. (In fairness, I did say "No Google".)

I explained to Bud that, really, any search engine needed to be off-limits, because they all had things that weren't for kids. He acquiesced readily. I see, in retrospect, a little too readily.

It seems that, instead of steering him away from search engines, our conversation served as the impetus for Bud to achieve a few more developmental milestones: deception and sneakiness. (And, yes, I know that developmentally these are very good signs, but really - why is it that so many of the neurotypical developmental achievements result in less pleasant behaviors?) Of course, this is all knowledge that I have in hindsight. At the time, I naively assumed that I could take Bud at his word, and that now that he knew the rules he would abide by them.

And he did. That is, until The Great Thanksgiving Day Teletubbies Massacre of 2006.

I spent a large portion of Thanksgiving Day prepping and eating and cleaning up downstairs as Bud quietly and contentedly puttered away at the computer upstairs. I should have been more mindful of limiting his computer time, but I was just so pleased that this Thanksgiving was going so much more smoothly than the previous Thanksgiving that I was reluctant to rock the boat. Finally, though, I dragged him away from the computer. At first he was fine. Then, slowly, he started telling me stories with plots I couldn't follow - "the man and the Tubbies and then the man in the sun and then KRSHHH and then BANG and Oh No Tinky Winky and the man and the water and is gone" - and when I asked more pointed question he told me he'd been watching "Spanish Tubbies" on the computer (I'm not sure where the "Spanish" came from - except that, perhaps, since he didn't understand it he assumed it was in a different language?)

After Bud went to sleep, my husband pulled up the history on the computer and discovered that Bud had been surfing Teletubbies in Yahoo Video and had watched a great deal of footage. Some of it was actual pirated footage from the show. But the rest... oh, the rest. It was horrible - parody with foul language and violence, first-person shooters, blood spurting out of the lobbed-off appendages of Bud's best friends, and George W. Bush as the Baby Sun launching grenades and erecting oil wells throughout Tubbyland. (I swear that in Bud's recounting of the day's events I heard him use the word "President," though I'd be surprised if Bud is familiar with either the man or the office.) I sat with my husband watching horrifying clip after horrifying clip, our guilty feelings of negligence growing - especially when the history showed us that Bud had watched several of them several times. I wondered how Bud had made sense of the footage - my boy, who has never watched commercial television, who finds Finding Nemo too action-packed for his liking - and the pit in my stomach continued to grow.

My husband enabled the security feature on the computer in a close-the-barn-door maneuver, and the next morning I sat down with Bud to talk to him about the videos he'd watched: Those are not real Teletubbies. They are pretend and they're not nice.

Bud agreed. "I don't like Spanish Tubbies, Mama."

And he's stayed away from the video searches. But he can't keep away from Google. Even with the security feature enabled, Bud is able to do a preliminary Google image search and pull up a page with thumbnail images - he just can't load the sites from there. He knows he's not supposed to do it, so he's started getting sneaky. He minimizes the screen when he sees us coming. Instead of waking us as soon as he's out of bed in the morning, he lets us sleep while he creeps into the computer room. Or, when I'm just a room away, he dashes across the room to shut the adjoining door so I won't see what's on his screen. (I said he's getting sneaky and deceptive. I didn't say he's mastered subtlety.)

When I call him on it, he evades:

"Bud, what are you doing?"

"I don't know."

Or he lies:

"Bud, what are you doing?"


The good news, of course, is that he's refining his theory of mind skills.

I'm walking a fine line between addressing the behavior and ignoring it. I'm not interested in turning Google into Bud's very own Holy Grail. At the same time, though, the stakes continue to rise. His spelling is getting better and better. He's not relying on memorized words or things he can pull from books. According to our computer's history, in the past several weeks Bud's areas of Google interest have focused on things like poop, bum, tummies, and belly kiss, and he's been viewing tiny thumbnails of huge pregnant bellies, men giving each other belly smooches, and the occasional set of bosoms.

Now it seems that Bud is tiring of the thumbnails and is developing greater ambition. He's creative and determined - always a formidable combination - and he's branching out. The other night my husband was checking his e-mail on my mother's computer - the computer, incidentally, that Bud is forbidden to use - and I sighed as I heard him look at the history, then shout to me:

"Hey, honey? It looks like Nana's been Googling bellies again!"


The Jedi Family of Blogs said...

Oh golly, yes... Brendan has been forbidden to google anything unless a parent is in the room for a couple of years now (since he discovered it). We did have a funny experience a couple of years ago, with Brendan happily computering away & we finishing a Hannukah dinner with friends just a room away... when a small voice wafted in to us "Umm... What's spandex?" All adults promptly relocated themselves to where Brendan was, only to discover he was at the (parentally sanctioned) "Incredibles" movie site, doing the "build a superhero" game...

Zilari said...

Wow, sounds like Bud is practicing for working in an office thing you know he'll be ordering one of those foot-controlled screen minimizer pedals.

I am sorry, though, but I couldn't help but laugh at the Teletubby thing...I mean, yes, it was violent, but you've told the story in a completely hilarious way.

Also, I very clearly remember responding to questions similarly right around Bud's age. My parents definitely didn't see it as a "milestone", though...when you're Very Literal, even if you are bad at lying convincingly, you can become quite accomplished at what my parents used to refer to as "splitting hairs".

KAL said...

Oh no! This is really kind of funny, mom-nos ... but I know not really! I read this with complete and utter awe that Bud has been computer-literate since two. Wow. How did that happen? Did you get him any special games to start off? Wondering how to similarly introduce J&S to the computer. Although after reading your post, not sure I'm ready for the consequences :)

MOM-NOS said...

KAL, the first games Bud played on the computer were Baby Type and Reader Rabbit Toddler. We never went out of our way to teach him how to use the computer. It's all very intuitive for him. I definitely think it's been great for him (despite The Great Thanksiving Day Massacre) - it's something that comes easily to him and that he's good at - great for self-esteem and confidence-boosting.

kristina said...

Sneak-googling does seem to show, in more ways than might be thought, how Bud is growing up and, indeed, becoming "independent"----it's not the same, but it made me think of the "lockdown drill I was present at when I visited Charlie's class everyday. There's the whole world out there that our kids do live in and they do need to learn how to "be" in it, with all its beauties and foibles.

Hard to stay ahead of our kids!

Anonymous said...

A similar issue was recently addressed over at Ballastexistenz, in the post titled "How much can we learn when safely supervised?" at

She asked her readers (autistic and otherwise) to share their experiences.

California Girl

Daisy said...

Oh, the literal interpretation! I've been there. We are lucky -- I think. Amigo uses a screen reader (he's blind), so we can be in the room and know what he's doing without looking directly over his shoulder.

Sarah said...

haha, oh my gosh, this sounds like Sandis! I switched to dial up a couple of months ago and I have hidden every time I sign on, and thus far he hasn't figured out how to get aroudn on my new aol dial up. No more internet for sandis, not for several months. He does get to play jimmy neutron computer game though......

Maddy said...

Brilliantly............nightmarish! If it's any consolation my mum left my little brother in front of 'educational' telly many millenium ago and returned to find him engrossed as the surgeon cut the cord and passed the baby to the mum........he turned out o.k. anyway, sort of.
Cheers dearies

VTBudFan said...

I think this is my favorite post yet....DAD-NOS at the end is just soooo funny!

Still cracking up in VT

Laura said...

Oh my! The teletubby violence is funny, though I'm sorry Bud had to see it! My 5 year old son with Autism has his own computer, but no Internet access. He'll get on my computer every once in a while, but can't log on to get on the Internet. After reading this, we'll definitely keep him in the dark about the Net and Google for a bit longer!

Anonymous said...

Yikes! I'm going to have to deal with this sooner than I realize I guess (my daughter is 8 months now). It's hard to imagine coming of age in this technological world! So different than finding the occasional Playboy in someone's dad's closet!

This reminds me of one of my friends' kids. Though he was a bit older (maybe 10 or so), and not looking for the same content as Bud was searching for.

My friends had to deal with one of their (bless 'em) five boys and the search engine a few years ago. A short trip through the IE History showed the path their son took.

It started out inocently enough---he mistyped "wildbrain" or some educational URL and wound up on "wildBrian" instead, with a bunch of pornography on it. That got his imagination going on potential subject matter. He tehn went to a search engine and typed in "Britney Spears" and "stiper" (stripper). Fortunately, his poor spelling quashed any real juicy content.

My friend had to "have the talk" with him, about how naked bodies were beautiful and of course he's curious, etc., and got him a book of art photographs of naked people so he could look without shame.

Anonymous said...

Just found this post, and you might already know, but I thought I'd just mention that there are various search engines intended just for children. and are just two.

Good Luck!