Something interesting happened today.
For those who don’t know, I have a 13-year old son. Like a lot of kids his age he spends a lot of time playing games and has even ventured in to some kid friendly online game communities. (You know… the kind where you can’t give out phone numbers, emails or real names). There was one he had been playing quite a bit and it was pretty clear he didn’t want me to see what he was up to. Knowing my son I knew it wasn’t bad, he was just embarrassed.
I asked him a few times about what he was playing, and he’d answer honestly, but he was not going to admit that he was chatting with a girl. If it had been just about any other kid I’d have been worried. After all, we all know the stories, and anyone who reads what I write has some idea what is out there. At the same time, I knew what game he was playing, and knew it was pretty safe. It reached a point where I figured it was time to just be blunt so I asked him “So, which one is your girlfriend.”
When I first had a kid I knew there would be a lot of awkward talks, but I didn’t ever consider the “online relationship” talk. I figured out pretty quick that we were going to have to have one though. It seems his girlfriend was in Canada. They can’t email, can’t text and really just have this game as a way to communicate, and everything there is censored.
Of course I explained to him the dangers, even though they weren’t that serious in this case. I told him stories about things like the move Catfish. I showed him the scene from The Breakfast Club where they make fun of Anthony Michael Hall’s Canadian girlfriend. I told him he needed to consider the possibility his girlfriend was actually a 54 year old male truck driver. He wouldn’t be deterred. SO I just kept an eye on the situation. I considered telling him about my own online relationships but I didn’t want to scar the kid for life.
One day he went to chat with her and he couldn’t. The game had had a bit of a run in with 4chan and they had gotten around the filters. The end result was embarrassment for the management and cries from the media to protect the children. They did it by shutting down all chat features. My son and his “girlfriend” managed to keep communicating through use of a post-it note system that was active but filtered, but they couldn’t just talk, and without the chatting he spent less time playing.
This went on for a while, and before long my month with him was up. He then had a series of trips that meant they had no communication for days at a time. He didn’t ever talk about it, but it seemed to bring him down a little. It could also be that he just didn’t enjoy the trips.
Last night I got to see him for the first time in weeks. After we caught up I asked him about his girlfriend and he told me they broke up. On one hand he didn’t want to talk about it, but he also didn’t seem that upset. I didn’t press because I knew he would when he was ready. We just went back to our usual banter.
The next day we were in the car and I brought it up by telling him a little story about some adults who got too invested in online relationships at the expense of real life. He listened but stayed quiet. Then I told him that he needed to remember that, all things being equal, it’s better to be in a relationship with someone near you, especially when you can’t drive or, in his case, hop on a plane.
His response shocked me: “You know why I wasn’t really upset? Remember when I told you about my best friend’s sister?” I did, and I knew what he meant. I had promised him that the reason she kept texting was because she liked him and it turns out I was right. They aren’t a couple, but he knew a girl liked him so when Miss Canada broke it off it wasn’t as much of a loss as it could have been.
My son had learned in possibly the best way he could that, while playing being a couple online can be fun, it’s much better if the other person can be there for our in real life. And the reason he learned it was because while he was active online, he wasn’t living his life solely online.
I think that’s a lesson a lot of us need to learn.