Censoring information for kids can backfire. Teaching them to evaluate sources and biases can keep them from being misled.
I have been a fan of the First Amendment for my entire adult life. When I became a stripper at 18, I learned very quickly how important freedom of speech and expression was to my job and independence. As I got older, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment became even more important as I felt the tendrils of religion reaching into my child’s school and beyond.
I grew up in a household that, despite identifying as Catholic, didn’t censor much of the media I was exposed to. Instead, I was taught to navigate and examine the ideas and concepts that came into my world. When I became a mother, I was inclined to raise my son in the same way. Of course, I hoped that my own values and ethics would be impressed upon him. But I knew that if I censored ideas and opinions that I didn’t agree with, he might turn toward those rather than examine and reject them. This was not always easy, but I managed most of the time.
One day, while walking to the park, he shared with me a statistic that frankly alarmed me. Not because it wasn’t true, but because I knew it as one that is frequently manipulated and taken out of context, and framed in a racist way. He was in middle school at the time, and we had our occasional power struggles. So I approached the conversation gently but firmly and informed him of the misleading way the information had been presented. He seemed to understand, and I left it alone.
Shortly afterward, my son mentioned an article he had read about a transgender kid whose parent was forcing them to transition. My husband was present and we both began, admittedly not so gently, to correct him. We asked where he had read the article. When he said the Federalist, we both sort of freaked out. A heated, but thankfully short argument ensued. When we were all done being upset, our son accepted that his source was not reliable and had a clear agenda. This conversation led us as a family to examine our own sources and discuss political spin and cognitive biases.
The cringey Ben Shapiro phase
My son is 17 now, a high school senior. His trip down the alt-right rabbit hole ended before he started his freshman year. Now that he is capable of more mature self-reflection, we had a conversation about that time in his life. While I had been aware that he had been flirting with some nefarious ideology, I was blissfully unaware of just how close he had come to living the rest of his life in our basement as an internet troll.
He talked about discovering Ben Shapiro in the sixth grade. As a typical adolescent, he was concerned about his appearance, his social status, and fitting in. He said that people like Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, and Charlie Kirk had appealed to his insecurities and low self-esteem. My son said that they sounded intelligent, and he loved the antagonistic nature of their rhetoric. As a pre-teen, he was all about the shock factor, and frankly…pissing people off. He said that the content he saw made him feel accepted. He thought they were teaching him how to be masculine and a real man.
At that point, he was still unaware of the algorithms that were pushing him down the alt-right rabbit hole. As a family, we all were. As enamored as he was by these figures, he began to suspect that what they were saying wasn’t entirely true. The crack first appeared with their vehement support of our then president. My son found some of the things he said disturbing and just plain wrong. Like grabbing someone by the genitalia.
His illusion shattered after our heated conversation. When he learned about how the online algorithms manipulated the content he viewed, he felt duped. He felt used and exploited. As a family we explored and revealed that each of us had been misled at some point by the things we saw online, he outright rejected the content creators he had previously admired. He saw them as frauds masquerading as intellectuals.
“Those guys are really good at sounding smart, but they’re just using people’s insecurities to turn them into walking balls of hate and anger to make money.”
I know, smart kid.
He also said he trusted us as parents, and that he never felt like we pushed our opinions onto him. He was willing to listen when we told him that what he was seeing was wrong. What saved our son was open communication and trust. In turn, he was able to pull at least one of his friends out of the same rabbit hole. By allowing him to view those bad ideas, while maintaining his trust, we were able to guide him through the examination and rejection of those bad ideas.
Freedom of speech is intended to allow us to speak truth to power without fear of retribution. It allows us to express ourselves openly and live as we see fit. That freedom also allows people to say sometimes abhorrent and utterly stupid things. And as parents, I believe one of the most important things we can teach our kids is to evaluate the media they consume with a sense of compassion and humanity. But also with a critical eye, so they don’t get taken in by malicious pseudo-intellectuals out to make a buck.