By Julia Steiny
The boy shrugs off a question for maybe the 10th time that afternoon. He seems incapable of simple human interaction. Mom tries to talk for him as he wriggles and writhes at the table in her impeccable kitchen. No, she's told, he needs to be accountable for himself. This is his problem. We'll call him Alex.
Some days back he did a totally stupid thing that scared his entire school community, so he's being conferenced by a facilitator working in Rhode Island's newish Restorative Justice initiative. The adults close to him know his act was mindless. Alex insists "it was just a joke." The police have no sense of humor about such things. But they are working with the school and conference facilitator to see if a safe, effective alternative can divert this 15-year-old boy of color from the traditional Court route.
Alex absolutely must make amends. He needs to rebuild the trust he's destroyed. He seems almost desperate to do so. Okay, but how? Shrug. Silence.
The facilitator holds a finger up to stop Mom from speaking. With begging eyes, the boy looks at the facilitator, then at Mom, hoping for help. He starts to speak, starts again, despairs, and shrugs. Just to break the ice, the facilitator smiles and asks what he'd like to be doing at this moment? Alex just wants to be left alone to play his video games and "relax." Right.
Learning social skills in cyberspace
The facilitators and schools see an emerging pattern: Some boys feel most at home inside electronic worlds. Mom, Grandma or whomever can no longer supervise the kids' addiction to electronic distractions. Weirdly, some of their male siblings also play the games, but don't get so hooked.
The pattern includes parents saying that the problem started innocently enough. The home has an xBox or some way of getting on the internet, just like everyone else. But at some point it became compulsive. Even dinner could not compete.
These boys are disengaged from school and are often in trouble, frequently for misuse of electronics. They lack "sandbox" skills — listening, taking turns, joking in a way that is not infuriating. Their lame efforts at interacting backfire, so they retreat into telling themselves that everyone dislikes them for no reason.
Another boy, at another school, in a totally unrelated conference, considers his peers to be "horrible." His mom explains emphatically that the internet is where his friends are, so there is no question about taking that away from him. This cheers the gloomy kid up enough to explain that on the internet, when someone is "horrible you can just block them." The facilitator wonders if he is ever horrible back. "Well sure, when they deserve it." The facilitator asks if he's ever horrible to real people, face-to-face? "I have to be because they are so horrible to me."
Both he and the mom in this case are sure the problem lies beyond the child and his behavior. She, like the other moms in these cases, explains the child's diagnosis. They are all diagnosed. They are ADD, oppositional defiant or on the autism spectrum. They take drugs or get accommodations so they can tolerate being in school. They shouldn't be expected to control their behavior because of their condition. It's up to those around them to learn to deal with their use of flagrantly ugly language or their scary behavior.
In a convenience society, nothing is quite so inconvenient as a kid
Yes, some kids really do fit the diagnoses. But I've started to think that parents and the media cultivated this behavior pattern. It starts with the commercial world selling video games that happen to act like heroin with some kids. Then parents use the games as electronic babysitters, which erodes the parents' own social skills and supervisory authority. When the kids get tough to manage, the behavior-control industry steps in with a drug and a diagnosis or an excuse.
Alex, the shrugger, has no interests outside of games and no one he'd like to be with. With Mom's help, the facilitator makes an inventory of adults in Alex's life who could spend time with him. Over speaker phone, Mom introduces a young uncle to the facilitator, who explains that the boy needs to hang out with people, but no screens of any kind. The uncle is playful and fun. Sure, he says, his nephew can tag along on both his standing dates with friends; he plays a physical game with friends one day and hangs out at the mall on another. The boy seems pleased and agrees to the plan.
Will this pull him into the real world? It's a start. He has to be able to see and understand his behavior's effect on other people in order to have a successful conference. Right now that seems a ways off and a lot of work. But juvenile detention would merely crush him.
Boys who stay locked in cyberspace likely won't develop into adults that you or I want as neighbors, colleagues or even relatives. I think cyberspace is getting to be a social-skills killer — at least in certain kids.