My 14-year old son (last seen in this column as an alien at Halloween) is convinced that the movie "2012" is based on fact. He has been reading various websites that assure him that the Mayans knew what they were talking about, and that the world is truly doomed to end in 2012.
My husband and I have tried to persuade him to understand that this is all truly bunk, that there have been end-of-the-world predictions for centuries, and that while humankind may well be hurling itself towards environmental self-destruction, it is highly unlikely that some Mayan doomsday clock will stop ticking in two years.
He remains unconvinced, since we are the two dumbest people on earth (just ask him) and we couldn’t possibly know anything. Besides, it's on the Web, so it must be true. Hmmm.
Over the weekend, I was listening to a radio show on National Public Radio that featured a scientist debunking these 2012 myths. He bemoaned Hollywood's taking advantage of people's gullibility and vulnerability by producing blockbuster movies about the end of the earth, and noted that they are cultivating hysteria where it might not have otherwise existed. He also noted that teens especially, who are old enough to both surf the Web and see movies like "2012" are most susceptible. There is great fear in the scientific community that teens will take this movie and these predictions so seriously that they will inflict catastrophe upon themselves in preparation.
My teen has told me that he has been worried about this prediction since he first read about it, probably in sixth grade, and that it keeps him up at night. Now I'm worried.
This phenomenon raises a number of questions for me. First, how do I teach my children the art of filtering information? When I was growing up, the library was the place where I could learn about anything. It was an open book, so to speak, and since I had parents who encouraged me to read without censoring my material, I was able to put my hands on a myriad of books, some Judy Blume, some Jean Dixon astrology (and predictions of World War III in 1984, which I admit kept me up at night for years.) But with a 10 book limit each week, I had to learn at a young age how to decide what most interested me and which books were going to provide me with the most pleasure and the most cogent information. The sheer physical weight and volume of the books was an automatic limitation as well.
By contrast, my kids have the entire Internet open to them. How can a 14 year old possibly learn the same filtering techniques that my library forays taught me? With the click of a button, he can IM with his friends, opine on Facebook, research his history paper and check out his favorite team's scores. He can also wander into fraudulent sites that look real. Given that his prefrontal cortex, the command center of the brain that controls impulse and judgement, is a work in progress, how do I teach him how to discern between a website that talks about doomsday predictions from a scientific perspective versus one that promulgates doomsday predictions and fear?
It reminds me of entering Buy Buy Baby, that bastion of all things pregnancy and baby-related, when I was first pregnant, and running out of the store in tears. I couldn’t begin to filter out what they were trying to tell me I needed versus what I really needed. The kindest gift I could give to a close friend who was pregnant a year later was to accompany her on her first trip to the same store with a solid list of what she needed and a firm hand guiding her away from what she didn't.
I want to be able to do the same for my children, but we're already in tricky territory. The teenager wants to make his own choices about what he reads and follows, just like I chose my own library books at his age, and I don't want to censor him (except for access to computer porn, which is huge topic for another day.)
I guess the best I can do is to keep talking about topics that are of interest to him, let him know what I think, where he should look for verifiable information, and provide what little comfort I can when I know that something like the specter of 2012 mass destruction is frightening him. I find that the more I let him roam and discover things on his own, without my hovering over his choices, the more likely he is to circle back and ask for help deciphering what he has found.
And of course, there is always that library card.