Banned for LifeFebruary 24th, 2009 at 20:00
My partner Sally, our kids and I have the dubious distinction of being banned for life from America Online after our son Eric racked up three terms-of-service violations in his early forays into online communities. Lucky for us AOL has plenty of competitors willing to let us renegades onto their competing web portal.
I recall the year was 1996 and our son Eric was ten years old. With a family personal computer available to him (including dial-up internet access) to explore the wild wild World Wide Web, Eric’s inquiring mind and fertile imagination were fully engaged. Though he continued to play the educational and just-for-fun computer games we had bought for him (and me), he really got into participating in the fledging online youth communities offered on America Online’s proprietary network. (Eric would later “graduate” to online communities on the Internet itself, but that’s another story.)
AOL’s features for youth members included online forums and multiplayer games that Eric enjoyed spending hours a day exploring. With (only) one PC at home to share between four family users we all tussled and bargained for our time slots using the word processor (Microsoft Word), logging and paying bills (Quicken), playing games, and indulging the novelty of reading and posting on AOL forums. Eric usually got the weekday night time slot between 7 and 9pm after dinner and hopefully (but less and less likely as months of school went by) after completing his homework. Sally would then generally get the next time slot after that while I went through the lengthy bedtime ritual with the kids, until I finally did my “night owl” slot (sometimes playing the simulation game “Civilization” late into the night to my general determent the next day).
Eric at this age was an energetic (often crossing over to frenetic) kid that was quick-witted, gregarious and not afraid to speak his mind to other kids or adults. A couple years later he would be diagnosed by a doctor at Kaiser as having a mild case of ADD, but now, he was just an energetic, inquisitive kid. All this to give you the sense of a young person who was (or at least felt) ready and willing to explore the edgy world of online youth communities, particularly the one readily available to him on AOL.
So we set Eric up with his own AOL sub-account and explained to him the community rules about online behavior in posts (including no swearing). I don’t think we read through the entire terms of service text, and I must confess to almost never doing that on the many sites where I have had to agree to terms before I signed up as a user. Eric understood and indicated that he agreed, and the quick learner that he was, he was soon off to the races.
So gregarious Eric soon found a circle of online buddies in the AOL youth forums. I for the most part would let him alone, though I would quiz him about it and occasionally peek at his screen to make sure he wasn’t looking at internet porn. I mean he was only ten years old but he was pretty precocious at times. He continued merrily forward for weeks or months, I can’t really remember.
Then one day we got an email notice on our main AOL account user ID that we had committed a term of service violation. The notice described that an email with inappropriate expletives in it, originating from Eric’s sub-account ID had been reported by the receiver to the youth forum sys ops. The offending email was attached and it was clearly Eric’s.
So Eric’s mom and I sat him down and explained to him what had happened. At first he hemmed and hawed but finally acknowledged that he had sent the offending email, but he had only done it after the person he sent it to had sent an expletive laced message to him. It seemed like one of those good “teachable” moments for a parent with their kid.
We explained to Eric that just because someone else behaves badly does not give you the right to behave badly in return. We explained to him about the “Golden Rule” and you could see him grimace and in his eyes the realization that what we were saying was right, though his ego wanted out of this lecture as soon as humanly possible. Since his mom and I were trying to stick to the principle of “natural consequences”, we did not punish him for his behavior or threaten punishment if there was another incident.
Though I had been raised without ever really being punished (more on that elsewhere), and our response to this incident was consistent with that, I still always had that fear in the back of my mind that conventional wisdom was right and that we might be raising Eric too “permissively”. Maybe as a nod to conventional wisdom I added a little more sternness to my “Golden Rule” explanation and maybe that was the reason for the squirming. But Eric was a smart kid and we knew that he knew exactly how to behave in the future. And for the record, I can report that, though he may or may not have sworn again in a post, he never got another terms-of-service violation for doing so.
So when we got the notice from AOL of a second terms-of-service violation I was at least relieved that it was not for swearing. This time it was for passing on a chain letter, and when I finally sat down and thoroughly read the AOL term-of-service, I saw the prohibition there in the lengthy text. This time I felt it was my fault, because I had not thoroughly read the terms before explaining to Eric the rules of AOL email etiquette.
We had a second meeting with Eric, though it was not so clear to him why chain letters were bad. The particular chain letter that he had forwarded had not involved anyone sending money to anyone else or something like that, I think it was simply AOL prohibiting this whole type of scheme to ensure that nothing unsavory could happen. After now finally reading the complete terms of service, I could now inform our son that one more violation would get us kicked off AOL. Again, no punishment, and his access to his online community continued.
I recall it was soon after that that we got the notice of the third terms-of-service violation, again for forwarding a chain letter. This time I recall it was more of a technicality, I think one of his online buddies had asked Eric about which email had earned him the violation and Eric had forwarded that email to his buddy. Somehow this had ended up earning Eric the third violation, and consistent with AOL’s stated policy, our account would be terminated and we would be “banned for life” from America Online.
So we of course had a third meeting with Eric and explained that he and his parents had now lost their access to AOL and all its games, forums and other features. I recall Eric being upset and saying it wasn’t fair. We shared with him that we were upset that he had not been more careful and that his actions had negatively affected all three of us. Now none of us had online access. And I recall us not having any Internet access for a while, to Eric’s chagrin, as part of the “natural consequences”.
To tie up this story, Sally and I had the (what we thought at the time) cleaver idea to sign up for a new AOL account in Sally’s last name which is different than my last name, which had been on the previous canceled account. But AOL was too smart for our subterfuge, and quite soon after setting up the second account, AOL informed us that since Sally had been associated with the terminated account, the new account would be terminated as well. We finally had to accept for the rest of our natural lives, we would be living in a post-AOL world.
After doing some research I recall that we finally signed up for EarthLink. They did not have the proprietary network and all the games and forums like AOL, just straight access to the actual Internet. Sally, Eric and I soon got used to finding what we were looking for on the real full-blown Internet rather than the AOL training-wheels version.
How many people do you know who have banned for life from America Online?