How to destroy your son?

Copyright 2006 Associated Newspapers Ltd.
All Rights Reserved

December 10, 2006 Sunday

LENGTH: 2388 words




Like millions of teenagers, Ben Atkins spends hours on social networking websites. So he was delighted when he met his perfect girl online, she shared his love of philosophy and bass guitars, and thought he was wonderful … But the lovely Cheshakitten was actually Ben’s mother, Anne, posing as a teenager to find out more about this internet phenomenon. Here she, and Ben, reveal what they learned from this incredible social experiment …

It started with a bet. I can never resist a challenge and this one, posed by a mischievous friend, was a humdinger: could I befriend one of my own children on one of those ‘social networking’ websites for teenagers without being caught out? Could I make a convincing youngster and engage my son in online conversations?

While it was an intriguing idea, a little like a scenario from a Shakespeare comedy in which a character disguises himself to try to discover his lady’s true character, I felt torn. After all, no challenge is worth jeopardising one’s relationship with one’s children. I said I would do it only if it was a bit of fun ñ an amusing jape rather than a sinister deceit to uncover any dark secrets.

And the sociological implications held some appeal. The internet, that vast anonymous behemoth, provides us with endless opportunities for knowledge, and mischief.

Could a 95-year-old retiree pass himself off as a twentysomething city slicker? Could a ne’er-do-well convince as a model of propriety? And could a mother really trick her own son into believing she’s a 17-year-old girl?

I know nothing about websites. I’m a technophobe ñ I can just about cope with the radio. Also, I hadn’t a clue whether my children used them. The only one of our children who is a teenager is 18-year-old Ben; the others are older or younger.

So I rang our elder son, Alex.’Does Ben use any of those website thingies for um, well, I’m not sure what they’re for? And could I get on one and pretend to be someone else?’ There was a long pause. ‘Why don’t you work out what you’re asking me, then ring back.’ Eventually Alex told me that, yes, Ben used Bebo, one of the most popular sites, ‘all the time’.

During the week Ben is at boarding school. He is supposed to be slogging for his A-levels, not wasting his time on the internet. I was exceedingly miffed. In my technologically simplistic ethic, time spent on a computer is equivalent to squandering one’s youth in a drug-soaked brothel, but at least it would enable me to win the bet.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to lie or find out things about Ben that he wouldn’t want me to know. But, after all, anyone browsing online can see his Bebo page for themselves. My moral parameters boiled down to this: no false photos or cheating ñ so no help other than advice.

Bebo is a website that allows teenagers and young people to build their own personal pages with profiles and pictures, and to communicate with friends. A typical page will feature a blog (an online journal to you and me), list its owner’s likes and dislikes, and include links to the similar pages of friends which will, in turn, provide links to their friends and so on.

Launched in America at the beginning of last year, it’s already become a phenomenal success with an astonishing 22 million registered members, five new users sign up every second. I told Alex of the plan, and he secretly told me what to do. ‘You will need to use hideous grammar and bizarre spelling otherwise Ben will suspect,’ he said. He told me to write ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’ and to forget about paragraphs. I also needed a name.

‘Lucy Haliday?’ I suggested. ‘Yes, but you need a “Bebo name” , like Cherrypie3 or Somewhereovertherainbow. And to attract his attention it needs some sort of intellectual content otherwise Ben’ll just ignore it. You’ll need to be one of the slightly more interesting and intelligent time-wasting idiots who use this thing rather than the moronic braindead pillocks who make up 99 per cent of users.’

Intellectual, eh? This was news to me. I thought Ben would be mesmerised by any half-decent pair of legs, or pair of anything else for that matter.

We went through the names that might occur to a moderately well-read 17-year-old girl , Lizzy Bennet, Becky Sharp, Catherine Earnshaw , before arriving at Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, which gradually disappears, leaving only its smile lingering in the air. Apt. Very apt. We decided kitten was more playful than cat, and Alex was most particular as to how I should spell it. Cheshakitten. Obviously.

It was a day’s work creating a webpage with Cheshakitten’s name on it. Next, I had to write her profile. What was she like, what were her interests, why had she only just arrived on Bebo ñ and why did she have no friends on the website at all? I composed an account of her parents’ divorce and a move from Switzerland, but Alex pointed out that no one else puts such detail in their profiles. It had to go. Bebo suggests what to include: music, sport, happiest when? and scared of?

I tried to think myself into Ben’s shoes. I decided I wanted to write soul music, launch a modelling career and go to the best ‘uni’ in the world. I’ve never used the word ‘uni’ in my life: it made me cringe. What makes me happy? ‘Being rich, famous and in love I guess. Yeah well lol.’ I was already getting the hang of this ñ lol is youngperson speak for ‘laugh out loud’. Shove it in anywhere and you look like a teenager. What was I scared of? ‘My mum when she’s had a good idea,’ I wrote. Ben would be able to relate to that. It would feel familiar and I know how much he would laugh when he found out who it was.

As I continued creating my page I became rather impressed with Bebo. Far from what I was expecting, it’s a well-conceived, wholesome way for teenagers to keep in touch. Nothing seriously tacky is allowed; any photo with nudity will be removed. Users under 21 are advised not to reveal their age. There are reminders to report anything dubious. At least, that’s the theory.

Unfortunately, the site has real teenagers on it. And that was quite a shock. Where are these frightful young people the media bemoans, youngsters who can barely spell their own names and are obsessed with sex? They’re all on Bebo. It’s very depressing. These are tomorrow’s voters. No wonder the country’s in a mess.

In this context, discovering Ben’s page was like a breath of fresh air in a sewer. Ben can spell, which is more than I can. His page is witty, wellwritten and self-deprecating. He is most scared of ‘physics coursework’ (everyone else says spiders). He is happiest when playing bass guitar and listeningto his vicar father preach (goodness, really?). And when I clicked on his friends’ pages I found they were all pretty sensible, too. Ben was emerging in a rather favourable light.

My own page was coming together. One problem was no friends. I decided Lucy was mad on cats and used an Alice In Wonderland illustration of the Cheshire Cat as my main photo. Then I added lots more pictures of kittens.

But I had a more serious problem: no friends. Alex told me the only reason teenagers go on Bebo in the first place is because all their friends are already using it and keep asking you why you aren’t. Someone who knows nobody is suspect.

So I decided to email Bebo members at random. ‘I have just moved here from abroad. No one from my school uses Bebo. Can I add you as a friend?’ I sent out 20 requests in the hope one or two people would click ‘Yes’ without noticing they didn’t know me. Gradually, friends started to appear. Five, ten … my page was filling up with people who hadn’t a clue who I was but verified me as a contact. Then one posted a comment on my page: ‘How do I know u?’

I emailed her, ‘Sorry, mistake’, and rang Alex in a terrified panic. ‘Help! How do I remove this person’s comment? Ben will see and realise I’m a fake. The police will find out. I’ll be sent to the headmistress. Help me, Alex.’

‘You see where it says “Delete comment”?’ he said calmly, as if talking to a dim five-year-old. ‘You delete the comment.’

Then, a stroke of luck. Someone wrote: ‘Lucy! Is it really u? Haven’t seen u in years.’ She wasn’t sure if she’d got the right person. I replied confidently: ‘How’s tricks? Gr8 to hear from u.’ I linked to her page and it was so awful I was embarrassed to know her, but at least she wrote two real comments on my page.

It was time to target Ben. He had messages from two sisters on his page. I know them, but I didn’t need to for what I did next. I posted a message saying: ‘Yo Ben,you know the Randalls,’ reasoning that, if the sisters noticed, they would each think I was a friend of the other, and not challenge me.

Ben mentions cricket on his page, so Cheshakitten asked him if he attended the big Oxford church where my husband works, and whether his father was that ‘cricket vicar dude’ ñ another clergyman there. A stranger could have done this with a bit of research. Then I waited. Would he fall for it? Wouldn’t he be suspicious that, unlike virtually every other girl’s page I viewed, on my page there was no blurred snap of a couple of teenagers, one of whom was supposed to be me? It was never going to work. My bet would be lost.

And then . . . bingo, I had a reply: ‘My dad is the rugby vicar dude and he could take that cricket vicar dude any day of the week.’ In the midst of my excitement at winning the bet, I felt a more profound warming of the heart. Ben is proud of his father; so proud he will brag about him to strangers.

Thus began a correspondence that showed me a side of my son I didn’t know. Within the family, Ben presents himself as the buffoon who makes the rest of us laugh but who insists he isn’t clever like his brother and sisters. But Bebo Ben was thoughtful, knowledgeable and sophisticated. He had his mind on Greek philosophy even when chatting to a girl. ‘I don’t simply play bass guitar: I transform it from a state of potentiality into a state of actuality. (Might put that on my profile ñ do you think people would get the reference to Plato?),’ he wrote.

I played dumb until Alex told me I must pick up on these references or I’d risk losing Ben’s interest. His next message was: ‘I owe you an apology. The reference, of course, was not to Plato, but Aristotle. I shall never forgive myself for the tragic error.’

So, thinking of Alex’s advice on spelling, I replied: ‘I don’t think Aristotle wd agree with ur definition of tragic. where’s the pity, where’s the terror, where’s the fatal floor?’ No, Alex said, that was the wrong combination of clever and stupid, but it worked.

Without warning Ben rewrote his whole page, pouring out screeds of scintillating prose. ‘Look,’ I said to my husband, wild with excitement. ‘Ben is a serious writer.’ We had bred a bestselling author and our financial problems were at an end. Till Alex informed me his brother had lifted the passage straight from a Douglas Adams novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul.

Cheshakitten’s only comment was: ‘U have 2 “kind of’s” 2 close together.’

Ben responded: ‘I can tell you are a highly tedious person. Where, anyway?’

‘A dreary kind of prickle and a kind of tower,’ I replied, quoting . ‘And did u think no1 wd recognise some1 else’s dark tea-time?’

‘You’re good,’ he conceded. ‘And actually, I did.’ Then he sent me a link to a video of a guitar performance he was excited about. I recognised it as Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. It’s a piece we’ve often performed as a family. I joked about it being ‘a loose canon’ so he’d know I knew it.

Ben had by now changed his ‘Happiest when?’ section to include ‘reading Anselm in my local pub’, claiming you couldn’t beat ‘a good chunk of the Proslogion and a London Pride’. I quizzed my husband about Anselm, the 12th Century philosopher and author of the Proslogion, an attempt to prove the existence of God. Then I made a quip to Ben about coming down to earth again afterwards ñ a reference to Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, on Jesus becoming man.

We were getting on famously but I could not bring myself to let my son’s fictitious friendship continue. The joke had gone on long enough. I had suggested meeting several times, and I tried it once more.

Ben replied the following day and told me to text him on his mobile to arrange a venue. Using a friend’s phone, I arranged to meet him in a pub. By now, I had told his sister Serena about the ruse. She thought it hilarious and, like me, thought he’d seen through the scam. Minutes after she and I got to the pub, Ben arrived. Puzzled, he asked:’What are you doing here? I have a rendezvous!’

‘Who?’ we asked, eager to know more. ‘I know it sounds awful,’ he laughed, ‘but I met her on the internet.’ He was clearly excited. ‘She knows Anselm and Aristotle, she understands Plato. And she plays bass guitar.’

Somehow I had to break it to him. I told him of the dare.

‘Yeah, right,’ he said. ‘Where is she?’ ‘We’re trying to tell you,’ said Serena. ‘Who do you think is Lucy?’

It was only when I revealed my Bebo name that Ben believed us. ‘But I even told a friend about you,’ he wailed.

Afterwards, Alex rang and asked how it went.

When I told him, he said: ‘Oh, no. I just thought it was going to be funny, but Ben lost a friend. Why did we never think of that?’ Why indeed?

I felt wretched, probably much worse than Ben did. But at least I’d won my bet and proved that with ingenuity and guile one really can pretend to be anybody on the internet. But, more than that, I’d seen a wonderful side to my son and got to know him in a way I’d never have thought possible.

In a few weeks, I’d seen Ben at his most sensitive, mature and witty. Strange as it may sound, we’d had some quality time together, albeit at separate locations on separate screens. Through Lucy’s eyes I realised Ben is quite a catch.

As we helped Ben drown his sorrows I tried to lighten the mood: ‘Ben, every man’s ideal woman is an impossible composite: the body of a 17-year-old model, the brains of a middle-aged theologian, a passion for Anselm, Aristotle and jazz bass guitar… Come on!’

‘But I was in love with her!’ Ben laughed. How could I, his own mother, have created his Pygmalion’s statue ñ then, instead of bringing her to life, murdered her? For a brief moment, Ben believed such a perfect creature could really exist.

Put it this way: it is a journey every man has to make, and it takes most of them a lifetime.

See, this is why webcams were invented! I hope he recovers…

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