How I'm Using Pottermore to Teach My Kids about Social Media

5 years ago

I woke up at 5 am, unable to fall back asleep, which often happens when I'm particularly anxious. There were nine long hours I would have to get through until I knew for certain whether or not I passed, and I didn't know how I was going to be productive that day.  It was difficult to know that everyone was counting on me, and if I messed this up, it would set us back another 18 hours.

I am talking about Pottermore.

And that freakin' Polyjuice potion.

Image: Alan Roxborough/Lnp/London News Pictures/

My eight-year-old twins wanted to make accounts on the Pottermore site, and they asked me to play along with them.  What fun -- we'd all get sorted into our Houses and learn how to perform spells.  Even though they could read the books on their own, we've chosen to read them aloud together, curled up on the sofa in the afternoon.  The books are something we love collectively, so it followed that a social media site that allowed a person to enter a virtual Hogwarts would be something we'd love collectively too.

So we signed up and friended each other; we were off on a grand adventure!  And then we realized that the game wasn't intuitive at all.  And we had no clue what to do.  And we were all getting a tad frustrated.  But that's okay because the 13-year-olds who were beta testers had made very informative Tumblr accounts detailing how we needed to collect the random Bertie Botts beans we were finding on the floor of Harry's Privet Drive house (though they couldn't answer my daughter's question, "why are we picking up candy off the ground that Uncle Vernon has probably stepped on?") and how to complete a wizard's duel.

We finally found our groove and moved through all the pages of Book One, and then started on Book Two.  Again, we hit some snags such as trying to fling the gnomes over the garden wall or get the pixies back in the cage (hint: don't click your wand; just drag it).  But after I gave up precious work time to solve these puzzles for us, we were back in business.

Until we got to the Polyjuice potion.  In order to make the Polyjuice potion, you need to first make the Swelling Solution in order to get into Snape's office.  I think of myself as a fairly good cook, capable of following even complicated Martha Stewart recipes, so potions didn't really worry me.  I assumed that if I were really at Hogwarts, I would ace potions, and since this was all virtual and I didn't have to touch frog eyes or bat brains, it would be ten times easier.  I told the twins I'd make the potions for all three of us because I'm nice like that.

I started the Swelling Solution and immediately failed because I ran out of time.  Oh.  This was timed, like the California Achievement Test.  I collected more ingredients and started over.  This time, I got to the part where I waved my wand and discovered that I now needed to wait an hour until my potion was ready for the final step.  An hour?  I had to wait an hour?  I returned to that thing I normally do during the day called "work," though I paused several times to check the clock on the potion timer.

My potion was now ready for me to complete the final steps.  I started to do them and a message went across the screen telling me that I hadn't stirred properly.  Yes, I had.  I was incredulous that an hour of my life was now gone, but I gathered more ingredients and tried again.  And again.  And again.  7 times, until I returned to those savvy 13-year-old beta tester Tumblr sites to see if they had an answer.  And they did.  It was a glitch in the system.

For the love.

I started over for an eighth time and successfully brewed the Swelling Solution.  Then I realized that I still had to do the two-part Polyjuice potion; the one that had an 18-hour pause before you did the final steps to complete the potion.  My stomach was in knots, mostly because the twins were standing at either elbow, hissing at me like tiny Grima Wormtongues that I better not melt their cauldrons and would I please please please make this potion for them so they could complete Book Two?

It's a lot of pressure to put on a 38-year-old woman.

Which was what led to the morning when I woke up with my stomach in knots, thinking about how I had to add the lacewing flies that afternoon.  Adding them incorrectly would mean starting over from scratch with another 18 hour wait.  The twins went to school, wishing me good luck.  I was on my own with this.

I tried to keep busy.  I left questions on various forums, begging people to tell me their lacewing-adding methods.  I dueled with a random Brazilian Gryffindor, wondering how I had gotten myself into this mess.  Oh... wait... I remember.  I told the kids how much fun social media is; how it's this great way to connect with others over a common interest.  Which made them want to try it.  Since they are not old enough (nor do I know if we'll allow them to join when they are old enough) for Facebook, kid-centered social media sites such as Pottermore would have to do.

When the timer went off, I took a deep breath and added my lacewing flies.  I followed the instructions of a random New Zealand girl who makes YouTube potion tutorials.  And my G-d, when I saw that smoke start rising from the cauldron, I ran around the room, yelping and leaping.  I went to pick up the kids from school with the biggest grin on my face, presenting them with our three identical Polyjuice potions which we "drank" to enter the Slytherin common room.

Pottermore is a great soft landing into the world of social media.  Personal details about our lives are removed in favour of randomly-generated user names.  There is a common room board where people can post messages, but everything from certain words to all numbers are banned from usage.  It's an online world where there is no name-calling, no stalking, no teasing.  They can "meet" people from all over the world without really "meeting" them. 

And more importantly, it's social media that we're doing together.  I'm using it as a teaching moment as much as I'm using it as a fun (fun?) activity that we can do together.  We compare life on Pottermore to life on Facebook; and I allow them to see how adults sometimes talk to one another vs. how kids address each other on their site.  We talk about when to accept friend requests and when to reject them.  We discuss the importance of circumspection online, as well as how one should feel emotionally after using social media.  If it is causing you undo stress, log off. 

I know, I know, I should have taken my own advice with the lacewing flies.

But I also wanted to use that moment to talk about sticking around, trying to accomplish something, and maybe even feeling a little uneasy as you complete the hard work.  This time, it was a potion.  When they're in middle school, it might be a discussion.  I want them to learn responsibility, I want them to learn how to give and receive support, and I want them mostly to learn about fun.  Because social media, at its core, should connect us.

Back in 2010, @shaylamaddox tweeted that Twitter makes her like people she's never met, and Facebook makes her hate people she used to like.  And while I giggled because sometimes it's so true, it was also a warning call to make social media different for my kids.  The first generation of users may have gotten off to a rocky start online as we figure out etiquette.  Hopefully the next users will do better, though the only way we can do that is if we teach them not to remake our mistakes.

Do you participate in social media with your child?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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