Don’t let the in­ter­net bring up your chil­dren

The Irish Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Breda O’Brien

We worry when young peo­ple en­dorse Trump but don’t worry when the same mech­a­nisms of so­cial con­trol op­er­ate with more like­able can­di­dates

Re­cently, I was at the last meet­ing of a group of young peo­ple who had been thrown to­gether to work very in­tensely in ser­vice of oth­ers for five days. The adult lead­ing the ses­sion ac­knowl­edged the feel­ings of sad­ness in the group that this ex­pe­ri­ence was end­ing, and then stated that he was sure there had been a lot of mo­bile num­bers ex­changed.

There was a rip­ple of po­lite in­com­pre­hen­sion from his lis­ten­ers and one girl later mused that she missed the days when con­tact was about the ex­change of sim­ple dig­its. This gen­er­a­tion add each other on Face­book, or on Snapchat, or per­haps set up a What­sApp group.

But it’s not just the means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that have changed. Be­ing a so-called dig­i­tal na­tive has an im­pact on ev­ery­thing from at­ten­tion spans to so­cial norms.

Cer­tainly, older peo­ple can be rea­son­ably so­cial-me­dia aware. The best peo­ple to teach you are young peo­ple. They are usu­ally only too pleased to do so.

But no mat­ter how much I en­joy tech­nol­ogy, I will never in­habit the same world as teenagers and young adults. De­spite lov­ing the as­tound­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties of the on­line world, I did not grow up here.

Those who did tend to ig­nore the down­sides. Ge­orge Or­well wrote about the all-see­ing, all-hear­ing tele­screen forced on a pop­u­la­tion to im­pose con­trol.

Com­mer­i­cal ex­ploita­tion

He never fore­saw how much peo­ple would covet de­vices in their pock­ets that track their ev­ery ac­tion and which at­tempt to abol­ish the con­cept of pri­vacy in or­der to max­imise com­mer­cial ex­ploita­tion.

Adults can­not shirk the re­spon­si­bil­ity to help young peo­ple nav­i­gate this world.

A new sur­vey by Cy­berSafe Ire­land sug­gests that more than half of Ir­ish 9- to 10-year-olds are daily in­ter­net users, in­creas­ing to 92 per cent of chil­dren as they move into ado­les­cence.

They browse the in­ter­net, watch videos and chat with friends all at the same time, while also al­legedly study­ing, do­ing home­work or eat­ing din­ner.

How­ever, even if their thumbs flicker at warp speed while talk­ing on­line, it does not mean they are wise in the use of so­cial me­dia. Cy­ber­bul­ly­ing is so ram­pant that many young peo­ple ac­cept it as nor­mal.

It is not sur­pris­ing that the Cy­berSafe sur­vey found that 69 per cent of teach­ers feel in­ad­e­quate when it comes to teach­ing about in­ter­net safety.

There are at­tempts to ed­u­cate teach­ers, many of whom are young enough to be cy­ber­na­tives, through ini­tia­tives such as Web­wise.ie, which also has ad­vice for par­ents.

But per­haps the dif­fi­culty in­volves know­ing how to talk to very young chil­dren about porn. Or per­haps it is how to teach them to avoid sit­u­a­tions where they might be groomed for con­tact by a stranger, or sub­ject to cy­berex­tor­tion by be­ing conned into for­ward­ing com­pro­mis­ing pho­to­graphs. We can­not al­low feel­ings of awk­ward­ness to pre­vent us hav­ing vi­tal con­ver­sa­tions.

Pornog­ra­phy

Cy­berSafe high­lights a Na­tional So­ci­ety for the Pre­ven­tion of Cru­elty to Chil­dren re­port in the UK in 2017, which found that 28 per cent of chil­dren aged 11-12 had looked at pornog­ra­phy on­line. More than half of the 11-16 year old boys sur­veyed thought it was re­al­is­tic.

In­stead of ideas of sex­u­al­ity be­ing shaped by love and com­mit­ment, ug­li­ness and ex­ploita­tion reign in­stead.

Cre­at­ing com­pro­mis­ing self­ies is also com­mon. So-called sex­ting has be­come nor­malised as part of sig­nalling in­ter­est or prov­ing that you trust some­one. Such self­ies cause dev­as­ta­tion when they are spread.

While porn and on­line gam­bling of­ten cre­ate head­lines, I think there is an­other, more sub­tle phe­nom­e­non that is rarely ex­am­ined.

There is a pow­er­ful on­line band­wagon ef­fect that is can­nily ex­ploited by peo­ple who know how to ma­nip­u­late it and young peo­ple are con­stantly be­ing nudged in par­tic­u­lar direc­tions. I call it be­ing reared by the in­ter­net.

To give a rel­a­tively be­nign ex­am­ple, in the last US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion the pre­ferred can­di­date of most young peo­ple was Bernie San­ders.

Why? Was it be­cause peo­ple had read his man­i­festo, or be­cause he was in favour of le­gal­is­ing recre­ational mar­i­juana, or was it just that ev­ery­one on the in­ter­net seemed to think he was great?

That’s fine if you know and like what he stood for, but if you just think he is “so cute”, it is maybe not so fine.

We worry when young peo­ple en­dorse Trump but don’t worry when the same mech­a­nisms of so­cial con­trol op­er­ate with more like­able can­di­dates.

What can par­ents and teach­ers do? The an­swer is quite ba­nal but nonethe­less im­por­tant. Talk to young peo­ple. Find out about their favourite apps. Lis­ten to their con­cerns. Be­come rea­son­ably au fait with the world young peo­ple are liv­ing in, even though it changes with dizzy­ing speed. Don’t pre­tend to be young and hip. That’s just painful.

Per­sist if they shrug you off. Take their con­cerns se­ri­ously. And put down that screen when they want to talk to you. Noth­ing is as off-putting as an adult screen ad­dict preach­ing to their pre-teen or teenager about too much screen time.

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