Parenting in the digital age
How do you help children under pressure from social media?
NEVER had Katie Lawson’s three children seemed more vulnerable, in her eyes, than during her nine-year-old niece’s battle with prepubescent anorexia. The eating disorder had come from nowhere, with no obvious cause and no one to blame.
At the time, Katie’s priority was supporting her sister and niece. There was much to learn and many more questions than answers. But concerns for her own children were never far from her mind. With one in ten five to 16 year olds now suffering from a mental health disorder, Katie felt an overwhelming responsibility to better understand the pressures modern children face. Time, however, was not something this mother-ofthree had in spades. She had recently moved her family from London and was renovating their new home in East Bergholt. She was settling her children into a new school and volunteering at Gorseland Primary School in Martlesham Heath.
“I didn’t want to read ten books”, Katie recalls, yet she couldn’t be sure that what she was reading online was accurate. “I wanted little bits of expert advice that I could trust.” Thirty miles north, in Saxtead, another Suffolk mother was on the hunt for practical parenting advice. Alarmed by the pressure her daughter was already facing at school, aged just seven, Lucy Flack attended a conference on the practice of mindfulness in the classroom. It flicked a switch. She came out “totally inspired”.
But the conference had been for teachers, not parents, which concerned Lucy. She felt parents needed to be part of the conversation and, taking matters into her own hands, she organised a similar event at Framlingham College, this time, specifically for parents. It was an overwhelming success. Three hundred parents and grandparents came, with hundreds more on the waiting list. One of those in the audience was Katie Lawson.
Katie loved the talk. The format struck a chord, two speakers and a hearty chunk of comprehensive practical advice on helping children to cope with the pressures of modern life. It was just the accessible, expert-led experience she had been looking for. With 20 years in sports marketing and events management behind her, Katie started entertaining thoughts of organising a series of parent talks in a similar vein. Lucy shared her vision.
“I couldn’t drop it there. The buzz and energy and hype were too much to ignore.” The two women put their heads together and a new parenting initiative, to be known as Huddl, was born.
Power of the predator
“If I had heard the talk I’m going to give, Breck would still be here today. I’m sure of it.” These are the words of Lorin Lefave. Her 14-year-old son, Breck, was groomed over the internet and murdered in 2014.
Lorin is one of three expert speakers addressing Huddl’s inaugural parent talk on September 14 at Trinity Park in Ipswich, which will be focusing on social media and internet safety. It won’t be an easy listen at times, but Lorin makes no excuses for that.
“What went wrong for me and Breck is none of us had been educated about what to do when you recognise the signs of grooming.” Lorin and her husband suspected their son’s involvement in an online gaming group was not all that it seemed. They warned Breck that the so-called ringmaster might not be the 17-year-old computer engineer he claimed to be. Lorin forbade Breck from communicating with the man. She even reported her concerns to the police. Yet the worst still happened.
Since Breck’s death Lorin has tried to talk to as many different audiences as possible. She believes that, despite her efforts, there was more she could have done to protect her son. Looking back, she says she didn’t understand the power of the predator. She wishes she had had access to CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, a resource she’ll be promoting repeatedly during her talk. She’s worried parents are blasé about what their children are doing on their mobile phones.
“They take comfort, unwisely,” she says, “in the knowledge that all children are online all the time, everybody’s doing it.” This is a concern shared by the second speaker,
Dr Emma Bond. “People aren’t talking about parenting in the digital age in sensible pragmatic ways. Assuming the horse has bolted and we’ve just got to put up with it isn’t good enough.”
Dr Bond is a professor at the University of Suffolk, and author of Childhood Mobile Technologies and Everyday Experiences.
“If you live near a fast road,” she says, “you teach your child to cross it safely. If you live near a river, you teach them to swim.” If parents aren’t talking to their children about their life online, aren’t taking time out to play games with them or learn about the latest app or chatroom, Dr Bond says they will be in no position to help, if and when their child finds themselves in danger of being bullied, groomed or trolled.
According to Jonathan Taylor, the third and final speaker at the Huddl event, who spent ten years in the Metropolitan Police investigating online grooming, children are most likely to post an image or video of themselves online, or set up a fake profile for the first time, at the age of 11.
“Or try Twitter and message a stranger at 12, and try services like SnapChat and Ask.fm before the age of 13.” Risk-taking behaviour is inevitable, but there are practical things parents can do to protect their child and Jonathan Taylor will be offering a toolbox of options.
Schools have been putting on e-safety talks for some time now, but they are often poorly attended. These Huddl parent talks are a new approach. They’re putting expert speakers in front of an audience of parents who have paid £15 pounds to be there, who have actively chosen to spend their evening learning and investing in their child’s future.
“If one parent goes home and passes on the information, so that their child thinks before they click, then it will be worth it,” says Dr Bond. Katie and Lucy have two further Huddl talks planned in Suffolk. The first, in October, will examine the changing teenage brain. The next, in November, will explore ways of helping children develop grit and resilience. After that, the aim is to take the Huddl roadshow to Norfolk and Cambridge, and with strong support from sponsors such as the East Anglian Daily Times, David Lloyd Clubs, Woodbridge School and Go Training and Events, the hope is then to start organising talks nationwide.
When these two Suffolk mums were coming up with a name for their business they took inspiration from the behaviour of emperor penguins in the Antarctic. In the depths of winter, penguins huddle around their young to keep them warm, constantly changing position so that those on the outside get a chance to move inwards and take refuge from the elements. The aim is to ensure no parent is left out in the cold.
Katie and Lucy will endeavour to achieve no less as their parenting initiative gets underway in earnest this month.
Let the Huddl begin!
Katie Lawson and Lucy Flack are launching a new parenting organisation called Huddl
Organisers and speakers at the mindfulness and welbing conference at Framlingham College, l-r, Lucy Flack, Claire Kelly, Hazel Harrison and Tom Caston, deputy head at the college