Don’t ban the internet. Educate your kids

Children need to be taught, as early as possible, about the consequences that can spiral from an anonymous, 140-character tweet

The bright new dawn of the digital era is over. Social media is no longer a shining beacon for a new way of communicating; instead it has become a murky underworld of misogyny, hatred, and badly punctuated, uppercase-only abuse.

Until a few weeks ago, we might have believed that if anything was to derail Twitter, it would be likely to go in a blaze of ill-advised libels; now it seems much more likely to implode in a barrage of obscenities and oddly specific threats: "FIRST WE WILL MUTILATE YOUR GENITALS WITH SCISSORS THEN SET YOUR HOUSE ON FIRE WHILE YOU BEG TO DIE. TONIGHT. 23.00."

It started when feminist Caroline Criado-Perez was bombarded with rape and death threats – including the one reproduced above – after she campaigned to have Jane Austen featured on British banknotes. Similar threats were later sent to a number of high-profile female journalists, a female Labour MP and the historian Mary Beard.

And it isn't just women with a public profile: teenagers are also falling victim to the abuse. Last year, two Irish teens – Ciara Pugsley and Erin Gallagher – took their own lives after being bullied on Ask.fm; earlier this month, a 14-year-old English girl, Hannah Smith, died by suicide after she was told to "drink bleach" on the same site.

Whatever is fuelling the mob-like rage that has recently gripped social media, women and girls seem especially vulnerable. In the few cases in which the trolls have been tracked down and cautioned by police, they have invariably been young men. (Though the only time I experienced really nasty abuse online – and I’m not talking about the usual derogatory comments about my appearance or the suggestions that I should be making the tea – the person doling it out was female.)

Meanwhile, research by the British NSPCC found that one in five children has been a victim of cyberbullying; one in 10 is taunted online daily.

As a parent, your first instinct is to lock up all your laptops, smartphones, tablets and desktops, and throw away the key. But I don’t believe that is the answer.

My children – aged seven and five – already have their own email addresses. At their school in Sydney, they are expected to start using iPads once a week in the classroom at the age of five; by seven, they spend at least 15 minutes online every week as part of their homework.

They haven't yet discovered social media, but there will come a time when they want to set up their own accounts on Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat, or whatever service comes along to replace them, and I'll force myself to take a deep breath and show them what I know.

Social media is here to stay, and if you are a parent you have two choices. You can ban the internet (good luck with that) or you can educate yourself, and do your best to educate your children, so that they know how to cope with abuse if it happens to them; and so they don’t grow up believing that sending threats of sexual violence out into cyberspace is an acceptable way to spend a Saturday evening.

It’s the second part of this that, as the parent of a technology-hungry five-year-old boy, really interests me. Theories abound as to how young men could have become capable of so much ill-focused anger and hatred.

The internet is disinhibiting, the theories go; they feel disenfranchised and economically hard-done-by; they are bored, attention-seeking, or warped by early exposure to violent porn.

All of these may have some truth, but in the end, I suspect many of them are just experiencing a more intense form of the same phenomenon that seems to afflict adults writing in newspaper comment spaces, or on message boards; or the (mostly) girls who taunted Erin Gallagher and Ciara Pugsley on Ask.fm.

That is, they are undergoing what psychologists call “deindividuation”. They don’t understand the potentially devastating power of their words, or the consequences that can spiral from an anonymous, 140-character tweet. And that’s where the parents must come in.

Children need to be taught, as early as possible, to respect the power of the internet. They need to be shown how to interact online, just as we teach them
how to interact in the playground.