What is ‘cop on’, and why does your child need it?

We need to understand the allure of technology if we are to help children develop healthy relationships with it

Checking in regularly on our smartphone is fine, but it’s not where we should be doing the bulk of our communication. Photograph: Thinkstock

Checking in regularly on our smartphone is fine, but it’s not where we should be doing the bulk of our communication. Photograph: Thinkstock

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As a child and adolescent psychotherapist I am repeatedly asked difficult questions: “At what age should I give my child a smartphone?” “When can I allow my child have SnapChat?” “When is it okay for my child to have a Facebook account?” “How much screen time should I allow my child a day?” These questions are never easy to answer and, more often than not, I have to give a slightly underwhelming reply: “It depends on the child.” Recently, in considering what I meant by this – what it depended upon, exactly – I kept coming back to the same concept: cop on.

So, what is “cop on” and why does your child need it? Despite the phrase being popular in Irish discourse we find it difficult to define. I believe a young person can be described as having a good deal of cop on when they possess an ability to be rational, resilient and sensible. They also would have a sense of grittiness and good judgment when called upon to cope with life’s inevitable challenges.

It is my concern that the modern world seems to be working against nurturing our ability to develop cop on by emphasising the importance of speed and convenience over reflection or thinking things through.

This “on-demand” culture of constant entertainment, instant gratification and high expectations is leading to higher levels of frustration and anxiety in our young people today. It is my professional view that these significant changes in our way of being and thinking mean our young people are finding it increasingly difficult to deal with life’s inevitable trials and tribulations.

In this exclusive extract from my new book, Cop On: What it is and why your child needs it to survive and thrive in today’s world, I look at some of the challenges parents and their children are facing and explore what they can do to ensure that their children develop a good sense of themselves so that they can create an internal mechanism for good decision-making and cop on. There is a strong likelihood that when your child is given an opportunity to do something that they shouldn’t, more often than not, you will not be there and that is when they need to use their cop on.

In order to foster this in our children we first need to understand the world from their perspective, so first let’s look at the allure of technology for young people and explore how to recognise when their relationship with it becomes problematic and adversely affects their ability to be rational, resilient and sensible. By understanding these dynamics, you’ll be in a better position to intervene or support your child to develop healthier relationships with technology.

‘Fomo’

The “Fear of Missing Out” (Fomo) has been described as a modern syndrome for our communication-obsessed age, a fear that encroaches on many aspects of our lives. This need to be always available or “always on” can be observed in my clinical practice. It is not unusual to hear accounts of young people who set alarms on their phones to wake them throughout the night so they can check social networking newsfeeds to make sure they are not missing out on anything.

This inability to regulate themselves applies equally to other online activities, such as gaming, which is suspected to have quite addictive qualities. I have encountered parents who have to get up at 4am to unplug fuses in order to stop their children playing online games such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Others have described having to come back from their family holiday abroad because there was no wifi available and their children became unmanageable as a result of their Fomo.

These extreme forms of being always accessible are signs of poor regulation, a difficulty that is common to many aspects of adolescent life but one that parents and children can work to help manage – with a little cop on. If we understand that young people need to learn the skills of regulation and cop on then we need to acknowledge the need to teach them.

A small child does not know how to regulate the way in which they eat ice cream and so will eat to the point of being sick. It is therefore the role of the parent to teach the child to have the cop on to know of these consequences.

Similarly a teenager does not have the foresight to be mindful of the time while on a sleepover and consider their busy day the following day and so they stay up all night and are contrary and irritable the next day.

Understanding the need to ‘share’

The adolescent clients I see refer constantly to the importance of the “share”, be it sharing a status update on Facebook, a tweet, an image or a music video. The most impressive aspect of the social media they use is its capacity to share so instantaneously and widely.

The psychologist Aaron Balick writes in his book The Psychodynamics of Social Networking that the allure of the share is the recognition acquired through feedback in the form of “likes”, “comments” and indeed further shares or “retweets”. Herein lies the power of the share: the sharer hopes that their funny tweet or an impressive image of them doing something exciting will generate a swell of positive feedback, giving them the recognition and validation of their peers. While young people are negotiating the establishment of their identity in adolescence this recognition, validation and feedback is never more important and valued.

However, we must consider the long-term impact of this kind of validation over time. Just who are these “peers”? Just how nourishing to our self-worth can this feedback really be?

Psychoanalyst Sherry Turkle suggests that we have now moved away from this position of I have a feeling, so I think I will share it. Today it is common not to know how to feel; instead, the impulse runs more along the lines of I need a feeling and so I will share. Such an impulse may stem from boredom or a lack of fulfilment. The hope is that the feedback received will create feelings in the sharer, hopefully positive ones, and that the current moment that is devoid of a feeling will be filled. In interacting with social media in this way, we continue to merge technology with emotion and meaning in our lives and this is what we need to realise.

In times of uncertainty, such as adolescence, we rely more heavily on the feedback and opinions of others to condone or condemn our choices; it serves as a sounding board to validate our choices about what type of adult we want to become. The difference today is one of scale: vulnerable, hypersensitive teenagers are now trying on new identities and experimenting in front of 1,000-plus Facebook friends. This is problematic, particularly as feedback via a simple “thumbs up” (or down) can lack empathy and be excessive in its tone and articulation. This validation and recognition that is so central to identity formation becomes a potential minefield of mixed feedback which is generated online and can be overwhelming.

As adults we are dumbfounded as to why young people subject themselves to this, yet if we learn to understand the importance of the feedback in cementing our sense of identity in a life stage that craves feedback and reassurance, we can learn to understand why. Therefore the correct parental response is not to engage in criticism and prohibition but to teach the child to value themselves and develop the cop on to see through this fickle, empty feedback.

Social snacking

Keeping on top of all the different forms of communication across the multiple social networking sites, not to mention the selfies, shares and texts, means checking in with them consistently, and is a time-consuming task. The consistent use of social networking and computer-mediated communication can be compared

to junk-food snacking: you dip in and out, interact as and when you like and do so compulsively, without thinking, just like eating crisps. If we look at young people’s engagement with their virtual community as social snacking, we can better understand its strengths and weaknesses.

Social networking activities such as posting, liking and commenting make for a quick, easy boost, a sugary rush of social energy from person to person: it’s the junk food of communication. I describe it as such not to denigrate it but to get you to view it as an extra source of communication, a treat.

Therefore, checking in regularly on our smartphone is fine, but it’s not where we should be doing the bulk of our communication; the nature of its limitations means that the richness and meaning of a look, a warm embrace or even an empathetic conversation – the meat and potatoes of our communication diet – isn’t there.

So if social networking or computer-mediated communication is like junk food, then we have to make a point to engage healthily with it. We know that most junk foods are fine in moderation and make for a nice occasional treat in addition to a stable balanced diet, but – and this is the crucial bit – junk food should not supplement or replace a balanced diet.

Virtual relationships are similar in terms of their psychological “nourishment”: they are harmless once we have the capacity to regulate them. Children who grow up on stable and balanced diets tend to see snacks and sweets as an indulgence that they are treated to occasionally. Although they may desire junk food regularly and request it more often than other foods, they know how to relate to treats in a reasonable way.

In turn, we as parents need to show our children that we enjoy and value a balanced diet of face-to-face communication most of the time. So if we as parents are answering emails at the family dinner table during a meal or tweeting while we push our child on the swing in the park, we’re doing the technological equivalent of eating crisps for breakfast in front of our children.

Developing cop on in our children

The first and most important task in developing cop on in our children is for us to clearly role model cop on as parents. However, the technological evolution has happened so fast and is so pervasive that we as parents are only learning to moderate our own relationship with technology too.

It is surprising to sometimes consider that the banking crisis in Ireland is older than the iPhone. In 2009 we did not know what an iPad was. This was only six years ago and now these terms are woven into the fabric of our discourse. As a nation we have embraced technology and invited it into our family homes without many questions. There is a need for parents to learn to regulate their own relationship with technology if we are to impart the same messages to our children.

In my book I try to be as honest as I can about my own struggles with technology and show how I constantly aim to address these errors as they occur, which I hope is “good enough” and displays a sense of cop on. Being the “perfect parent” is neither possible nor desirable, and the same goes for raising the “perfect children”. The truth of the matter is that raising children is difficult: fact. It always has been, and it always will be. It’s a time-consuming part of life for which there is plenty of guidance available, but very little of it is useful in real life. There is an inevitable trial-and-error aspect of being a parent. It can be very difficult and we will make mistakes, but in the words of Seval Oz, “If you are not making mistakes then you are not trying hard enough.”

So what can we do to nurture a sense of cop on in our children and protect them from developing unhealthy relationships with technology?

It is important to reiterate that the internet and technology is not essentially bad – it is our use of and relationship with it that can be problematic. Therefore, it is the role of parents to moderate this relationship and develop a corresponding relationship that offers a different perspective. There are five key areas parents can focus on to nurture cop on in their children, all of which are explored in detail in the book, and based on psychiatrist John Gunderson’s “therapeutic milieu”.

“Psychological containment” is the cornerstone of the parent-child relationship. This means encouraging openness, honesty and understanding of each other. Next you have to get the structure right. It’s crucial not to overstructure or understructure our children’s lives as this can disable their own abilities to regulate. Then you need to get them “involved”, gradually negotiating increasing levels of responsibility together without overwhelming them. It is also critical to offer the right kind of support and validation, taking time to listen to our children in a way that allows them to feel heard but also feel safe. We must support them when they need to make tough decisions and taper this support as they become more able and independent.

All children are different and therefore need differing parenting approaches at times. The adherence to our need to develop relationships with our children has never been more important. With devices in their hands that are portals to an outside world that we cannot influence or control, we must look to how we can develop internal mechanisms in our children so that they themselves can make good decisions. The introduction of the internet into our lives is the greatest social experiment of our time.

Never before have we embraced something so ubiquitous, so readily and with no idea of the possible consequences. Our children have a different relationship with technology than we as adults do and the main difference is that this is all they know.

Our children have arrived in the middle of a conversation and it is up to us as parents to inform them of what has gone before and teach them the value of their most protective companion on their onward journey; their cop on.


This is an extract from Colman Noctor’s new book, Cop On: What it is and why your child needs it to survive and thrive in today’s world, published by Gill & Macmillan (€16.99). To get the book for €15, plus free p&p within Ireland, call 01-500 9570 and quote ITGM or see iti.ms/1aLdtoY

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