Don't blame parents for cyber-psychological bullying


GIVE ME A BREAK:THE PLAYGROUND of the internet sometimes causes our children distress, and we don’t need Microsoft, the National Centre for Technology in Education, the Garda Síochána, the PSNI and the Minister for Education and Science Batt O’Keeffe to tell us that, as they did yesterday. 

Microsoft has used Safer Internet Day to tell parents of the advantages of Internet Explorer 8 with the help of an alarming survey. While O’Keeffe has announced that internet safety is going to be part of the Junior Cert curriculum. Instructors are going into our schools today to tell 6,000 children of dangers they already know about.

Eight out of 10 teenagers socially network on the internet, Microsoft’s survey says. If you have a child who uses it, you’re aware of the bullying that goes on – and if you’re not, you should be.

The 12-year-old son of a friend of mine is playing a war game via the internet, and as he rises through the levels of the game he is matched with players of equal agility. He pretends to go to bed, then when his parents are asleep stays up competing with people in other time zones, because to quit would make him a coward.

I know of a 15-year-old-girl whose social networking site was colonised by bullies in her secondary school. They stole her password and posted pornographic pictures with comments that she’s a “slut”, along with her personal information. Her parents discovered what was happening when the girl self-harmed.

I also know of a 13-year-old girl who starved herself, using tips she’d read on the web to kill her appetite and fool her parents into thinking that she was eating. Her internet friends encouraged her efforts to achieve size zero.

Protecting children has got so much harder. Stranger danger used to involve the paedophile who stopped his car, offering sweets and a lift home. Or the trusted family priest making you feel special, before abusing you. Or the kids on the playground beating you up for your lunch money. Now it’s about a porn site using your child’s photograph to boost sales.

Today’s abuse is different. It’s cyber-psychological, and happens in the ether when parents think their children are safe on the sitting room sofa or in their bedrooms. Without sitting beside your child for every moment they are on the internet – and they’re on the internet all the time – you cannot know what is happening. With the internet connected to several devices in your family home and outside 24/7, how can you possibly know what everyone is up to? The web surely has some responsibility to protect users, yet with the co-operation of our own Minister for Education it throws responsibility back on parents because, as Google told us when it pulled out of China, the moral prerogative is against censorship.

Meanwhile, the multinational giant Microsoft, O’Keeffe, the Garda and the PSNI are telling us that it’s parents’ fault that their children are not using the product correctly, just as the manufacturers of cars and alcohol tell us we can avoid disaster by using their products safely.

Here are the statistics announced yesterday: 71 per cent of teenagers have been approached online by a stranger through their social networking page, and 43 per cent responded, revealing a quite sensible 28 per cent who didn’t respond but who are the minority. In what is a “worrying gap”, as the press release puts it, two-thirds of teenagers say their parents did nothing to encourage them to be safe online, while 58 per cent of parents said their children were “taking necessary safety precautions”. Three-quarters of parents (73 per cent) said they “took measures” to monitor their children’s use of the internet, yet only about half (46 per cent) “actually monitored” this use.

Parents are being blamed for something that may not be their fault. The vast influence of the web has eclipsed parenting because how can parents possibly compete? Monitoring children’s internet use is a gross invasion, children will say, like sneakily opening the lock on a child’s diary and reading it. Our children’s world is no longer the pages of a diary. It has gone global.

Many of our children are more sophisticated internet users than we are, making parents feel disempowered. This is proven by the worrying conflict in Microsoft’s statistics, whereby two-thirds of teenagers say their parents are doing nothing to encourage their safety, while three-quarters of parents say they are doing something.

The often fraught communications between parents and teenagers have something to do with this, but the advice being given jointly by Microsoft and O’Keeffe at the launch of the survey results has its own contradictions. Their first piece of advice is to “never use your real name”, and to use a fake picture. The entire point of having a presence on the web is that it is your real name. It is you. A web of fake names wouldn’t interest anyone.

Being approached by strangers is the point of so-called social networking. It’s about putting your image across in a celebrity-obsessed culture. If you’re communicating only with people you know personally in real time and real space, couldn’t you just send a text? If you don’t want to be approached by strangers, then you shouldn’t use the internet at all, which leads to the conclusion that maybe our teenagers shouldn’t be using the internet at all. But with Pandora’s Box already opened, that’s impossible.

Keeping your child away from the internet is like blaming the playground for the child falling. So the psychological abuse of our children on the internet becomes one more thing for parents and teachers to worry about, while Microsoft itself – which is part of the mega-machine that drives the internet – slaps us on the wrist.