Don’t let the internet bring up your children
Adults have responsibilities. So put down that smartphone and listen to your children now
Even George Orwell did not foresee 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. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
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 phone numbers exchanged.
There was a ripple of polite incomprehension from his listeners and one girl later mused that she kind of 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.
If I temporarily forget how to select photos for sharing on WhatsApp, I ask a teenager, adding with a smile that I am an old lady and to slow their explanation to old lady speed. They always do.
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.
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 9-10 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.
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.