Sunday 21 April 2019

How to guide our teens through the dangerous online world

After the suicide of yet another schoolgirl targeted by cyberbullies – sickeningly reminiscent of the deaths of Erin Gallagher and Ciara Pugsley – child psychotherapist Julie Lynn Evans has this advice for parents

Julie Lynn Evans

There are no words to begin to adequately describe what tortured misery Hannah Smith must have felt as she wound the rope around her neck last Friday. Or the trauma of her sister who found her, or the heartbreak of her family.

The 14-year-old English girl killed herself after she was bullied by users of the social networking website Ask.fm. The Latvia-based site allows users to post comments anonymously; these users urged Hannah to cut herself, "drink bleach" and "get cancer".

As a therapist who works mostly with young people, I am lucky and grateful for the fact that no client has yet taken their life on my watch. Sadly, I feel it is only a matter of time unless something changes – and fast.

My clients are cutting their arms, thighs, shoulders and stomachs; they are exhibiting signs of seriously disordered eating; they are medicating fast and furiously; they are refusing to go to school; they are sleepless and scared. Some are depressed and anxious, some have problems with authority, and some are simply terrified. My consulting room is full of children who are more dramatically unhappy than they were a decade ago.

I can almost pinpoint the change to a time within the past four years when children got hold of their own personal computers, went upstairs to their bedrooms with their laptops and went out and about with their smartphones.

Once Wi-Fi made the internet accessible, many children logged in and never logged out. Parents were unable to take control of an ever-increasingly important part of their children's lives.

Teenagers began to practise traditional adolescent behaviour on public platforms with no parameters or infrastructure to stop them or to keep them safe. We are beginning to see the consequences.

I am not angry with the internet. It is a wonderful, innovative, exciting, revolutionary invention. No one set out to produce systems that would hurt our children. But I am angry about the amount of pain I see, and the fact so many young people are having a really hard time.

Cases such as those of two of my young clients, Julia and Alice (not their real names), have sadly become normal.

At 13, Julia was not coping. Feeling insecure, she gave in to peer pressure, joined Facebook and added as many not-really friends as she could find. She too was added in the necessary accumulation of numbers that denotes a superficial popularity. She could watch the air-brushed lives of her not-really friends and feel even more excluded and unhappy. She began to ape the style and lives of those around her and to try too hard. She acquired the most painful label any adolescent has to bear, and became a "scrape". (This is someone who scrapes unwanted into an existing social set. They are even lower down the playground pecking order than a loner or a geek.)

It was an easy jump from the lack of kindness that can be found on Facebook to an outright anonymous witch-hunt on Formspring (another social networking website with anonymous people posting messages, and a precursor to Ask.fm). Julia, ever on eggshells, read that her outfits were "minging", that she was a fat "ginger", that she would never "pull", that she was indeed a "scrape" and that the very best thing she could do would be to lie down and die.

Julia ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

At 14, Alice had created her own account on Tumblr, a photo-blogging site, to show her battle scars of lacerated wrists and waif-thin arms. With therapy, she turned a corner and made a decision to stay alive; she now needed some friends, some purpose and some meaning beyond the measured calories, the bulimia and the cutting.

Bravely, she started to sit with people in the canteen at her school and attempted to join in with conversations before the start of lessons. Her fellow pupils on Ask.fm sprang into action and anonymously called Alice an ugly no-hoper who should stop taking up space within the school.

In both cases, adolescents who had not yet learnt to be guided by their own inner moral compasses could do what they liked with little fear of consequence.

Anonymity and the immediacy of the internet mean that normal rules of behaviour do not apply. At the touch of a button, chain reactions were set in motion to berate, pick on and bully girls who were already having a very hard time.

People wonder why the young who find it hard to cope do not simply turn their backs on the networks that are so damaging. It would be really difficult. Most people want to know what is said about them and would like a chance to correct misrepresentation or malicious gossip. It would be a brave soul who walks away.

How can we expect teenagers, whose main developmental job is to find out who they are, to ignore everything around them and forge ahead, isolated and out of kilter with their generation?

Children tell me they will kill themselves if their parents take away their phones.

They communicate via text, tweet, Tumblr and Facebook. They send messages to tell each other where they are, what they are doing and about the latest cool things. They hardly ever speak to each other on the phone, although it provides their lifeline. It is a blissfully parent-free environment in an often over-parented world and they can go anywhere and get up to anything.

In life we try to protect them from all evil and teach them to manage their own demons. We have not had time to do that yet in their virtual worlds. But the debate has started, the clamour for parental, governmental and industrial responsibility is growing, and the next generation will have more knowledge, more experience and more help.

Our kids need help; we have not yet taught them an acceptable code of conduct on the web because we did not know that we needed to and we did not know how. Many of us are innocents and can be seduced by the insistent call of our bright, shiny, new machines.

We too need to remember to put people first, to take time to think, to respond carefully and to remember the point of human contact where eyes are looked into, feelings are felt, expressions are noted and hurts ameliorated and apologised for. If we slow down and show by example, then we can ask our children to do the same.

If we ask for manners as we insist that children put down their phones at the table, then so too must we. If we want them to come out of their bedrooms, then we need to be present when they do so. We need to educate ourselves and our children as to what is working and what we need to fear.

We must offer somewhere to turn when things go wrong. We should understand our children's need to be connected and not make it wrong for wanting to enjoy an exciting new world full of unseen possibility. They, in turn, should understand the need for boundaries and parameters for good behaviour and, until they know what they are doing, that privacy and anonymity are privileges to be earned.

Just as in real life, we must support and guide our children in their cyberworlds.

There is no magic in this; it is another task of parenting that will take time and careful thought. And so, too, schools, computer companies and the Government must take responsibility to ensure best practice so that our children are protected from both the shadowy side of the internet and the darker aspects of themselves.

I believe that they are already doing so, and I hope that soon we will not have to read of the misery of Hannah and the others like her. These children are the canaries in the coal mine; they show us that there is danger. We must do something about it.

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