Thursday 13 December 2018

Internet-addicted kids are mini-mes of mum and dad

We've taught our children by example to be internet fanatics, writes Sarah Caden but maybe fines will force us to protect them online

Safety: Giving smartphones to children is storing up problems (stock photo)
Safety: Giving smartphones to children is storing up problems (stock photo)

Last week, a UK blogger called Sarah Cantwell gave birth to her second daughter. It was a home birth and if you were one of the 62,000 people who tuned in to watch her livestreaming it on the internet, you'll know that she had a daughter, Maeve.

"It's quite crazy how many people were watching," Cantwell said afterwards. "I was only really expecting my friends and maybe some family to tune in."

There was a time when we'd have thought the whole thing was crazy, and not the crazy-amazing way Cantwell means. We'd have thought it was crazy that anyone who knew her would want to watch, never mind tens of thousands of strangers.

But this is what adults do now. Boundaries are blasted away in our passion for self-exposure and poring over the exposures of others. We have reached the point where we barely grasp the concept of privacy any more, so utterly have we exploited our own.

So if this is what the adults are up to, what hope is there for the kids? We all get the concept that if we want ­children to grow up with a healthier attitude to alcohol, then we adults need to start teaching by example.

When it comes to online behaviour and our relationship with technology, however, our utter lack of self-control is inevitably rubbing off on the kids.

The kids whom we photograph and video every time they twitch from the moment they enter the world. The kids who have to settle for our divided attention as we field texts, emails, and social media notifications morning, noon and night. The kids who are learning by example that one's self-worth is to be measured by how much attention the rest of the online world is paying you.

No wonder it seems sane to suggest that parents should be fined for allowing children to own a smart device with unrestricted online access. It seems sane because, given we have lost the ability to restrict ourselves, we haven't a hope of restricting our kids. Or being trusted to restrict our kids.

Last week, Cork TD Jim Daly talked about his work on the Internet Access for Minors Bill 2017, and the need for restrictions and penalties to be put legally in place to protect our children. Bullying, gambling and pornography were the key concerns, and rightly so, but there is a far more fundamental issue here.

It's not that children don't understand that it's OK to be bored, and it's not that they're spoilt or lazy or screen addicts. It's that they're learning, from us, by example, that to be online is to be alive.

Daly's proposals, aimed at protecting children because we are doing a fairly dismal job of it without penalties in place, also include prosecuting retailers who sell devices with unrestricted internet access to under-14s.

Now, it was pointed out immediately that there is already an abundance of easy restrictions that we can put in place to keep our children safer. There's YouTube Kids, where they aren't going to see someone giving birth if they put in a search for "new baby". There are restricted options available on search engines, which mean that if they should type "porn", they won't actually see any.

While we got shirty and defensive about Daly's suggestion, there were many keen to explain that if we bothered, we could protect our children with little difficulty. But, for the most part, we're not taking that step.

Which may be because our eye is utterly off their online behaviour because we're so wrapped up in our own. We're so busy photographing our kids and showing them off on our own social media accounts that we're not actually taking notice of what they're doing. Under our noses.

Last week, for example, it was startling to see how many people were surprised by the fact that it's a violation of Facebook's terms for a child under 13 to have an account. It not only suggested that adults were allowing their young children to have Facebook accounts, but that it hadn't arisen that this might be a problem. But then, we all know people who get email accounts in their children's names and claim their domain names in early infancy. Just in case someone else gets them first. Which would be a disaster, obviously.

CyberSafeIreland, the children's charity for online safety, came to my daughters' school recently. It visits schools all over the country, first talking to the older primary school children about their online behaviour and experiences, and then talking to the parents.

It gives an assessment of the children's revelations and advises parents on how to keep them safer. It doesn't pretend that kids won't find a way around restrictions, and recommends that if all the parents of each class can agree to resist buying their child a smartphone, that can keep the tide at bay for a while.

After I went home, a friend texted me a picture she had received of the pregnant belly of an acquaintance. "Why?" she asked me, wondering what drove this woman to share it. "How," I thought, "are we going to tell the kids to play it safe if this is the way the adults are carrying on?"

You can have all the safety features in the world, but they're worth nothing if we teach our kids that every bit of life and death, every fleeting thought, every passing emotion, is online fodder.

So, if it takes the threat of financial pain to make us wake up to the war being waged on our children's brains, then so be it. Take away the smartphone and replace it with an old-school calls-only phone by all means.

But back it up by doing the same for yourself.

Sunday Independent

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