Wednesday 23 October 2019

Sarah Caden: 'Obsessive adults show children the wrong way to behave online'

We tell our teenagers that nobody's judging them, while we pose up a storm on social media, writes Sarah Caden

"We tell our children that they shouldn’t get obsessed with the idea that everyone is watching, judging and talking about them. We tell them that everyone’s just getting by, no matter what gloss they put on things." Stock picture

Sarah Caden

Speaking recently about the prospect of retirement, Graham Norton said that he didn't relish the idea of having too much time on his hands.

When you have all that idle time, he said: "You become a teenage girl. You start obsessing about minutiae. I don't want to turn into that person."

It gave pause for thought because it pinpointed a certain mindset that is the domain of the adolescent, but has crept into adult life.

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Obsessing about minutiae, along with believing the whole world is obsessing about you, is fundamental to how the teenage mind works. It's part of what makes teenagers so frustrated and frustrating. It's what we try to help them to control, in the name of nurturing their mental health.

When our children reach an age where this obsessing begins, it kicks off with escalated self-consciousness - a feeling that everyone is scrutinising and finding fault with their every move.

When our children reach that age and enter into that painful first burst of comparing themselves to others, any sane parent tells them that this is a hiding to nothing.

We tell them that no one is perfect. We tell them that it is the human condition to look at others and imagine that they are sailing through life without any of the same internal doubts and struggles. We tell them that really, no one is looking at them or judging them half as much as they imagine. In fact, most people are far too consumed with themselves and their own travails, to be watching or thinking about them.

This is what we tell them, in order that they don't drive themselves mad with worry about what other people think of them.

We're ones to talk. These days, our own behaviour as adults gives the absolute lie to all that solid advice we give our kids.

But then, we exist in this delusional bubble when it comes to our children and the internet.

For example, last week came the unhappy statistic that 43pc of Irish eight- to 13-year-olds are talking to strangers online. Don't dismiss it as relatively benign because some of it occurred via online games. It is children and it is strangers and it is the modern-day equivalent of the scary man trying to get them into a van.

The knee-jerk reaction to this is to say that restrictions have to be tighter, that we need more policing of the internet, that there need to be more controls. The real issue is that we're telling our children one thing while the example we set them is the complete opposite. It's like us getting drunk every night while preaching about the ills of alcohol.

We tell them that social media is a blight on their mental health and that it's all fake, and we fret over their levels of anxiety; meanwhile we're beating ourselves up because someone had a better summer holiday than us, or got a new car, or had their kids kitted out and lined up perfectly for the back-to-school family snap.

We're secretly online stalking old school friends to see if they've done better than us; checking out old boyfriends to see if they survived without us; following friends, frenemies and full-blown enemies to make sure we're not missing a trick in life. And, of course, we always feel like we are.

It's a glorious example we're setting.

And our behaviour is having a real and perceptible effect on how we behave in real life.

We tell our children that they shouldn't get obsessed with the idea that everyone is watching, judging and talking about them. We tell them that everyone's just getting by, no matter what gloss they put on things. We tell them that there's no point trying to live in other people's heads - that it will only drive them mad.

And, crucially, we tell them that nobody's actually bothered looking at them, so calm down.

Meanwhile, we adults are acting like we're on show the whole time, because that's what putting ourselves out there on social media does. It feeds the notion that you're creating moments all the time. It becomes a habit, to the point that if anything notable happens, you feel the need to capture it and share it with an audience.

It surely does something to your brain to basically think of yourself as a character playing a role. It's not healthy.

You would discourage your children from living that way. In fact, we do discourage our children from living that way. With our words anyway, if not with our actions.

Of course they're talking to strangers online. That's what we're all at, in some shape or form. We're obsessing on the minutiae, so naturally, that's what they think life is about.

It's a symptom of being a teenager that has now spread into adult life and, let's be honest, it's nothing to be proud of.

Particularly as our actions speak louder than our words in teaching the children that this is a normal way to be. They won't stop unless we do first.

And would that really be so hard? Is it really so hard to imagine at least curtailing our online lives?

The very fact that adults panic at the thought, despite all the hand-wringing about how constant comparisons and coming up short hurts their brains, is proof enough that it's essential. If anything is that hard to kick, it can't be good for you.

Which is another lesson we preach to the kids, but might be better teaching by example.

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