Thursday 14 November 2019

Stella O'Malley: 'Parents mustn't shrug shoulders over their child's online activity'

Going somewhere: Mary Aiken suggests that when a person goes online, it is helpful to view ‘going online’ as if we are visiting a geographical location. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Going somewhere: Mary Aiken suggests that when a person goes online, it is helpful to view ‘going online’ as if we are visiting a geographical location. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

It might seem hard to believe but it is only since 2012 that the smartphone became properly mainstream. In 2010, we didn't see 11 years old glued to YouTube on their iPhones because, back then, most of us didn't have smartphones. The problems are new and the solutions aren't yet tried and trusted.

Previous generations didn't often have to confront their children's worrying porn habit because hardcore porn wasn't so widely accessible. Although teenage boys have probably been seeking out pictures of naked females for thousands of years - indeed it is likely that boys were gleefully salivating over pornographic pictures on the cave walls of our ancestors - these days, freely accessible porn combined with highly developed algorithms means that today, when the average 12-year-old boy decides to seek out pictures of naked females, he will also be invited to watch more extreme versions, and ever darker versions, of what he originally sought.

This is the way the algorithms work and, in the seven short years since smartphones have become ubiquitous, this has had a powerful impact on young people's attitudes to sex.

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The rise of the selfie has also created problems as it has made vanity a completely acceptable quality so that we now live in a world where spending your days preening at your own image isn't really remarkable.

Although it is an exaggeration to say that half the teenagers are avidly watching porn while the other half are avidly watching themselves, teenagers' total focus upon sex and vanity is pretty breath-taking.

Selfies first started trending in 2013 and they have since become such a fundamental aspect of most teenager's life that many teenagers now seem to market themselves as a brand. They take their selfies, they filter them and then, with the professional eye of a jaded marketing executive, they judiciously assess their pictures. Finally, having critically examined all the angles, they eventually post their favourites and wait for the likes.

When we consider how much porn and vanity has affected teenagers' lives over the last few years, it becomes easy to understand why so many teenagers are engaging in sexting.

Teenagers' brains aren't sufficiently mature to cope with all this and this is why it's essential for children to learn about the impact of porn and sexting within sex education.

Of course there will always be threats to teenagers' wellbeing and so we should probably be wary of creating a moral panic. Yet - without going overboard - it is important to acknowledge today's concerns.

Becoming hysterical and banning all screens is pointless as it is more helpful to engage in a more complicated relationship with our teenagers' online behaviour.

Indeed, at this stage, online behaviour does not need to be regarded any differently from general behaviour - and parents can keep an eye on both without being intrusive.

Dr Mary Aiken, the world's leading expert on cyber-psychology, suggests that when a person goes online, it is helpful to view 'going online' as if we are visiting a geographical location.

If 'going online' is perceived as going somewhere, a place where teenagers will meet both friends and strangers, then parents are more likely to ask them who they met and what they did.

Leaving teenagers to their own devices, upstairs in their bedroom, with the misguided presumption that they are safe, as they virtually travel God knows where, is foolhardy. It is not quite good enough anymore for parents to shrug their shoulders helplessly and act as if their child's online behaviour is a mind-boggling mystery.

Some parents monitor all their children's online behaviour and, although they know their kids can hide some stuff, they believe that a certain level of supervision provides an adequate snapshot into their kids' activities.

Reasonable expectations of privacy mean that it can be considered intrusive to read all the messages on your teenager's phone, yet monitoring the sites they visit and the time spent on various sites can be considered supervisory without being intrusive.

Equally, keeping an eye on your teenagers' social media presence is arguably just another way to keep an eye on their general behaviour.

It is advisable that parents be honest with their teenagers about how and why they propose to monitor their online behaviour.

Some parents choose to 'trust, but verify' and carry out spot checks on the phone, while others insist on knowing their children's passwords; still others choose to allow their children retain a certain privacy.

Teenagers often demand trust from their parents. However, although parents might trust their children, they cannot trust the many people who may make contact with their offspring and so this argument, although deeply felt by many teenagers, might not hold water with many parents.

Parental controls such as iKydz and Net Nanny are available for parents to download and yet the most important way for any parent to monitor their children's online behaviour isn't through family controls, nor is it through spot checks or knowing their passwords; the most effective way to help keep your child safe within the Wild West of technology in the 21st century is to maintain strong communication links with your children.

If your teenager feels able to speak about any weird and disturbing communications that they have seen online, then you are probably doing enough. And 'good enough' parenting is about as good as any of us can hope to achieve.

Irish Independent

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