Whether or not children should use social media (or be internet active) is possibly one of the biggest polemics of our day and age. Make no mistake – often enough, people who argue against children using social media also argue against people in general using social media. The “perils” of social media are supposed to include addiction, depression, retraction from the “real” world. *Many suggestions for better life include self-imposed exile from social media as a crucial aspect, forgetting that doing so will ostracise one not only from the work environment where it involves online presence of some sort, but also friends and family, insofar as one doesn’t live in a small village and distrusts all others who do not.
Ironically, and rather predictably, these have been around for ages – addiction is a behavioural (and, to a certain extent, biochemical (cf. here and here) problem that can affect vulnerable people of any age, and currently, about 20.6 million are fighting addictions (2011 figure for US; went up to 21.5 million in US in 2014).
The most usual addictions are still as follows : nicotine (so cigarettes, cigars and occasionally pipe), alcohol and soft and hard drugs (cf here: 800 000+ cocaine addicts in US in 2011; “tens of millions of Americans use prescription drugs non-medically every year”; 16.7 million addicted to alcohol in US in 2011; also cf. here & here).
Other addictions that are widely believed to exist (contrary to having a proper background, such as drugs or alcohol) include internet, gambling and sex. Internet is a new one – the “peril” of modernity; sex has had a history of being perceived as negative, but is not, currently, considered an addiction ((cf. here) although a person may be defined or self-define, in therapy, as hypersexual) and gambling is yet another of the behaviours that has a patchy history of extremist prejudice, which sadly influences not only perception but also any possibility for serious studies; while there are helplines out there to deal with the problems (more or less helpful, informed or professional, and often with an extremist background to them), and while theoretically, every behaviour could become consistent with a form of OCD pattern (i.e. behavioural addiction – an obsessive repeated action due to denial of a different state or problem, or to deal with one’s wish for acceptance, or to express the recklessness experienced by subjects with anxiety and/or depression), they are not and should not be taken at face value as “addictions” or “addictive”, despite the fact that they are often quoted as factual by especially mass media, parroting “what we already know” – enter Geertz’s aura of factuality.
Addiction is, as I have already stated, a behavioural problem. It is a response to many factors – in some cultures, smoking and drinking alcohol are heavily present as a part of cultural (and therefore social and personal) identity (cf. here & here); in others, a group within the overarching structure of the society/culture entity in question indulges/partakes in specific, often rigorously ritualised addictions or close addictions; Friday binge drinking in Western culture, for instance, is such a formation, and yet, it is usually overlooked due to its prevalence – the problem of locally acceptable or overarching addictions everywhere.
Drugs fall into the category of group behaviour, and involve both individuals seeking to be accepted and those seeking reprieve from a troubled existence – children and even adults from repressive environments who either indulge in experimentation/recreational drug use out of recklessness or to feel, literally. Both of these are symptoms of depression (cf. DSM-V pp. 160-168, also here).
As a generality, all we do is a behavioural matter; even our basic needs are intertwined with behaviour, rigid or fluid, depending on ourselves and our environment, and resultantly, our maladaptive responses (such as addiction) follow the same pattern.
Depression, the alarmingly prevalent problem for most human beings (approx. 16.2 million adults in US have had at least 1 major depressive episode, data from 2016, cf. here), is also a behavioural matter, and strongly influenced by our environment and the action and reaction within it. I would like to here remind the reader that, as with other mental health states, depression has not just popped out of nowhere with the dawn of 21st century; while influenced, of course, by the turbulence of many crises that we saw in the 20th and thus far in 21st centuries (such as two world wars, numerous other wars and conflicts, episodes of famine and inflation, etc.), it has definitely existed before, and was often the response to other such events (consider depressed poetry or depression symptoms in persons or story characters in previous centuries) (cf. here).
Primarily, depression has to do with how we act and react in our environment and how we are in turn acted and reacted to. One could almost say that natural disasters, chronic illness and pain and, above all other, negative experience of human contact, all cause and co-cause a certain emotional exhaustion, which results in depression if it is severe and long lasting enough; the earlier it starts (cf. here, here, here, here & here), the worse its consequences. Primary caregiver(s), as well as the world around them and how the caregiver(s) are accepted, all provide a blueprint for how we perceive the world, and how fragile our psyche is going to end up being (cf. previous links). And while there is no saying that we won’t recover against all hope, this is the recovery that should not even be needed, and that is nevertheless often overlooked and taken for granted.
Retraction from the “real” world is a perplexing claim that lacks realism. Firstly, the real world is everything that involves us. Our dreams (both the state of sleep and fond imaginings of possible future) are a reality, so is the physical and potential (so the world that might come into existence through action and reactions – for instance, as my OH and I move, we shall have to acquire a new oven; we do not have it now, but it exists in potentia, and shall become a reality when we acquire it; equally, new inventions lie in that sphere). Equally, many forms of our communication exist in a reality that is different than fully physical – a letter does not exist in one’s life until it is received (despite existing factually), just like the answer cannot reach us until it does (and therefore exists for a while only in potentia); a phone conversation is not physical, neither is Skyping, and yet it provides crucial communication and human contact, albeit not physical at this stage of things; emails, TV, radio and books, as well as texting, all fall into that group, as did the good old Pony Express, telegram and a hired messenger.
Secondly, the contact with the physical world around us is often heavily inflated by those who claim danger of lack of real world interaction. Most people shy away from randomly verbally connecting with a stranger on the bus or train; and while there exist, in our lifetime, places and times when that is more likely to happen (University time; school time and other children interacting on trips or playground; courtship among adults and young adults may take place anywhere, at any time, but is more likely to be pursued in specific locations, such as bars), just like we might react to a person in physical or emotional distress, on an average day, we are more likely to keep to our own friendship circle rather than attempt to enlarge it by connecting with random strangers – which, if it were done online, would be considered the height of peril, but is hysterically advocated as positive in face-to-face context by the social media naysayers.
Children are human beings. As human beings, they should be privy to the same rights; this includes the possibility to live, within one’s environment, without strange and unnecessary restrictions (cf. here, here & here). If a boyfriend were to restrict me from learning new skills, everyone would scream abuse; when that is done to children, we shrug it away as parenting.
But toxic parenting exists, and it is no different than a restrictive boyfriend; moreover, it is the type of parenting that produces abusive and abuse tolerating individuals (cf. here), criminals and terrorists. Abuse is not always simple to notice; restrictions especially escape notice, because we are immunised to them as a problem by remnants of earlier, more rigid, prevalent social behaviours, handed down as a behavioural pattern through generations. This is why children from seemingly wonderful families end up on the wrong side of the law and society, and baffle everyone by their behaviour – because the invisible, or, even worse, missed maladaptive, toxic actions of the primary caregiver(s) influence just as badly as all the other abuse, and are far less visible and possibly better tolerated than burns, cuts and bruises.
We are, by this point, a digital society. Good knowledge of internet, computers and social media is crucial for not only our social interaction but for our survival. Most jobs demand a good knowledge of at least two if not all three; and social interaction or the lack thereof (including via social media!) is a way of judging (often with prejudice, with people who are very shy and do not interact well even online) a potential employee’s character. In other words, a stunted growth online is a surefire way to disable a child from a good job; add to that that the current innovations hint of a world in near future where technology will play an even bigger part of our lives, with jobs structured to cater to that demand, and you are literally making sure that your child will live in poverty, or at the very least the lowest possible employment group.
Thirdly, this “retraction” has been applied to many things – including learning to read and books, TV and digital world, as well as nonacceptance of social, cultural and religious dogmas in the past, and even one’s own personhood within the constraints of the SCR environment (such as socially condoned abuse of Victorian women cf. footnote 1). We generally do not consider them such now, or do so to a lesser extent, or by separating say, books and TV into acceptable and unacceptable groups, but in reality, this is the same and equally unbased prejudice, stemming from the same type of personality’s paranoias and bias.
This article is going to explore the issues attached to restricting children in their interaction with their modern world. It is as much theirs as it is ours, if not more, as they will, presumably, live longer and see changes we might miss. Their maladaptations or psychological normality are the key for the following decades to be free of conflict as much as possible, for innovation with respect to human rights, for positive interaction with oneself and the world at large.
If we curtail that, we create the demons we so fear (something VERY clearly proven by abundant cases both in history and otherwise, from Cromwell to Hitler to the second generation Daesh fighters to name just a few). At the same time, we must impart the knowledge that is always missed in the arguments for child safety on internet – the knowledge of how to protect oneself from psychological bullying, threats and predators online. Many children with proactive parents are probably smarter about that than many adults are; with their gut feeling still untamed by what is acceptable (especially for girls – told to be nice and accepting and passive -, but boys who are told not to ever be afraid can be equally easily victimised, because they are unlikely to follow their feelings of unease to the logical end, or report an incident to anyone that could help them), children are more likely to report unease to an adult, sibling or friend that they feel they can trust than many adults are, taught to dismiss their feelings by the point they get in trouble (this is especially true of female rape victims, who often do not react in time to prevent the event (cf. footnote 2)).
However much we wish to live in a perfect world, the matters of safety will probably always remain crucial to our life and wellbeing. There are likely to always be maladaptive individuals or groups; but it is up to us and our social behaviour how many and how prevalent they will be. In rigid countries (*numbers vary; often, they seem ridiculously low compared to other countries – however, the lack of reporting, truthful reporting, possibility of reporting and even knowledge that something could be a crime, as well as public acceptance of the deed as a crime, often lead to skewed figures, less likely in cultures where reporting crimes is more accepted), the prevalence is alarmingly high; the number of crimes – off-line crimes in the real world especially – are resultantly high and often very grisly, because of what is deemed acceptable… beatings and murder of LGBT, forced labour under pretext of immorality or witchcraft, chosen groups and individuals who are hierarchically approved targets (like the Untouchables’ cast in India).
In fluid environments, crime still exists – but it is lesser than where it is deemed socially and culturally acceptable, and this often supported by religious notions, claims and ideals; this, however, becomes perilous the moment the politics turn the laws and social behaviour towards supporting those in favour of unbiased human rights approach. Which country, which culture is rigid is current and incidental; UK or US can as easily become as rigid and crime/extremism supporting as many Third World countries appear now, and they, due to the revolt that has been happening especially in the last few years against many injustices, as well as the call for equality, may literally become the mirror image of what they have been so far, creating a shocking opposition to the now-dominant and human rights based West.
It is therefore only logical to instruct children how to use the digital world we live in safely; much like we teach them not to converse with strangers, how to use knives in cooking and how to use an oven, we must teach them how to do an equivalent of this online, rather than restrict them pointlessly and then throw them in at the deep end, tutting about how they are drowning rather than learning to swim.
“DON’T FEED THE TROLL”
This is a phrase that generally charms up an image of that poor troll in the Lord of the Rings for me, for absolutely no good reason; it is, however, a relevant phrase that is used on many internet sites and should be your guiding star offline just as well. In our very real world, there are always people who enjoy (due to their prejudices and other maladaptations that had been instilled into them, or simply because their life has made them miserable enough to wish to lash out, to be malicious to someone else as a form of reprieve from their own misery) taking it out on someone else. You must have seen it – very few people don’t -; passing someone, they make a nasty remark, sometimes about your clothes, your gender, your colour or otherwise. At other times, they spout vicious threats at you, the passerby, and the world in general.
They may be drunk or stone-cold sober, but this is who they are and what they do.
It is absolutely ridiculous to think that they would not do the same online.
Online, much like maligning someone on the street, provides a certain amount of anonymity. You and the person have nothing in common but the street (or the particular online site) and in many ways, this is perfect for those who wish to take it out without the peril of repercussions. It is almost not personal. Or rather, it is as personal as it is personal in general, towards the part of the world or the world itself (women, gays, Afro-Americans…). This is the type of behaviour that can be annoying, even frightening and degrading, but cannot be stopped in a significant way. On internet, the block button exists to lessen the trauma of being this way abused for you; in physical world, there is no block button, and the seeming threat can appear very real, because the person threatening exists in the same moment on the same street.
Granted – many people feel equally threatened by such behaviour online, to the point where they allow the abuser to take complete control over their emotion; they allow for the person to revel in the feeling that the victim feels their threats are real, plausible, possible. In other words, they are fragile enough (in my experience usually through earlier victimisations in physical world) to forget the block button. Many get so frightened they abandon a site completely rather than block and report.
The problem is, if I can phrase it this way, as much in the victim’s reaction as it is in the abuser’s actions. Don’t get me wrong – I am not in any way excusing the abuser or blaming the victim. But in all altercations, one has two options – self-defence as fitting to the situation and threat (this includes talking it out, ignoring, retreat…) or capitulation.
The block button is self-defence online.
Very few things can realistically happen to one online, especially if proper internet safety rules are followed. And while a very smart criminal might manage to zone in on the desired victim and ascertain, even just from what is visible on their profile (or hack their way into it), their personal details, the vast majority of trolls neither have the know-how nor the option, as well as time, opportunity or wish, possibly the most important aspect of internet emotional bullying, to do so. For most, it is enough to sit in their room revelling in the feeling of power, caused by the distress they know they have caused in another person (my own observation).
That the person is faceless is often not a problem – sometimes the action itself is enough, as is the fact that they may be feeling safer due to their own facelessness; and where a picture is indeed involved, that is enough to provide the human, face-to-face contact… a sneaky proof that, in many ways, the physical and online worlds are very much the same for us. (*my own assessment, from observation and cases)
Bullying online consists of the following :
- Deriding an unknown person
- Deriding a known person, such as a school fellow or colleague; this is an extension of physical world bullying as a generality, and the motivation is the wish to take away a feeling of the victim having a safe corner to themselves – this type of behaviour would include threats and harassment at home in the physical world, or different forms of stalking (such as visible – making sure the victim is aware of your presence at all times and invisible – appearing omniscient about their whereabouts while remaining hidden, giving the victim a very unpleasant feeling of being constantly watched)
- Name calling
- Threats, either general or to one’s sexuality (such as slut shaming), gender, sex, social aspect of being, colour, sexual orientation, etc.
- General disruptive/antisocial behaviour to the online community in general (the equivalent of drunk and disorderly in physical world)
- Seeming kindness that hides a barb or turns nasty
- Sexual abuse, including the use of hacking to obtain “damning” information and then forced sexual acts (young adults and teens are a preferred target, cf. here)
- Seeking to start fights (see equivalent of drunk and disorderly)
Bullying exists in the physical world primarily. It can be ghastly prevalent – the numbers suggest that between 20 and 28 percent of children and teens are bullied in school environment in US (cf. here, UK stats and info here). Adults are not safe from it either; unpleasant work environment often hides many forms of bullying (cf. here).
While bullying borders on criminal activity (such as psychological – deriding, shaming, threatening – and mild physical torture – pushing, flicking, hitting – or destruction of property), it often stops short of actual criminal activity (assault with grievous bodily harm, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, murder…), making it very difficult for the victim or their primary caregiver(s) to effectively use law to put a stop to it. (*laws however do exist – cf. here) While there does exist a framework for the defence of the victim, it is far from effective in practice, and many institutions prefer to keep things quiet and punish the victims rather than enact punishment for the bully (cf. here & here, own consultations); equally, recognition of what is bullying, as well as the severity of it on case to case basis, may vary, or the actions may be almost completely dismissed (cf. here).
Even more often, people – including the primary caregiver(s) are indifferent to bullying, especially of boys, considering it “character building” or blaming the victim for somehow exciting the abuser into action, or for being “too soft”. Perceiving bullying as less terrible than it is is another problem the victims face. This often continues well into adulthood, and if anything, it not only gives the abuser a free reign and a feeling of untouchability, it also confirms him or her in their perception of maladaptive behaviours as a socio (and psycho) normality and entrenches the victim in the feeling of peril and helplessness. People who are bullied and remain helpless as children or teens are likely to have the same problem as adults – and worse, they will present a social face that will draw the potential abusers to them above others, because they will be recognised as an easy and satisfying target (cf. here, own experience).
One thing that is good about bullying online, however, is that it leaves forensic traces, however unpleasant and awful it is. It is easy for a bruise to be dismissed or a victim to be presented as a liar; but push it too far, and your internet paper-trail will lead the law to your doorstep, digital and physical (cf. here).
In many ways, we fail to teach this lesson to children and adults alike – that they have and should use the block button; that any threats that could become too real can be deflected by use of self-defence (which everyone should know anyhow) and most importantly, that anything that keeps happening online (or via physical letters) provides much necessary proof. Digital world makes it that much easier; where before, the police would have to look for where a piece of paper came from, and might come up empty-handed or may feel that the trouble to the victim isn’t big enough (yet) that it should warrant a lengthy and possibly fruitless investigation, online world makes it easier to do so in most cases, barring the really well organised ones, with the criminal’s very presence having been thoroughly falsely laid out via clever disguise of the server location or hiding the IP address. (*I’m not referencing this, because the references I have thoroughly explain how to do this; while I am not implying my readers are criminals, this is an online article and can therefore be read by anyone.)
In either case, if all else fails, block button and self-defence remain your ally, and it is something we should all be aware of, regardless of our age.
THE THREAT OF THE SEXUAL PREDATORS
The sad truth is that sexual abuse most often happens at home or in the circle of people we know, regardless of our age (cf. here & here). In children, abuse is generally perpetrated by adults in dominant position – primary caregivers themselves, teachers, coaches and priests… people whose authority children are taught is not to be questioned, is absolute. There are definitely similarities between online and offline tactics of the predator approaching the child (cf. here), with one significant difference… the fact that online, an adult may pose as a child or teen.
While this is not possible offline, there are many ways to approach a child without having to resort to faking childhood or even kidnapping for a predator; offers of food, compliments, toys can all be used, as can be simply having children of one’s own. It’s not unusual for other parents to help out with babysitting, driving to school or extracurricular activities, organising sleepovers and parties; and while most are not predators, some will be.
By assuming a role of some significance in the child’s life, the polite indifference and distance are also minimised, and a form of authority established, overt or hidden. The person can form a bond, express sympathy (such as with parents that are too busy), draw a parallel between them and their intended victim… or, alternatively (or in combination), assert full dominance over the child in a feat of stern parental-ish control, and take it to their preferred ending.
That a perpetrator may pose as a child online but cannot do the same offline is therefore, perhaps, of less significance than the fact that there even exist, in our society, circumstances that cause children of all ages to fall for whatever tactic the future abuser is using to get their way.
There are two main groups of child abusers out there – paedophiles proper, whose interest is in the pre-pubescent child, and those whose interest are teens. Both get lumped in the general group “paedophiles” or “child molesters” by the public, thus not only enlarging the lack of understanding of the problem and consequences of their behaviour but also distancing children further from recognition of potential abuse at the older range of the scale. A teenager is perfectly capable of recognising and deciding on sexual matters themselves, if properly informed, much like we deem them old enough to drive, pack weapons and be tried for certain crimes as adults. Teens have been known to be abusers themselves and that of younger children, age peers and older subjects (cf. here & here).
This does not mean that all teens decide to have a sexual relationship with an older person. It does not mean that they, mostly victims rather than abusers or even willing participants, should be vilified. But it does mean that unfortunately, repeat childification to below their age worsens the potential of informed consent, lessens the likelihood of reporting the incident(s) or taking action against it and robs of the clarity of where their interest stops and abuse starts. The best way to protect anyone from anything is to ensure that they are informed – something we are loath to do, because of a foolish, prudish notion of “protecting innocence”… when in reality, we are creating the very situation that we are trying to avoid, making unwary potential victims out of living beings that are, at their age, supposed to take some of the most crucial and potentially damning decisions in their lives – from every grade on to which college they wish to get to.
If we want to nullify the opportunities for the potential predators, we must give children clear parameters of what goes – parameters also devoid of pointless restrictions of their developing sexuality, because that, yet again, blurs the line between rape and sex. In modern psychology, it is considered normal for children to begin to sexually explore their bodies by the onset of puberty at cca. 12; by 13 to 14, experimentation with oneself (made far less safe due to restrictions in safe sex toys for minors due to religious/social outrage!) and developing interest in the preferred potential partners should emerge clearly; by 15-17, sexual experimentation with partner(s) should happen. These are the general parameters; there will always be outliers to both directions, who should not be penalised for their slower or speedier development. But whatever we do, we must neither squash their development nor allow it to be blurred with or even replaced by a pathological, paraphilic brainwashing, be it of active abusers themselves or purists and moralists, who do not take their safety into account, but serve only their own prejudice, and, often, actual paraphilia (despite many of the people involved in these debates citing religious reasons, or religiously based ones, and the long history of all religious groups in dictating social, personal and sexual lives of those around them, as well as the related obsession with purity, the numbers of not only religious practitioners but people with a religiously significant roles who have been recognised as abusers are bad; I give you the study in the US for Catholic church, with the comment that numbers are difficult to obtain and difficult to trust, as there has been plenty of doctoring of evidence in religious communities… but insofar as we can trust the mention of the known 4% as a certainty, that is four percent too much; no such data could be found, while I was researching for this article, for other major religious communities cf. here).
I must here state that often, the social pressure of behaviour in gender roles causes damage to a great extent. On one hand, the girls are a very easy target for that – taught to protect their virginity, aware of slut shaming and associated danger of “what happens to bad girls” (with some people literally sicing their sons on chosen victims) and fearful of being perceived as “guilty” for their own rape, girls are often forever caught in the limbo of not being allowed to have their own sexual wish and the uncertainty of how far they are allowed to say no or defend themselves, especially against older people who have authority over them.
On the other hand, boys can fall prey to both sexes, and have to face not only the associated guilt game, but also the fact that they are not allowed to cry, express emotions, feel fear; sex with a woman, even if undesired, is often shrugged off as “educational” (a trope explored in the French series Profilage, where a female abuser – a piano teacher – convinces the victims that she is sexually educating them) and protest laughed off as the boy/youth not being “manly enough” not to complain; abuse by a man carries the danger of being perceived as gay and therefore subjected to the LGBT related prejudices.
As you can see, both groups are left in a very precarious position vis-à-vis their potential attackers.
For myself, I can state I have noticed two prevalent types of abusers. The Master/Dominant is a violent, authoritarian figure; coaches, many teachers, some priests and parents (usually fathers) fall into that category. This is the category that gets what they want by using threats, exerting physical and emotional dominance and violence and subjugation and simple force (including capturing and holding).
The other category is the Carer/Sympathiser. This is the category that still includes many of the above roles, and where alternative parental figure falls in (the soccer moms, best friends’ dads, sympathetic neighbours…), the category that relies on seeming kindness and acted disappointment to achieve their means. They obtain control over the victim by expressing care, love and affection, alienating them from potential help by effectively being that help.
Again, the problem with either category comes back to us adults in the child’s life.
Acceptance of physical punishment, lack of child’s own agency and the predomination of adults over their life, blurring lines of physical untouchability by exacting control over their freedom of movement and “doing it because you love them” are all potential stepping stones for a person to become not only a victim of their primary caregiver(s), but also literal Stockholm syndrome platforms, creating a pliant personality used to being dealt with in ways that are unpleasant in the silence used by those who like traditional parenting methods, as the notions of law stopping at the doorway and the impermeability of familial environment mimic, in many ways, the tactics used by sexual predators in their quest for abuse.
Communication and trust, on the other hand, build cognition, with the child as the central piece of their own life. The notions of “Do I like this? Do I want this?”, as well as “I am free to decide to or not to like this” can only be built where the child themselves has agency, undisturbed by others’ input.
We all make mistakes, but we only learn from them when and if we are allowed to learn from them, to discuss and consider them. Not all mistakes are mistakes; some “mistakes” are simply outdated social norms that are better made completely redundant (racial prejudice, gender roles and associated behaviour, body modification, food preferences, religious bigotry…) and that we should not be supporting, even just out of uncertainty, and the child should definitely not learn to mimic our behaviour; many also do not make sense, and the child’s recognition of that needs to be acknowledged… as we know, hate is taught, and a child recognising that should not be hushed or punished for their intelligence, even if we feel it will insult someone’s “sensitivities” (reads prejudice).
Punishment and restrictions are not necessary in communication. Indeed, stress caused by them is likelier to inhibit learning than otherwise. As adults, we must learn (even if we are the first of our family to take that step) that we might not always be right. We must be honest in admitting when we are wrong, thus forming an example of positive behaviour. We must control our potential emotional outbursts, not to the extent of robots, but definitely to the point where we do not take it out on a weaker individual (child, pet or spouse) because we had a rough day. There is often a fine line between abuser behaviour and socially sanctioned behaviour, and children learn from the examples we give them, positive and negative.
If your relationship to your child is an open, trusting, non-restrictive type, then you are likely to get to know if something happened that is causing a child concern, or that they are not sure about, or spot something that they are missing. If, however, you are used to being withdrawn, secretive and controlling, the chances are that even the slightly changed behaviour of a child undergoing doubts and fears or even abuse itself will become subsumed into the “same old”.
From the cases I have myself consulted on, or cases I know of, I would suggest that these are the factors crucial to making sure your child avoids a predator, on or offline.
1. They need to learn to observe the patterns – pattern seeking in its non-maladaptive form is an evolutionary way of recognising food, landmarks, danger… this is crucial, but is missing, often because
a) we do not allow for the children or even adults to be in potentially dangerous situations or mock-ups of them (like making up scenarios and discussing them) so they could learn safely,
b) lack of general information, such as existence of sexual predators – He-Man was a good example of teaching children safety with the statement that if anyone touches you in any way you don’t like, you should inform an adult you trust
c) globalisation of control – all adults are equally dominant, equally unquestionable, equally unaccountable for their actions; it is always the child’s fault and the child has no right to question – this is why there is such a strong prevalence of abuse in religious groups and schools,
d) lack of trust and communication between child and primary caregiver, lack of trustworthy adults around (esp. where there have been threats administered; you must be more powerful, more reliable than the potentia of threats, and the child must feel equally certain in themselves),
e) lack of awareness of self in sexual situations due to restriction in sexual situations,
f) fear of failure/rejection (threat of grade reduction, physical threat to oneself or loved ones, fear of not appearing strong enough, good enough…)
They often work together (such as lack of trust and fear of failure), but these crucial factors have little to do with online vs offline. In truth, they are a universal safety catch, a measure we could all employ as a precaution, and which we often fail to do because we are too caught in matters that seem to demand and employ action – the myths about what is dangerous and how to avoid it, dictated by the loud extremists and their uncertain, incidental or deliberate lackeys – instead of actually going about doing things that would help, and realising just what is myth and what is a reality.
2. They need to learn self-defence.
It is highly unlikely that your child will never experience a positive result from self-defence. Even if they never have to assess a dangerous situation, if they never have to block a knife holding hand or throw a punch, if they live out their lives in total and blissful safety, they will still reap the rest of the positive results:
- certainty; knowing your body, your strengths and weaknesses and how to use both in a self-positive manner in the entirety of your life is pretty powerful; it creates an image of self that is less likely to drift into anxiety, uncertainty and depression
- physical exercise and the resultant alertness, better cognition, feeling of freshness and fitness, as well as the calm of a person who does not feel constantly endangered
- capability to assess real and imaginary dangers (and their scope) and react accordingly in a manner of seconds
- contrary to popular belief, children (and adults) who practice martial arts or self-defence do not generally turn into bullies; while there may be some whose background results in the training becoming a part of a spiral of self and general hate and physical abuse, you can at the very least be sure that you or your child will know how to evade or defend against such individuals, or even against street-taught fighting
- better cognition leads to better grades and more success
- a positive approach to self helps make friends and open doors in education and when finding a job; we all prefer people who are personable, because they are seemingly easier to communicate with, and they do not give us an uncomfortable feeling of impending danger or doom, which can happen with shy and introverted people when we sense the uncertainty and anxiety
- a good posture resulting from the exercise (as well as all the other physical aspects) will mean better health for years to come, as well as a show of calm certainty; women who exercise have reported performing better at work due to their posture being better due to exercise
- sleep and overactive behaviour will be normalised – if you want to have a child with a normal sleep pattern or reduce the overactivity, sweeten with natural sweeteners and tire them out in a positive way (speaking as an aunt of two small children as well as a scientist)
SAFETY – ON AND OFFLINE
For both us adults and children, the matters of safety are the same on and offline. While it is certainly true that anything hackable can be hacked (I believe I am practically quoting this year’s CES findings as mentioned by Palmer and Jim Turner), this same goes for locks. Alarms. Doors.
Before the world became digital, as far back as possible, there has always been a possibility to break into something, the difficulty often posing as a challenge for shall we say law non-abiding masters (and mistresses) of their craft.
Granted – as matters change, we need to adapt. That is definitely true; but that still does not mean that we must forget about the online world because it is too perilous. The same can be said about shopping at the mall, crossing the road and living in your house or apartment. You would probably not consider hiding in your home (which still does not protect you from a break-in!), but you could be convinced to do so, in a sense, where your online life is concerned… or those of your children.
Here, again, we see a strange social phenomenon of accepted and unaccepted “truths” (i.e. aura of factuality (cf. footnote 3)) – while the social services may have a lot of words to say if they find you have been restricting your child from leaving the house, ostensibly because you think it is too dangerous, the digital world we inhabit in part is still too “new” and presented as too alien for any serious concerns being raised about you restricting your child’s social growth in it… if anything, such actions, however harmful in effect, are often applauded.
So what are the rules you should live by?
When safety comes first, follow the following :
- do not talk to random strangers (unlike what is preached we should be doing instead of conversing with our friends on Facebook); if you do, if you have to, be it to ask for directions or tell them they have dropped something, or simply because niceties are being exchanged, always remain aware of how far and where you want that conversation to go; remain in control of yourself, your environment and you information
- speaking of information – do not carry or post personal information, such as your address or phone number; if you do, be sure it is protected (real world – carried close to your body at all times; online – passwords), but remain aware that pickpockets and hackers exist; therefore, try to keep a close eye on things, on and offline, to have at least a vague idea of when and where something might have gone amiss, and what that might mean for you now (could you be a victim of the ID theft, have you lost your phone and since then, your friend has started getting strange messages, could someone have obtained your business information)
- learn to recognise real warnings vs faked warnings; you might be repeatedly told that you have a virus, but if nothing is going amiss and your firewall is fine, do not click that link just because it keeps telling you something is wrong; equally important – if a stranger tells you that you don’t really need to call for a cab, they can drive you, it’s best to walk away or even report him, in case someone else does get duped
- do not leave your doors unlocked; do not leave your computer or phone unattended
- beware of shifty calls, emails or text messages, or, for that matter, shifty people on the street
- if you think someone is tailing you, they probably are; if you think your computer or phone is acting strange, it probably is
- you wouldn’t leave your personal photos, clothes, jewellery lying around for everyone to see – your social media and email, as well as your phone, should be treated like your house
- be sure who you invite in; often, friends or friends of friends turn out to be bullies or predators – which is why you should learn to
- 1. spot trouble
- 2. act to dispel danger
- 3. use block button (no such luck in real world)
- learn pickup or grooming lines (when travelling, especially women should really make the effort – I speak from my own experience here)
- don’t dismiss the gut feeling; teach your children not to dismiss the gut feeling
If you have taught your child these things, then you are fine. They are fine. Do not allow people to make you feel uncomfortable if you allow your child freedom, on or offline, because you have done your best to keep them safe, not just as a child, but as an adult as well.
If you have not, “protecting” – i.e. restricting without teaching them safety – will not help them. Sooner or later, they will be old enough to live on their own, and you will have to live with the knowledge that you gave them no skills to protect themselves, on or offline, in the world they inhabit. Act now – change your attitude and learn to teach them how.
“ALEXA BOUGHT ME”…
One of the reasons cited for children and technology not mixing is that they might buy something, accidentally or on purpose.
Indeed, a few cases exist – a little girl who accidentally ordered a pricey doll house via Alexa (interestingly, the child’s perspective of the event was that Alexa bought her the toy… this showing clearly that to her, Alexa is a person with an adult’s agency over buying, a smart observation of what we adults actually do, and food for thought about how we perceive or could perceive AI in the near future). Of course, a question should be posited here – did the little girl ACTUALLY do that, or are we dealing with a story, spun to support a myth (in my work, I call them confirmation myths – tales to offer basis to beliefs or claims that exist in society to support a specific mode of thinking or behaviour); indeed, since the story’s inception, Snopes has called it into question and proved that it is unlikely it would actually even have a chance to happen. Ironically, this still confirms a specific feeling of agency we humans seem to be ascribing a machine – if we go so far as to spin tales of how it acted out of bounds to do something when undesired, and in a context that would be typical of a conflict between parental figures (one allowing and the other one disallowing a specific action), we should perhaps be asking ourselves if the naysayers’ subconscious motives include a fear, a prejudice, against a non-human yet human-like being/thing; it just may explain why so many claims of harmful technology include a future in which humans are “redundant” and ruled by robots.
My question to you is, have you heard of returning what you have ordered? It is generally not difficult to do, and you have probably returned a product or two in your life.
Also to consider – locking codes. Alexa, for instance, offers a brilliant set of locking codes that require a specific voice and pattern to activate and confirm the purchase (cf. here).
As for the threat of the child suddenly going on a deliberate shopping spree – we are back to the relationship you have with your child. Generally, the credit card number is needed for online purchases, or a Paypal account. Neither are likely to be obtainable without active theft. This says nothing good of your relationship with the child, nor of your skill as a parent… so perhaps the problem is neither the “evil” child nor the technology, but yourself and the relationships you build with others around you. My niece and nephew both understood the meaning of money, including something being expensive, too expensive or lack of money, by the time they were three. If you have not taught your children the same, you have either sadly misjudged their capability of learning and understanding or have simply not shown interest in teaching them about money… something that they will, yet again, sorely need in their lives all too soon.
While it would be wonderful for us to live in a world where no child would have to understand lack, we do not – and if they don’t learn it now, they will learn it when they blow their students’ loan. This does not mean restriction – again, it means teaching by imparting information in a positive way. If you lack imagination, try a simple game with fake bills (playing at the cost and what you can afford)… or even Monopoly.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE AFRICAN PRINCE – OR WHY WE STILL FALL FOR IT
Somehow, many people believe that phishing scams happen only online. And yet, telephone scams and snail-mail (so letter if you are not British) scams are out there and working. Whether it was a lawyer’s letter claiming a long-lost relative has died and left you a fortune (and the lawyer now requires your bank details to deposit the money), the African prince looking for “brothers and sisters in Christ” to help him save his fortune or that persistent “you have been in a car accident” phone call that I keep getting (no matter how many times I block the number), there is always a way for the criminals to find the gullible.
Some work on the feeling of guilt; some tickle the narcissistic or semi-narcissistic feeling of group based self-importance (many Christian scamming letters are like that, banking on the paranoia, secrecy and self-righteousness of many especially evangelical groups and individuals); others may appear to be real (banking letters, calls and emails), while others again seek the greedy (or desperately poverty stricken), who hope to get a little bit of money their way. This, too, is a part of social interaction, bred into us via tales and mores, and ultimately as destructive as we allow it to be. Don’t prove P.T Barnum right – use common sense and teach common sense. No matter how many stories we hear in our lifetime about long-dead relatives, reward to the least expecting, kingdoms to the poor, the likelihood is that someone somewhere is looking for the one that will bite by sending out thousands of letters, hundreds of emails, making millions of calls.
They can be persuasive… so can many people on the street whose intentions may not be honourable. It is down to you to learn not to fall for it and to teach your children not to fall for it. Next time you get a fraudulent email, don’t delete it. Call your kids over, show it to them. Debate what it looks like, see the differences with the real thing that they can spot. You will be doing them a greater favour than worrying about whether or not they should use technology, which they will have to start using at some point in their lives.
THE RAW AND THE COOKED, THE HUMAN AND NOT QUITE – CHILDREN, HUMAN RIGHTS AND DISCRIMINATORY ACTION
If you have shivered with the potential connotations of the title here, don’t – we’re not cooking anybody. It pertains to Levi-Strauss’ definition of how we perceive the world, a divide, if you will, between the natural and human, acceptable and unacceptable, and of course the liminality of the passage from one to the other state.
A corpse, once a living person, is liminal while lying in state before burial; the meat we buy was once an animal and is liminal before it is cooked for consumption. In other words, it is neither this nor that, neither here nor there, and often enough, we do the same with the application of human rights to children.
Throughout the eras (and cultures) that lean or use the rigid SCR systems (so an entrenched, heavily censored, indoctrinated, dogmatic approach to life in their society, the marks and traditions of their culture and the supporting platform of the “unchanged” and “unerring” religion behind it), children and adults are not and have not been considered the same and equally worthy of rights. Today, this behaviour has not completely shifted, even in the Western world, which is currently a more fluid scheme of behaviour; children are still often curtailed not only by their parents and their prejudices and maladaptations, but also by the same as accepted into the law schemes of the states and countries in question.
In reality, we constantly trespass on this territory. We try minors for bad crimes as adults; we allow early marriage with parental permission (often enabling arranged/forced marriages); we recognise emancipated minors, who are adults in all but a name, regardless of their age.
But this is the liminal group that we tend to use and yet ignore, persistently clinging to the aura of factuality of adult and child social personifications rather than rock the boat and question them thoroughly.
It does not help that they are loudly sanctioned and advocated by the extreme leaning groups, which know very well to invoke “child protection” claim, which causes the knee-jerk reaction from most others, allowing this violation of rights to continue.
Social media and the rest of the digital world is relatively new. It is, as yet, badly represented by laws and legal bodies. It is, frighteningly, currently in the hands of the extreme right-leaning governments in many cases, who will set down laws as they see fit and ignore others.
But, as I have stated before, social media and the digital/online world are a strong part of our reality. If that is what they represent, then they are a part of our social and communicative life and skills. Restricting those is a violation of human rights (as mentioned previously in the article) – and an unnecessary one at that, because
- restriction teaches nothing
- as we have seen thus far, dangers can be avoided or overcome by learning safety in both worlds.
PURITY AND DANGER – ABUSE THROUGH PRUDISHNESS
The ultimate reason cited by those who scream against children using social media is well represented by Mary Douglas’ title Purity and Danger (1966). While the original work dealt with religious bias and food, this phrase is highly useful in comprehension of this reasoning – that children will “see” or “find” not only violence, but also sexually explicit – umbrella-dubbed immoral (morals here representing a very specific set of beliefs of a very specific group, as is usual) – material.
My first question to ask you is, do you usually use your social media to look at risque material?
The algorithms used by Facebook, for instance, spot the interaction of you as a user with specific posts, sites and activities (cf. here). If you, as a user, utilise your account to spout neo-Nazi messages, support terrorist-affiliated sites and white supremacists, then logically, any Facebook account managed by you as a parent for your child is likely to pop up similar material; you can also rest assured that at some point, they will definitely see your feed over your shoulder, and it might be prudent to be clear, with yourself, that secrecy kills trust, and that doing things you would not approve of in others in secrecy is possibly still wrong (then again, if you are reading terrorist, neo-Nazi and white supremacist sites, you probably aren’t worrying about your children seeing this violence but are actively grooming them towards it… so perhaps this only bothers those who are not sure just how far they are willing to go and not fully comfortable with their own sympathies, which spells out time for introspection).
This is the great threat of “violence”; as for pornography, the rule is the same. The great irony is that setting down parental filters does nothing to stop children from circumventing them – this shows precisely how useless it is to try to restrict and how useful it is to communicate.
Children will come in contact with pornography sooner or later. In fact, if you are worried about them being groomed for underage (or barely of age) porn at any point, it would be good for them (yet again) to know what this means and what it might look like. I’m not saying you should sit down and watch porn together… but I am saying that you should inform them about what pornography is; that some is done voluntarily and some is forced; that the forced pornography is a violation of people’s rights (a useful thing to know if you are worried that your teens might be victims of online sexploitation); that children are forced into pornography and are hurt by it; that the accuracy of porn vs real life sex is not very good (lack of female lubrication and tumescence, danger of anal to vaginal penetration, etc.) and any other things you can think of that would concern you. You need to be honest, however – why do they concern you?
The worry that you or your loved ones will come to harm is very real. But harm itself must be real. You may fear rape or online sexploitation; but you should not worry about your child’s “moral/sexual corruption”. This blurs the line between consensual sex and rape. And it is not a line that should ever be blurred, and yet it is, despite the fact that it prepares the terrain for the predators.
The naysayers blur this line in favour of “purity”. This purity is, in many ways, a form of sexual abuse in itself. No one should have a right to control my sexual body; it is mine and it does not matter how or when I decide to share it with my partner(s), insofar as I have done so with the knowledge (even simply through physical desire and following it through) of what this means and that I want it. This is emancipation in its truest form.
Concerns about contraception are also needless, provided your child knows of it and is not embarrassed to use it. At the same time, abortion should be the right, but not the must – decided on not because of social or familial pressure, including claims about a baby destroying your life at the “wrong moment” (if anything, the treatment of women at work place often shows that there is never the right time for a baby, and that the baby can always “destroy” your life, if the employer decides to fire you unlawfully for having given birth and having taken the time off for it), but because the girl in question does not desire to have this baby. Many adults remain too poorly educated about sex and contraceptives – this is the result of precisely this kind of upbringing, and the saddest truth is that the ones to suffer are the infants who are carried to term and then either abandoned to the system, which is not always safe or fair, or literally abandoned wherever, or even disposed of or left to die of exposure.
To consider that children will not become interested in sex and sexuality is an illusion. It is a faux perception of eternal (enforced) childhood, a forced, prolonged state that often remains imprinted over them even when they grow up, when they have or wish to have families of their own, but are still treated as fragile, innocent infants. It leads to depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction (I have had quite a few cases myself). It continues the path of bad parenting, and most importantly, it makes sure that people of all ages remain vulnerable to exploitation or harm. The attempts to censor the content by using filters also messes with the child’s basic right to find out more about themselves in case they think they may be LGBT+ (another issue in the minds of extremists, who are certain that, despite all of the pre-internet gays, reading about it online made their kids gay), or, even more alarmingly, may cut off their path to sites concerning symptoms of depression, self-harming (in themselves or a friend) and rape and sexual molestation (cf. here). In other words, you may THINK you are protecting them, but they will either slip under your radar – especially if you make that which s forbidden seem really interesting – or will be blocked from things they should learn that you did not inform them about, help they could get when they are not coming to you because you failed to establish warmth and communication, or because they wish to deal with the matter without you, thinking they would hurt you. This is real. This is not online or offline – this is this world, real people, real tragedies. There is no space for prudishness, no capricious keeping of someone’s virginity intact because it pleases you personally (conversely – a form of sexual abuse). This is the actual peril, and while the attack might have happened on or offline, the way we look for help often enough involves the online world, no matter how old we are.
Social media is a part of our digital world. We cannot avoid it, nor would it make sense to – it is likely here to stay, and until some mad sci fi scenario in which all civilisation and its entrapments are lost, this is the world we live in and communicate in.
This means we must learn to do so safely at all costs, from as early on as possible. It means that we should not be curtailed from having a social life online regardless our age. Many children face challenges in their offline world that are equal or greater than what they will meet with online; the defence, the prevention, are the same.
Knowing how to communicate well in all ways is what tailors our place in our society. This goes for both sides of the world – your daughter’s rugby team, your son’s dance class, your son’s fencing team, your daughter’s riding school.
If they made friends in the offline world and kept in close contact to them, you would be a proud parent; why would you not feel the same about them keeping in contact online? The dangers are no different; the solutions are no different. All that has changed is the mode of approach of communication, at least in part – I doubt that we will ever be fully isolated from everyone, conversing only through technology in an Asimov’s novel made real. (cf. footnote 4)
But change is often accepted poorly. While Kindle has enabled many rare books to begin to circulate again, and while the physical book has not suffered because of it, many hate Kindle with a vengeance, thinking that it has or will “destroy” books.
Conveying a story is what we want; the means differ. Same is true about the changes in our communication – there have certainly been many, but for all the screaming against social media, I don’t see anyone crying for clay tablets and mounted messengers.
- Lyndon Shanley, M. (1989) Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England. Princeton University Press
- Kernspecht, K. R. & Karkalis, A. (2003) Verteidige Dich! – Selbstverteidigung für Frauen. Heel, 1., Aufl. edition
- Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. Basic Books
- Asimov, I. (1991) The Naked Sun (The Robot Series). Spectra Books by Bantam Books
All links were accurate and active at time of publishing.