Modern technology, social networks and kids

One of the challenges every parent faces is preparing their children for interactions with the world. A world which will have changed by the time they start interacting with it outside of your supervision.

Our parents had a hard time of it. The advent of the internet completely changed the rules of social interaction over the last 20 years and many millennials have a completely different relationship to privacy than the generation that came before. Their parents were not really equipped to deal with those changes and their effects on the social fabric their children developed in.

I see this when I look at how millennials use social networks. I adapted to the use of Facebook after a while, in pretty much lockdown mode, with two thirds of my “friends” restricted in terms of what they can see. I occasionally get reminders from LinkedIn that I haven’t updated my profile in a while and I’ve got a mostly unused Instagram account. Not so with them: They’re on every platform going, with things like Snapchat, Instagram, Pintrest, WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook linking them to dozens of friends and thousands of quasi-strangers.

Convoluted and ever-changing privacy settings with ever-evolving defaults complicate matters, and we sign away our data, privacy and consumption preferences with a click when faced with a two-dozen page contract in order to create an account. There’s no way a 13-year-old thinks about that contract or what it means before they click “Agree”.

My parents didn’t show their photo albums to just anyone, they were private. Today I can find a stranger’s photo albums, constantly updated, by swiping the screen of my smartphone, while walking down the street. I can tell you who’s away from home, where they went on holiday, who they’re dating and where they’re having dinner tonight.

I straddled this change. I was in my early twenties when the internet began to really take its place in the world and I was an adult when smartphones became ubiquitous. I saw the changes, took what seemed useful and left a lot behind because it didn’t fit with the way I already lived my life. If I had been younger, I would have grown up with these systems and networks and they would have been woven into the fabric of my life, as they have been for people younger than me.

If you think our parents had a hard time adapting to new technology’s impact on their kids, that’s nothing compared to what we’re going to have to deal with. By the time our kids are fifteen, digital technology will be completely integrated into dozens of items they carry around with them. You’ll be able to search for photos of someone by uploading a photo of someone and letting facial recognition software find all other pictures of that person online. Privacy protections are being eroded not only legally, but in terms of societal norms as it becomes almost normal to receive edited highlights of everyone’s life.

I think about this quite a lot these days.

To think this is all harmless adaptation and parents just need to roll with it is to stick ones head in the sand and hope for the best. The reality of the situation is that kids are exposed to information and risks that fundamentally change their relationship with the world around them in ways never seen before. In ways that are often neither healthy nor safe. In ways that are not well understood even if everyone thinks they’re an expert.

Here’s a couple of factoids you may not know:

  • Each year about 40 percent of teens and preteens visit sexually explicit sites either deliberately or accidentally1
  • Studies have shown strong correlation between exposure to pornography and changes in attitudes to sex and relationships2

That second paper has a paragraph that nicely summarizes some of my fears on the subject when it comes to my kids and their future emotional development and wellbeing.

Pornography use by adolescents and young adults often leads to a distorted view of sexuality and its role in fostering healthy personal relationships.  These distortions include the overestimation of the prevalence of sexual activity in the community, the belief that sexual promiscuity is normal, and the belief that sexual abstinence is unhealthy.  These perspectives are likely to make it more difficult for young people to form lasting, meaningful relationships with the opposite sex, which will ultimately result in more anxiety, depression, and overall life dissatisfaction.

But pornography, sexuality and relationships are not the only areas in which new technology distorts and affects behaviour.

These technologies connect us in new ways and facilitate communications to an extent never before seen. We are still learning to deal with the social consequences.

Bullying, in one of its most subtle and insidious varieties, takes the form of exclusion. It was bad enough when kids would talk about other kids out of earshot, physically excluding them from social groups and shunning them in the playground, but what happens when the exclusion happens virtually. What happens when the group communicates through the cloud, when an entire school population can gradually become complicit in one child’s exclusion? What happens when “fitting in” means living up to a dare to send a half-naked picture to a classmate?

In its more overt form, digital bullying provides an almost endless variety of ways for kids to poison each other’s lives, with anecdotal evidence of extremes of harassment that should worry any parent. How do you protect your children from this sort of thing? How do you equip them for the potential nastiness of peers empowered by tools that protect their anonymity, amplify their efforts and broaden their audience?

I don’t have easy answers to this. I have a couple of notions that I’ll have to think through and consider. I am extremely wary of people who come forward with rigid or prescriptive advice about the best way to deal with it, because I don’t think society has found a solution yet, and the problem is evolving so fast that todays solutions won’t fit tomorrows problem.

I think that:

  • Education, character and confidence are an inoculation against the nastiness of the world.
    • The more a young person can be brought to understand the negative effects of certain behaviours, the better they can protect themselves against them. This works in many other areas (smoking, alcohol) and can work here too.
    • You can’t control what other kids will do or say to your child, you can only forearm them with character, humour, wit and knowledge.
    • The bullies are people’s kids too. Bringing up your kids overconfident and aggressive can turn them into the bullies. Respect for others is essential.
  • Policing your children to prevent exposure to things on the internet will only work for a while. You cannot prevent them looking at their friends phones. They will understand internet filters better than you.
  • The law is trying to catch up3, but efforts to police information and data are doomed to fail. Pandora’s box isn’t just open, the lid has been ripped off.
  • Criminalising the acts of children is a band aid on a symptom. The cause is poor education – not just at school but in the home. Also: when you choose a school, you choose a peer group whose influence on your child will rival and potentially surpass your own.
  • The fact that we talk about managing “screen time” makes me feel like we’ve already failed. If we had succeeded, our kids would be playing outside and the iPad’s battery would be dead because they’d have forgotten to recharge it. I’m not advocating a return to nature, but it seems to me – looking at other kids I see out and about – that tablets and telephones are like crack cocaine to a child.

I don’t really have answers at this point. I’m going to be reading a lot before these questions require answers on my part, and I have a while before V is at the age where this is a concern.

But it’s going to be a concern, and who knows what they’ll have invented by the time she’s a teenager.


Reading and Sources

  1. Pediatrics (Vol. 119, No. 2, pages 247-257): 42 percent of a nationally representative sample of 1,500 Internet users ages 10 to 17 had been exposed to online porn in the last year, with two-thirds reporting only unwanted exposure. In fact, the incidence of unwanted exposure has risen for this age group, from about 26 percent between 1999 and 2000, to 34 percent in 2005
  2. The Impact of Pornography on Children, (American College of Pediatricians – June 2016):
    – Male subjects demonstrated increased callousness toward women.
    – Subjects considered the crime of rape less serious.
    – Subjects were more accepting of non-marital sexual activity and non-coital sexual practices such as oral and anal sex.
    – Subjects became more interested in more extreme and deviant forms of pornography.
    – Subjects were more likely to say they were dissatisfied with their sexual partner.
    – Subjects were more accepting of sexual infidelity in a relationship.
    – Subjects valued marriage less and were twice as likely to believe marriage may become obsolete.
    – Men experienced a decreased desire for children, and women experienced a decreased desire to have a daughter.
    – Subjects showed a greater acceptance of female promiscuity.
  3. Government urged to act over children’s ‘easy’ access to online porn, The Telegraph, Saturday 4th March 2017.
  4. How the Internet Has Changed Bullying, The New Yorker, October 21st, 2015
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