This is a topic I haven't written about extensively here, as honestly, it does not fit with the normal, gentle musings of life I piece together; yoga and dog walks. However, sometimes something has to give and I am interested to see whether I am alone in my perception.
In the last year I have gone from having a daughter who is a child to a daughter who is a young adult. And she is into social media. In most cases, from a parental perspective, this is what happens when it comes to the introduction of technology and social media:
You have a toddler and at idle moments they like to 'play' with your phone; they like the colours and maybe you have a couple of kiddy-friendly games they can mess around with. At about six or seven they might sit at the family computer and play word games and you feel OK about this as it's vaguely educational. They might even graduate onto owning a Nintendo DS or some similar tablet-style device. Maybe a Kindle which has browsing capability. Maybe as they approach nine or ten, you have a family iPad that they can use and of course you have parental controls on everything.
Then they get a phone.
In this country this seems to coincide with going to senior school which happens for the majority at age 11, for some at 13. Getting a phone is the single biggest deal in the life of an 11 year old, although as a parent, you don't realise this at the time. Or at least I didn't. Suddenly they have a way to chat their friends (or anyone else for that matter), to look stuff up, to communicate in a way they never have before. And despite your best intentions, that phone becomes THEIR domain. It's their device. You might periodically check it and pay the bill but you'll see that the phone is their constant companion and given half the chance would be in use during every minute of every day. I have seen some teens where this is not the case, but as a general rule, most teens LOVE their phone.
I do consider myself to be fairly technology-savvy. Fifteen years working for one of the world's biggest and most influential technology companies saw to that. Plus I 'get' social media; I write a blog, I am on Facebook, I use Instagram and utilised Twitter as a very useful business tool when the need arose. I also get that you can form relationships on line in a way that many people don't understand. So I guess you could say I am an adopter.
But when I observe the way my daughter uses social media, and her friends, I can see that this thing we have created and nurtured over the past five years has become a monster! I only see a small side of it but try to stay pretty aware of what she is doing, who she is talking to, what she is looking at. I would hazard a guess that a great deal of parents have NO IDEA what their kids look at. Absolutely no clue. Unless you are on those apps, you'll never get a window into it. Every app she gets I automatically get, as a direct, synced download, so I try to stay up on it. I know parents who don't even have an iPhone, let alone apps.
And when it comes to what they are looking at - I am telling you - you'd be shocked! We have parental controls on our computer. But what you can't control is what is searched for within an app. So in Instagram for example, which is used by a great many children and young teens, you can search under a 'hash tag' and no one will ever know and there is no filter. No parental control can stop that.
You know how curious young minds can be? It strikes me that there is such an irony that we police our children watching films that are rated 'PG' or '12', yet everyday through the phone, images and concepts that would not look out of place in an '18' or 'X' rated film are readily available. You know when someone describes a horror film to you and you can (within the confines of your imagination) conjure up an idea of what it's like? But to watch that horror film is different; the images are presented to you and then they are there, like a stain on the mind's eye. I would liken this to the images on social media.
Anything you ever imagined and a lot you didn't, is there. And even worse, there is a pervasive action of clicking 'like' when you see such an image. They have no idea how grotesque it is to 'like' an image of humiliation or self-harm or starvation to the point of hospitalisation, even suicide. For children who are vulnerable or open to suggestion, the glorification of suffering can become habitual. You will hear of teenage girls and boys flocking around the 'drama' of a peer in distress and this is all playing out in their on-line world. To be vilified on line or to be 'unfollowed' is a public humiliation that no parent can soothe.
I write this in the knowledge that you may draw conclusions about me and even worse about my kids. I suppose I share because I am comfortable that I am aware and I observe these behaviours through a wide range of young people, friends and friends of friends. It is not limited and it seems no one is immune; no socio-economic group, no facet of Western society.
The easy (and rather glib) answer is to just confiscate the phone. That is indeed one way. But would that really solve the problem? I can't pretend that this on line world doesn't exist! It does. That would be equivalent to not playing music and abhorring Elvis in the 1950's, because some felt he danced in a sexually suggestive way. Is this simply the modern equivalent? As with most things, until you're in it, you can't authoritatively suggest what to do about it.
My daughter comments that I 'patrol' her phone life and to some extent, I do. This is of sufficient worry to me to stay close to it. But this can be a full time job and equally as I have written here before, she has to make her own mistakes, have her own privacy and I can't be there every step of the way. And whilst I may paint a bleak picture, a lot of the stuff kids do is pretty cool - honestly if I could have had a 5-way video face-time session before getting ready for a disco, I so would have!
What I do think is that her generation have met with a perfect storm of the social media phenomenon. I accept that it has been a wonderful invention and some aspects of it are so life-enriching I can't imagine being without them. Surely there is a ground swell of realisation about the potential horrors of social media, and eventually (hopefully) it will become more understood and more legislated.
As with all parenting matters, there is no right or wrong answer. You have to trust your instincts and hope for the best. Does anyone have any suggestions? I am all ears...