The other day I was out having a coffee with friends. We all have teenage children and we all share the same worries and concerns that any other parent has around their teenage children. We worry about their safety, are they drinking? Using drugs? Do they have friends? Are they doing well at school? Then there’s the moans; why are they so lazy/selfish/grumpy? We all nod in agreement as the conversation continues.
But there is one thing whereby I stand alone and that’s my teenagers use of social media. I have four children Raymond, 20, Leonard, 14, Jerry nearly 13 and Ottoline 10. And I have made a decision – seemingly alone of my friends – not to snoop on their social media. For me, monitoring my children’s internet use is akin to reading their diaries. This was pointed out to me when, one day, Leonard found me absent-mindedly scrolling through Jerry’s phone. He was appalled and outraged.
“That’s his private stuff mum!” he said. “How would you like it if someone read your social media.”
I decided that he had a point. After all, when I was a teenager I kept a diary and I shudder at the thought of my mother reading it. In the end, I decided I’d rather not know and that, in fact, knowing made matters worse. Did I really want to stumble across sex texts? Or inadvertently open up a porn site? Was I actually really going to make a big deal out of this? When I think of all the silly things I did as a teenager, I squirm at the idea my mother might have found out. So I decided to give myself a break.
I don’t do what other parents do – put trackers on their devices, set up secret cameras that monitor usage, turn the internet off at 10pm (how would I watch Netflix)? Neither do I spend days on end worrying about it because, for me, that way madness lies. Some people call me liberal, others ‘airy fairy’ but, actually, I am not spending the rest of my life interrogating and alienating my teenagers and making myself paranoid and fearful all at the same time.
So I am now utterly relieved to find a new book that is highlighting how anxious parents are ‘creating a moral panic’ over social media. In their book Invisibly Blighted; The Digital Erosion of Childhood, academics from University College London (UCL) and Plymouth University Business School suggest that parents react to their children’s use of social media in a disproportionate way and that the effect of this is to cause anxiety in their teenagers.
Not only that, it also says that sexting is misunderstood by parents and that teenagers have worked out a moral code of their own.
This might sound unbelievable to some parents for whom sexting feels wrong and threatening. But, out of the four of my children, Leonard is the one who is the most social-media oriented and he always tells me that anything he and his friends get up to involves consent. I have to take him at his word because, if I don’t, I am really telling him I don’t trust him when, in fact, I do. It’s not easy sometimes. He is glued to his phone. In fact, I’d go as far to say that he doesn’t exist without his phone. H e s constantly snapchatting and what’s app-ing and taking endless pouting selfies. Messages ping through to him endlessly. It’s like a constant chatter of pinging and dinging and ringing and there Leonard is, giggling way in his own private world.
And that’s the point. It’s his private world. It may be peopled by hundreds or more of people, but it is a world Leonard inhabits with his own rules and regulations and I have no access to it. If I monitor him endlessly and bar things and go on and on at him endlessly, I am actually infantilising him. I would be implying that he has no real ability to know what’s right from wrong or to be able to make proper decisions about his world.
I may not like that and I sometimes find it threatening to feel I have no control in this but I still actively and pointedly don’t ask him about it. I am not immune to all the stories in the media about bullying and grooming and maybe I will feel differently about my daughter who, at the moment, has no phone or tablet. But I came to the conclusion that what my teenagers really need was some guidance from me and then for me to let them get on with it.
Of course when reports come out about boys being groomed and then murdered and the parents quite rightly mounting a campaign to get us all to be a little more social media-savvy, I do feel a pang of fear. Neither am I belittling the fact that bullying does happen on social media.
But my main point is about parents free-floating sense of fear dread and panic about something that is very difficult to control. Part of the reason for this is that we don’t really understand social media, certainly not in the way our teenagers do. This means it has taken on a terrible place is our psyche – it is ‘the shadow’ full of terrible things and terrible people and we get absolutely paranoid that something dreadful and threatening is going on with teenagers via social media. And yet this is generally not true. The way teenagers use social media is very different to the way we use it as adults. They swap and change and apps come in and apps go out.
In fact, most teenagers are pretty sensible with a moral code of their own that we all fail to grasp (which is partly the point of it).
For me, part of it is about allowing your teenager some sort of autonomy. What really makes teenagers angry and defensive is that their parents – who, let’s face it, have brought them up – somehow don’t trust them once they reach around 13. It’s as if we encourage them to grow up but, once they show any form of independence, we take it away from them, especially if it comes in the form of something threatening which we don’t understand. Their internet world can feel very different. But just because we don’t fully understand it, doesn’t mean that teenagers are incapable of making good decisions. Communication is the key. If parents can find a way of being invited in to the world of their teenager, in whatever small form, then bridges are built and stuff that seems scary and unknown diminishes in its power.
When Leonard started getting to the age where the internet became a priority, I had a conversation about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Shaming is wrong was the basic line I took. I didn’t want him to humiliate/expose/take advantage or mock anyone of any age or sex. That, for me, is the bottom line. The rest of it is up to him. I have to hold back and trust him or else what am I saying? Constantly checking up on them and tracking their internet usage is basically saying ‘I don’t trust you’ and teenagers hate that. They have to rebel anyway – and are almost duty bound to dislike you for a number of years – and the lack of trust makes matters worse. In fact, underneath that swaggering teenage braggadocio, it can feel very hurtful.
In fact, the area that teenagers hurt the most are around their relationships with real live living people and boys aged 16-plus are particularly vulnerable, wearing the carapace of the carefree pseudo-mad far more heavily than they’d really like anyone to know.
I do base some of my thoughts and feelings on this issue as I have been working as a counsellor at No 5, a youth counselling centre in Reading for the last two and a half years. I also have my own private practice in which I also see teenagers. I have seen many clients aged between 11 and 24 and they have brought a whole range of issues with them from anxiety to depression, eating disorders and self harm. As a trained and qualified counsellor, I have explored these issues with them over the years and yet not one of them has brought issues with social media in to the room. Most of their issues stem form their relationships with real live flesh and blood people such as family and friends In fact, in most cases, going online has been a source of support. The client that is questioning their sexuality can be massively helped by an online support system that makes him or her feel less alone and rejected. I have had clients for whom being part of a chat room about self-harm/eating disorders/suicide ideation has actually kept them far more together than if they had no access to a network that, they feel, understands them.
So the thing to do is to manage our own fears. I do talk to my children about the legal ramifications of sharing photographs or whatever on social media. But these legal ramifications go way beyond online use – it also goes in to inappropriate contact with anyone on any level. We have had a lot of conversations around what consent means and that’s on both ides – no one should feel forced in to doing anything and that’s the same for my children. No must mean no and be respected and my children also have the right to say no to their privacy being invaded.
The main issue is how we, as parents, feel about it. None of us want our children to be in danger whether it’s physically, moral, spiritual or all three. Of course we want to keep them safe and that’s why we want to spend hundreds of pounds, as some people to, on spying apparatus which feeds back every nuance and online communication our children have and do. But this is creating atmosphere of fear and panic.
I don’t want to make light of people’s fears. I will be probably feel far more protective about my daughter yet children are very au fait with internet etiquette and security – schools do great talks keeping both children and parents informed.
I am not sure our children are any more in danger than we were. Bullies are bullies and they exist throughout society. I was bullied as a child (not often but occasionally). I was sent to Coventry for no reason at all. I was flashed at, a man came to the door naked and tried to grab me when I was a newspaper girl, another man offered me sweets and tried to bundle me in to a car and I can’t have been more than ten years old. All these things were horrible and frightening and, thank goodness, dealt with by my mother with whom I felt able to communicate. No internet back then but still the same feelings of shame, hurt, fear and, if there had been the internet, maybe I could have gone online and found a bit more support than my nearest and dearests were able to offer.
For more information please go to lucycavendishcounselling.com