Parenting, the Internet, and the Helplessness Reflex

“If we want teens and tweens to adopt better habits and healthier choices online and in-real life, we have to change how we talk about the social world, both online and in-real-life. In the end, promoting social media wellness is all about developing awareness and encouraging open communication, because teens who perceive their parents are unaware are less likely to seek their parents’ guidance and support in times of need — and that’s not a secret we want them to keep.” – Ana Homayoun.

I read a disturbing report recently about the trial of a man found guilty of coercing young girls into sending him graphic sexual images using social media. The manipulation and threats used were appalling, the public outrage palpable and justified.

The media reaction was predictable. In fact, the investigating detective set the tone by noting that the man’s acts, “served as a timely reminder of the dangers the internet poses to young children”. Immediately, social media was to blame. Denying the potential dangers of the internet is akin to gun lobbyists blaming mental illness for mass shootings and suggesting the availability of the weapon used had no part to play. Of course, the internet can be used for malevolent purposes, but this does not make it inherently evil or dangerous. Unlike the gun, the internet was not designed to maim, kill, or harm. The responsibility for crimes involving technology lies with the perpetrators, not the vehicle. Cars kill and pollute, but they are not intrinsically pernicious and can be used for entirely valid purposes.

Some of the child victims in the case cited were shockingly young. They owned mobile devices with internet connectivity. They were registered on social media sites. They were vulnerable and they were exploited. The offender is to blame and will go to prison for an appropriately lengthy period. Still, the internet – the tool used to facilitate these heinous acts – is being blamed as the real threat in this and many other such instances.

In reaction to disturbing stories like this, it is not uncommon to hear parents say that they do not understand the technologies that their children are using and, therefore, cannot ensure their safety. This is the Helplessness Reflex. The recommendations proffered by “experts” to such parents invariably include controls and bans. Why would a young child have unfettered access to the internet? Parents who give their children digital devices have a primary obligation to consider their child’s online safety first, just as they teach them to cross a busy street before allowing them to do so alone. It is grossly unfair to blame parents for the actions of predators, but they are the first line of protection. In many instances, they are victims, too. This needs to change.

At the end of the day, the moral outrage experts and parents themselves keep missing the most salient point. The media is overflowing with purveyors of digital scaremongering. Their personal biases are not helpful. The internet is not dangerous. Certain nefarious opportunists who use its connectivity networking tools are. These are ethical issues. This is a matter of child protection. Once we communicate to young people that we believe the internet to be inherently dangerous we do have an impact. We drive their behaviour and beliefs underground, close the door to genuine trust, and shutdown the potential for open, meaningful dialogue, thereby making them increasingly vulnerable to the very things we may fear.

We need to educate our children when they are old enough to use technology, not control them. We need to decide appropriate ages for tech access based on education and maturity.

But it’s time to end the perpetual excuse.

Parents don’t need to know technology. They need to know their children.

Homayoun, Ana. What Teens Wish Their Parents Knew About Social Media. The Washington Post. January 9, 2018.