Taking away your child’s phone will not protect them from the dark underbelly of social media, but educating them from an early age will, writes Aileen C O’Reilly.
The dangers of the internet and social media for young people worldwide are well documented and Ireland is no different. Now, it appears to be falling foul of a new abuse, namely Snapchat fights.
Cathal Crowe, a Fianna Fáil counsellor on Clare County Council, recently featured as a guest on RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke Show and what he had to say made parents’ blood run cold.
After five or six calls from concerned parents in a short period of time about online fight-club-style videos, which children were viewing as part of a Snapchat group, he decided to find out what it was all about.
“I was able to set up a profile and add my name to the group easily,” he explains. "The next thing, I’m getting video after video of brutal gangland-style fighting, boys fighting boys, girls fighting girls, and all of them aged between 13 to 16.
"Admittedly a lot of these fights were set up, but there were also videos of unprovoked attacks on unsuspecting kids and these were vicious. They included kicks to the head, body blows, and repeated jumping on someone’s head, and high-definition footage of young kids standing around roaring their approval and filming it.
"It was sickening to see, not alone the violence, but also how desensitised they were to it. As many as 12 or 13 videos were uploaded each day and, after a day or so, they would self-delete as newer videos came on stream.
“It’s almost like a bloodlust,” says Crowe. “I’m a primary school teacher and at the moment we’re covering the French Revolution and the kids want to see pictures of the beheadings. It’s the modern-day equivalent of public hangings, and it’s kids as young as 12 and 13 who are involved.
“What’s really disturbing is that parents could be at home watching TV with their family and have no idea what their children are looking at on their phones.
“Our current legislation dates back to the 1950s, when we were importing around 10 films each year; we just aren’t equipped to deal with these kinds of issues.”
Last June, Apple announced the rollout of new controls for parents to limit the amount of time that their children can spend on iPhones and iPads. The measures give parents an integral role in limiting the use of specific apps or the whole phone. Once the time limit expires, the phone needs parental input to continue working.
It gives parents the remote ability to schedule a block of time to limit when their child’s iOS device can/can’t be used, such as at bedtime. During ‘downtime’, notifications from apps won’t be displayed and a badge will appear on apps to indicate they are not allowed to be used.
Parents can also choose specific apps, such as ‘phone’ or ‘books’, that will be exempt from the set-up.
Social media manager Andrea McVeigh believes the seismic shift in our behaviour patterns brought about by the growth of social media platform left young people wide open to exploitation and abuse, particularly through so-called games that can have a sinister side.
“For a generation aged over 40 or so, who grew up before the internet, it seems almost impossible to imagine how games like this can catch on, but young people have always followed trends and crazes, it’s just that in the ’70s, ’80s, or even 1990s, these were all offline and, if teens were behaving unusually or socially isolating themselves, parents, friends, teachers, or family could pick up on these things and step in.
“The online world is totally different, it’s a bubble, and vulnerable young people are under pressure to be ‘in the know’ and follow the latest craze.
"They’re feeling the same peer pressure that has always existed, but in the online world, this peer pressure is experienced in isolation, away from the watchful eye of parents or teachers. The relationship between people and their online life is incredibly powerful and even more so for young people, who have never known a life before ‘online’, before phones or laptops.
It’s an extension of their personality and often being online is their social life, it’s where their friendship group ‘lives’ and where all the cool things happen. It’s despicable that people are taking advantage of this.
Approaching this problem with the intention of keeping your children away from social media and the internet is pointless, explains Clíona Curley, programme director with Cybersafe Ireland.
“Education and open conversation from an early age is the key to making children aware of issues they will be faced with as they get older,” says Curley.
“The important thing is that it becomes a normal part of life to be talking with your children about what they are doing online, ie what is fun, what can go wrong, and how they would cope with it. Just as in real life, talk to them about what is OK and not OK to do online.
Psychotherapist Marie Walsh, clinical director of Leeson Analytic, agrees that parents fall foul when they “demonise” social media out of fear and try to keep their children safe from it.
“We have to recognise that every child under the age of 20 has been born into the social media age. It plays a key role on their lives and failing to acknowledge that fact and work with it, as opposed to against it, is a fruitless and ultimately self- sabotaging battle,” says Walsh.
“Children now connect with their friends via social media on a daily basis, so parents need to engage with them and become part of it. Open up a dialogue from an early age about what their interests are, what games they like, what apps they’re interested in. Become educated, so there is a two-way conversation and your child isn’t disappearing into this other world that you as a parent just fear and know nothing about.
“Your child needs to trust you. They need to be able to come to you if they experience something online which worries or scares them and know that you’re not going to ban them from social media as a result, a move which they will only view as a punishment.
“We teach our children that vegetables and proper meals are healthy for them and that dessert is a treat; we need to arm them the same way as regards social media and the internet. Appreciate how exciting and informative it can be and arm your children with the knowledge to know when they are confronted with something that is detrimental to their well being.
“Children are children up to the age of 14 and 15. They are not in a position at this age to make informed decisions about issues they may encounter, as the brain is still developing. Subsequent brain development at 17 and 18 allows them to step back and assess matters in a more rational manner.
“I would consistently recommend parents read Faber and Mazlish, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk.
“Legislation obviously needs to be put in place and it will be, but even when it is, parents will still have a hugely significant role to play in their children’s experience of social media.”