In January, Leicestershire police released the short film Kayleigh’s Love Story, the horrific true story of a child groomed online. Many youngsters have since come forward with similar experiences. And yet social media is part of their world. Justine Brooks talks teens and the internet.
The internet. When I was my teenage daughter’s age it wasn’t there. I communicated with my friends face to face. And when we couldn’t do that we wrote each other letters, sent each other postcards or spoke on the phone.
Photos were something that we took on a camera and then when the film was full we took it to Boots and had the film developed. If any of the photos came out unblurry we’d put them on the walls of our bedrooms with Blu-Tack.
My daughter’s experience is completely different and, quite frankly, it’s terrifying. When she was born I lived with her father on a 500-acre farm. Remote, isolated. We didn’t have a TV. Instead we watched DVDs on the computer screen. Our daughter never saw all those adverts aimed at children, was never pacified with a phone or tablet.
When she was really small, a close friend told me how her neighbour’s eight year-old daughter had been groomed online. She had a computer with webcam, which she kept in her room. She had come into contact with a paedophile. When my friend’s daughter went over to play with the girl one day, she discovered that she was being asked to show parts of her body to the man online. Luckily my friend’s daughter blew the whistle, the girl’s parents were told and disaster was averted. But this had been going on for months – the parents had no idea and were understandably horrified.
This incident hugely influenced my own attitudes towards my own daughter and the internet. As a parent I’ve thought long and hard about how to approach the big bad world of online.
For a start, I made myself a promise that I would engage with this huge exciting, dangerous, nebulous, fast-moving thing that has taken over our lives. And there’s no escaping it – there’s as much danger in isolation and pretending the world doesn’t exist. So instead I’ve engaged with social media as much as I can stomach.
“What I’ve found through talking with my daughter and with friends whose kids have been bullied online is one really frightening thing: no one talks about it.”
My daughter is now a teenager and communicates with her friends via Snapchat. Photographs are taken and posted within seconds, often with little time for careful consideration. Lives are lived in an intensely public way, everyone’s on show, pouting (or in my daughter’s case, gurning) and doing the duck face, and posting their photos online.
Once they’re teenagers it’s a way of life. Think of the episode of The Simpsons (‘Holidays of Future Past’) where Maggie’s daughter Zia spends her life plugged into the Ultranet – I’m convinced this will be the future.
The first thing I’d say to any parent contemplating their child’s online life is: resist. Resist getting your child an iPad or tablet or phone until they are in high school or you can bear the nagging no longer, whichever comes last. They are not educational.
Resist and then the moment one enters their lives, bind it up with rules and be vigilant. At first, until the rules are respected, limit use to half an hour a day. Keep it out of their bedroom. Add them onto your iCloud account, don’t let them have one of their own.
Tell them that you will be looking at their browser history and their emails (my daughter’s emails come onto my iPad and she knows that I’ll do spot checks). Do whatever you can to keep their usage moderate. You only have to think about how many times a day you check Facebook and Twitter to realise that you’re dealing with something highly addictive.
And then talk to them. Ask them what games they’re playing. Sit for an hour while they take you through their Minecraft world. Play Clash of Clans with them. Make the internet your friend.
Many parents spend their time following their children around the internet. Unfortunately that’s our lot and engaging with it is the only way we have any chance of getting near what they’re doing. When they’re talking to you about the fun stuff, it will be easier to talk about all the crap that happens. And it happens to all of them. It’s about trust. They need to know you’re on their side.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that by monitoring in this way I’m a better parent and it can’t happen to my child. I understand that it can happen to anyone.
What I’ve found through talking with my daughter and with friends whose kids have been bullied online is one really frightening thing: no one talks about it.
I asked my daughter about online bullying. She says, “It happens a lot. People are really horrible to each other online. One person says something horrible and then other people join in. But the thing about online bullying is it’s private. So someone might be going through something but they won’t tell anyone. Because that can make it worse.
“So even friends might not know. Generally people don’t say anything. And even if people see things happening they might not say anything because they don’t want to get on the bully’s side.”
My daughter experienced bullying on Snapchat: “It made me feel really upset. I hadn’t done anything to her. She just thought it was funny – I don’t think she thought there was anything wrong with it.” We went to her school and complained. It was dealt with quickly and efficiently. The girl who had instigated the bullying was reprimanded and we’ve had no problems since.
“I’m glad I told a teacher,” says my daughter. “Even though if you do tell a teacher you can get called a wuss or a telltale or a grass – plus sometimes teachers don’t understand and they can make it worse. But if I hadn’t said anything I think it would have escalated. If you tell them (the bully) and then they realise what they’ve done, they feel differently.”
I’m thankful that my daughter feels able to talk to me about these things. What happens online is very real to them and sometimes it’s hard to say anything that makes it any better. For now I’ll keep working hard to keep the channels of communication open.6022 Views
Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.