What is the digital street? It is cyber space; the online village; social media. It is that place which, once it arrived here, life totally changed.
I can guess the response we would have, if we asked parents whose children have never stepped onto what someone called the digital street, to raise their hands. I can guess, because I have lived in the city and gone to the village, and friend, forget the TransAfrica Highway; the digital street has covered all places, with far-reaching ramifications.
What is the digital street? It is cyber space; the online village; social media. It is that place which, once it arrived here, life totally changed. It is that street as wide as a city, where parents go to carouse and to fight; where office colleagues visit to network and to malign; where young people go to relate and to discover themselves. The digital street is that place where many have improved their lot and many more lost it... totally lost it. The digital street is the place many parents know their children spend a lot of their time, but wonder: What does my child do there?
A Harvard Medical School 2015 online publication came out with astounding revelations about the life of teens and their interaction with and on social media. The study, a collaboration between CNN and two university professors (Marion Underwood of the University of Texas and Robert Faris of the University of California, Davis), shows that at an age as low as 13, many youths spend a lot of time online. This might not come as a shock; it is the reasons they live online that might be of special interest to many parents.
Though many teens do not do much posting themselves, most of the time they are online and on social media watching and reading what others have posted. But why would what other people have posted be of such great importance to them? It is because those others who post things are their peers; people they go to school with; people they hang out with; people they are dating and practically living their lives with - both in the flesh and in cyber space. So they are keen to know; what are those people saying about me? How does what they are posting affect me?
Because teenage is a time of emotional turbulence and intellectual curiosity, this desire to know how others view them; what they say of them is crucial to the wellbeing of teens. They are also interested in knowing whether they are accepted, so they go online to find out if their peers are engaged in certain activities without them. Reading a post about a bash at Nabinoonya over the weekend that she knew nothing about would be a clear indicator that her buddies are avoiding her. Why would they do this? What is it about her that made them go to the beach behind her back? And for a girl, this could be the reason her self-esteem ebbs drastically, unless someone salvages her.
Though a large number of teens go online because of boredom, many more go there because of what is called FOMO - (the) fear of missing out. It is this FOMO that answers for what are they doing that I am not a part of; what are they saying about me; what are they discussing that I am not involved in and other such questions. So they go lurking on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp to snoop for what is being said about them and what is going on behind their backs.
The trouble here is, though they go there to monitor what their peers are up to, this will not stop them from seeing other content that might engage their innocent minds, sometimes to disastrous extents. Since teenage is not a stage that is popular for self-censorship, when they see pornographic content, they will not have the wisdom to flee its impact on their minds and, ultimately, their character.
They will devour it, and the next thing you know, they are actually practising what they have seen. I recently got privy to a text message one teen sent to another, where the recipient was counselling her male counterpart about addiction to masturbation. How did she know? He confessed to it and said he got into it after seeing lots of pornographic material on social media.
The other problem living on the digital street presents is that teenagers while passing away time they would have used productively elsewhere, just watching life whoosh by in cyber space. Oh, the things they find there! There is humour; there is ‘love'; there are intriguing fights; there is a lot. And no, these things do not happen in the real world around them. Around them, their parents spend the day on the computer writing project reports; their big siblings are also lost in social media and the house must be cleaned and dishes done and food prepared. Those realities are not half as entertaining or even as didactic as what goes on online. It is a world they can escape into and live away from reality, even as they sit right in its lap.
As this happens, proper interpersonal relations suffer. You, the parent, cannot quite penetrate your son's world, because he is living it on the digital highway. You, the mother, cannot pass on any meaningful skills to your daughter; because the only times you hear her laugh are when she is watching those hilarious video clips that pervade Whatsapp. Even as siblings, they connect more by sending each other posts and clips than taking walks together; making the evening meal together or helping each other with their holiday academic package.
But what could even be the worst downside to FOMO is the fact that it produces teenagers who are distressed. When they go there and discover that someone is saying unpleasant things about them, they feel bad. Imagine a girl who is in a relationship (let's not pretend; they get into these affairs) and when she goes on social media, one of her gang-mates is deriding her for dating this guy whom no other girl would tough even with a ten-foot pole. Will she be delighted? Or if your son discovers that his peers are at a social gathering that he knew nothing about - how is that for building his esteem? When they discover they are not as popular as they imagined they were; when she sees a comment on her peer's picture that she did not get on hers, yet she considers herself more beautiful than the girl who is getting all the rave remarks; no, she will not feel great.
Teens live for the tags, the likes, the (positive) comments and the shares that their posts will attract. When they post something and sit back, waiting for ‘mob' comments but when they check an hour later, they have three comments and seven likes, their day is ruined. They conclude that nobody cares. They imagine they are society's worst reject. They think that because their online friends don't affirm them for what they have done, they are not good enough.
However, it is not all gloom for children living on the digital street. Many of them would be living totally dreary lives without the affirmation they get online. They write things people appreciate; they are accepted by many ‘friends' than they would have in the flesh and also learn a lot of new things that make their world bigger, better and more beautiful.
What should be done?
So what does a parent do? A good parent gets interested in this state of affairs. You should watch how much time your child is spending online and, before you rush into blocking their account or laying ground rules, just talk to them about how often they are on social media.
Ask them casually and amiably what they like to do most online, and why. Share with them your experience online, too. Then when you have built good rapport, guide them on how to socialise with people online without losing your identity. Show them that people are one thing online and another in real life.
Tell them that they are not a summation of what their online friends say they are or are not.
Do not sit there satisfied, thinking your child is on social media having fun; some are there being buried alive.
Some are sinking deeper and deeper into despondency. Some are candidates for the next newspaper report on teenage suicides.
You cannot put it better than Danah Boyd did, in her book titled It's Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens, where she advised:
Boyd says, "What makes the digital street safe is when teens and adults collectively agree to open their eyes and pay attention, communicate and collaboratively negotiate difficult situations. Teens need the freedom to wander the digital street, but they also need to know that caring adults are behind them and supporting them wherever they go."
Installing spy software on their gadgets is useless; after all, don't those children live the lives of software and hardware geeks?
Before you know it, they have either uninstalled your software or installed something more superior that will bypass what you installed. The thing is, understand their world, get into it and support them from inside. That way, everybody is happy and your children are particularly safe.
Dangers of internet use
Lots of free online games sell tempting things like extra lives, power ups or new levels, making it easy for players to run up bills. Make sure you use passwords and age ratings on games and apps to prevent children using inappropriate games or spending your money without realising.
As more and more ways are developed for children to interact online and via mobile devices, this increases the risk and possible impact of cyber bullying. This normally happens through abusive messages which are posted online, where they can be seen by lots of people. Unlike with face-to-face bullying, the 24 hour nature of the internet and social media means it is difficult for the victims to get away.
Most social networking sites require users to be 13 or over to register, but these restrictions are difficult to enforce and easy to bypass. Social media is also an environment for adults, so think carefully about when you want your children to start to be exposed to the different networks. The influence of social media and the desire to fit in may also encourage children to post comments or images that could affect their online reputation.
When your child connects to someone as a friend online, that connection may be able to access personal information such as name, age, address and more. Your child may also unwittingly reveal personal information with people they don't know. Also, many sites offering free games sell on the data needed to access these services.
It can be easy for children to seek out or accidentally view illegal or unsuitable content online, including obvious things like pornography. However they could also come across even more worrying things like child abuse images, dangerous advice encouraging eating disorders, self-harm or suicide and excessive violence and race hate materials.
Grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse or exploitation, and now it often happens online. The popularity of social networks, online games and chat rooms means it is easy for children to chat and become online friends with people they have never met and who might wish to do them harm.
Tips for parents
It's so important to keep the conversation going to help prevent problems, or to deal with them if they are already happening.
Have a family discussion to set boundaries and agree which apps or websites are appropriate.
Explore sites and apps together and talk about what's suitable for children of different ages, making sure they feel part of these discussions.
Show them how to use privacy settings, and the report and block functions on the sites and apps they use. Find out how if you don't know!
Reassure your child that they can always talk to you about anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Tell them you'll help them to report anything upsetting they've seen, or to deal with online bullying.