Big Mama's House Podcast - podcast for teens covering mental health of teens, tech issues and teens, teens and anxiety, digital parenting tips for for parents, Internet Safety speaker for schools, Jesse Weinberger Internet Safety Speaker for schools

Parents: What Is Your Child Seeing Online?

Where I am today

I regularly travel all over the United States and I meet with children (ages 8 to 18) face-to-face and they tell me what their real digital lives look like. The conversations I’ve had with your children tend to take me to the underside of the giant rock that is their digital lives.

In one particularly tragic national news story, an 18yo girl has been charged with manslaughter after encouraging her 18yo male friend to commit suicide. She guided him through the process…he texted her on his way to his planned suicide and said that he didn’t think he could go through with it. She encouraged him to get back in the car and carry out the plan. Right after he committed suicide she started posting on social media about how much she loved him…and created an online page in his honor.

This tragic and heartbreaking story highlights the ever present need for parents to really know where their children are traveling within the digital sphere, who they are speaking with and what they are saying.

I have no idea what would have helped in this horribly sad case. Here’s what I do know: I have never seen a case made worse by parents being more aware of what was happening. I have never seen a case where a law enforcement officer has reported a crime becoming WORSE because mom and dad were engaged or because mom and dad chose to limit their child’s digital access.

Parenting is exhausting

A 6th grade student in one of my recent presentations told me (and his entire grade) that he was tired of his mother giving in to his little brother. Apparently, the younger sibling frequently misbehaves by breaking the digital rules created by mom and dad. Rather than “sticking to the consequences” (the child’s words, not mine) his mother is prone to backsliding and giving in after being worn down by the younger sibling’s constant whining and complaining. The entire room began laughing at this boy’s imitation of the young brother’s whining: “pleeeese, pleeeeese, puuuuuullleeeeeze”. Through the joke I could hear his discontent- this child is clearly a rule follower and he was angry with his mom.

I tried to explain that parenting is like rubbing your knuckles against a cheese grater while being swarmed by bees.  And that’s on a good day.

I’m here to help, and I don’t hate technology

I’m here to (try and ) help you simplify the process of safe digital use. I don’t hate technology…..just the opposite. I LOVE technology – I’m a programmer by trade and I actively try to encourage my student audiences to consider technology careers. I firmly believe that technology can give us the tools to CREATE rather than destroy

…and then there’s the dark side.

It would be disingenuous to present only half of the story. My goal is to provide parents with a complete picture and to give you the tools to customize a safer digital environment for your family.

Long term social implications of digital immersion

I’m working on a series of articles on the long-term effects of immersive digital use on a young person’s brain, combining the neurological perspective and the psychosocial implications and potential outcomes. I’m currently researching everything from “email apnea” (the human phenomenon of holding your breath when checking for new email or refreshing a page for social media notifications) to the fact that children are becoming desensitized to any and all provocative stimulus. We know that the brain undergoes physical changes as a result of long-term and consistent digital use. We may just be evolving human civilization right out of “deep thinking” and “critical analysis”. This is my biggest long-term fear about digital overuse.

(See RESOURCES: Read NPR’s article on the teen brain. )

If we pull back way before the precipice of physical brain changes and discuss what passes for ordinary content consumption among American teenagers we find that the average American teenager is consuming ELEVEN hours of content per day. Per DAY!! Which brings us to the next most obvious question – WHAT are they watching/consuming?

Digital content has no global or systemic rating scales or filtering systems. And I’m not suggesting that there should be – it would be impossible to implement and would result in absurd unintended consequences. Web filtering and enforcement is our responsibility as parents; and not the responsibility of your child’s school, his teachers, local law enforcement, content producers, or app developers. This is not Instagram’s job or Facebook’s job, this is OUR job as parents. If you don’t want the job, then your child should NOT have unlimited, un-monitored access to a web-enabled device. Easy peasy.

Hypersexualization of Children

In terms of the “what”, our children are living at the absurd end of every content severity continuum. For sex – on the softer end of that we have a consistent message which hypersexualizes young children and exposes them to highly sexualized content at extremely young ages including: sex in video games, commercials, clothing styles, and movie/music content.

(See RESOURCES:  Article on which celebrities encourage good body image. )

The extreme hypersexualization of children in mass media and in online content has normalized a digital environment where the new age of onset of consumption of porn is 8yo, and the new age of onset of pornography addiction is 11yo.

At the most severe end of that continuum, your children have easy access (3 clicks or less) to every flavor of pornography known to exist (including on Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and SnapChat). Dozens of children have personally told me that someone has shown them rape fantasy porn or some other form of fetish pornography. These children are consistently as young as the 3rd and 4th grades.

What does this mean to your children? It means that they are becoming desensitized at young ages to overt displays of graphic sexuality including violent and aggressive sex acts. Studies show (clearly) that children who are actively engaged online at younger ages, have a much higher tendency towards sexual precocity, and that they are having actual sex at younger ages.

Violence Desensitization

The same goes for violent content – and I’m not including video games or even violent movies. Movies and video games with content or film ratings at least have an inherent method for parental filtering. If as a parent you say “No M: Mature video games” and you enforce the rule, you have created an actionable plan for your family.

(See RESOURCE: Common Sense Media) 

On the more benign end your children are probably watching moronic (albeit hilarious) shows like Jackass which display a systemic disregard for human pain. As an added layer of ick, we see the now common reality show phenomenon where behaving in the most outrageous way possible is a means to fame and fortune. Which actually has worked in making a great many people without any discernible talent extremely wealthy ala: Any-Given-Kardashian.

On the most dangerous and damaging end of that violent content continuum we have stories (like the one listed above) where children are showing their desensitization to violence in the most horrific and heartbreaking ways. There have been multiple stories recently of children who have scheduled a street brawl and then the altercations have been videotaped. Just recently two teenage girls scheduled a fist fight, and midway both girls were shot by spectators with guns – it was all on video, and then uploaded to YouTube. In another recent case a 14yo boy who was the sister of one of the fighters was shot multiple times in the face – he was only standing on the sidelines of the fight videotaping via his phone.

In addition (as the story above shows) the suicide of children has become a normalized (if tragic) part of the fabric of our lives. Many of the children who die by suicide are using social media tools in an attempt to somehow immortalize themselves via suicide-note videos and blogs. This content is going viral – and the cycle feeds on itself.

And along the way our children are watching all of this – taking it all in, and allowing it to form who they become as people.

Bottom Line

We can’t set limits unless we understand what we’re limiting, in a granular way. Is it specific content, specific platforms, features within a platform? All of the above, probably. The point is that this requires analysis, discussion, and consideration. Each one of your children will probably require different permissions based on their interests and general level of obedience and willingness to break the rules.

But you’re not going to be able to do this alone. This is an all-hands-on-deck scenario and I’m here to help. But really, we’re all in the soup together. I’m here to help if I can.

Be Fierce. Be Unafraid.

-Big Mama