Can you remember that first wave of joy you felt from using social media? Reconnecting with an old school friend, being retweeted on Twitter, feeling proud as 20 of our facebook friends liked our most recent post? Whilst these small bumps of positive emotion may seem commonplace to us, they barely scratch the surface of the rollercoaster of emotions and dangers young people experience on a weekly, and often daily, basis.
Imagine the feeling of angst and hope when submitting a selfie to a hot or not Instagram account, experiencing a wave of euphoria as 50 strangers like your latest selfie, the horror of having a nude snapchat screen grabbed, the panic as you realise your 104 Streak might have ended because you simply forgot to send a picture, being unfriended by a group of friends from school who until today liked you, or seeing a post about you online.
For the younger generation social media is important with a capital I; it has transcended previous brandings of a passing fad which had minor ripples in young people’s lives and has instead become so ingrained it is now a force powerful enough to rock and destroy the foundations of even the most level-headed and astute young person.
Social media, the online world and how one is perceived online is as important to a young person as providing for our family, as important as securing a good job and as important as our families in general. The younger generation, as pointed out with The Children’s Commissioner’s latest report, live a life online with the boundaries between online and off, not simply blurring, but, being nonexistent.
As such, it’s time we move forward from the archaic stance of attempting to dissuade young people from relying on technology as their main means of interaction and treating the online world and interactions made there as trivial: They are not. Instead, we must embrace the level of importance technology, in particular social media, now holds and in turn teach young people the skills that are crucial for staying safe whilst living a life online.
For many home and school represent safe havens where worries, concerns and fears can be relayed to trusted adults with confidence that something will be done. Maintaining and expanding this open platform to the digital world is crucial in allowing online issues to be acted on before it’s too late. It is also essential to see a key shift in how we, as parents, discuss the digital world with our children. Gone should be the days where we sigh and say “they understand these things so much better than me.” Instead we must aspire to be adept with the ways young people interact with the outside world. Our homes must become places where issues surrounding social media and other online risks can be discussed openly, frankly and with the assurance that a disclosure will not result in a severe reprimand, panic or anger.
Whilst many young people will utilise the online world without issue, benefiting from the wealth of good it can bring, some will be unfortunate enough to be targeted by those who will seek to do them harm. For these vulnerable young people who do not have the skills they need to be safe online, help often comes too late. To draw a parallel with the physical world: when we first give our child a bike we support them, we give them a helmet and fit their bike with stabilisers, and then slowly we begin to sit back, observe them, and allow them more freedom and independence. The same routine does not apply to modern technology and this lack of education and support is the unfortunate equivalent of placing our children on the M25 with their first bike hoping they are able to successfully navigate risk and arrive at their destination unscaved.
We are lucky enough to live in a society where we would not shy away from an overheard conversation describing domestic violence and we would not standby as a child was bullied in the classroom. However, for too long we have shied away from issues relating to the online world; a world which countless times has been linked to bullying, exploitation and untimely deaths. What we need now more than ever, and increasingly with every passing day, is a movement which sees both education and parenting brought into the 21st century. As part of our national curriculum we should see effective, creative and ever-changing education on online safety being championed and not sidelined. Our educators must have the funding necessary to provide teachers, support staff and pastoral care workers with the skills to teach digital safety and we as parents must aspire to bury our heads in the sand no longer and take steps to familiarise ourselves with the digital landscape at every opportunity.
The Internet is a bountiful and powerful resource, which should be explored, utilised and cherished but with that power comes great responsibility. This responsibility falls firmly on our shoulders as parents, educators, policymakers and as a society as a whole. We owe the younger generation the skills they need to be empowered online to ensure their safety and we owe them those skills right now.
For more information on the apps young people are using please visit our youtube page for quick, simple and free briefings which we’ve designed to help give adults the skills they need to begin actively discussing the online world and it’s risks with young people.