Parenting in times of trolls, cyber bullies

The ‘rules of engagement’ with the Internet, in the context of teenagers, have invited immense scrutiny in recent times, with news reports of closed social media groups being used for sharing private pictures taken surreptitiously as the backdrop. How ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ are these contacts? Parents ask themselves such questions every day, and the imagined responses are often nightmarish.

Parenting in times of trolls, cyber bullies

Wise course: We need to restrict, not constrict, access to technology.

Shubhrata Prakash

Director, NITI Aayog, and author of The D Word: A Survivor’s Guide to Depression

Last week, I bought my children, one a teenager and the other almost a teenager, a smartphone. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has kept my children out of school, along with millions of their peers, and a smartphone keeps me connected to them, offering me and my spouse better opportunities for supervision, given that we both have work schedules that keep us away for the better part of their waking hours. My best friend does not allow her children to use a smartphone, and we are both fighting over who is a smarter parent!

In recent times, I have noted much concern and discussion around the cumulative screen-time scores that children are racking up each day. Mental health professionals have been sounding the alarm on unrestricted access to the screen as being harmful for children of all ages for quite some time now, and age-wise recommendatory time limits are often prescribed. The pandemic has necessitated the unprecedented and prolonged closure of schools, and while the use of information technology to keep schoolgoing children engaged is unsurprising, screen-time usage has ratcheted undoubtedly, given that outdoor play is not an option. Schools, parents, educationists and mental health professionals may need to put their heads together to come up with alternative systems of learning and engagement that deliver learning outcomes as well as safeguard the mental health of our children.

The ‘rules of engagement’ with the Internet, in the context of teenagers, have invited immense scrutiny in recent times, with news reports of closed social media groups being used for sharing private pictures taken surreptitiously as the backdrop. When my child is using the Internet unsupervised, what is the child watching? How is the child engaging with other netizens? How ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ are these contacts? These are the questions that parents like me ask themselves every day, and the imagined responses are often nightmarish. Trolls, sexual predators, cyber bullies, entrapments, violent games — cyberspace offers multiple choices for endangering a child’s safety, mental health and sadly, even life. One way to navigate this minefield is to build safety checks into the child’s access protocols, with periodic checks by the parents. Another is by child-proofing the devices being used, covering up cameras that can be used by RATs (Random Access Trojans). Shutting off access to technology would leave our children highly disadvantaged compared to their peers in the rest of the world. We need to restrict, not constrict, access to technology. The Internet itself runs on codes and protocols; why not have protocols for its use as well?

Policing the Internet usage of children suspiciously need not be the only way to keep them safe; parents need to build safe spaces where children feel encouraged to express themselves. Sex is a basic human drive; non-heteronormative sexualities and gender identities are a reality. The same holds true for themes related to mental health, including anxiety, depression and suicide. Age-appropriate openness in our conversations is imperative for fostering trust and confidence in our children. Rebuking children for unconventional thinking, or for asking questions that parents perceive as inappropriate or uncomfortable, can drive curious young minds to unsafe — even toxic — places to seek answers. An open, non-judgmental attitude can proffer an opportunity for the parents to steer children to safety as children will turn to their parents for seeking guidance when confronted with a situation beyond their coping capacity. With love and acceptance, uncomfortable conversations can gradually become comforting conversations, furthering the parent-child bond.

Not all issues can be addressed by the parents; society needs to step up too. The Indian society, with its socio-economic and cultural diversity, may often find itself unable to grapple with the multiple nuances of social media usage. We do not have uniformly accepted norms of personal space and boundaries, and numerous social media platforms challenge our sensibilities tremendously, a case in point being family WhatsApp groups. Misogyny, and the consequent objectification of women, hide in plain sight. The edifices of most social media platforms are built on the hubris of voyeurism and exhibitionism, and the developing minds of our children may not have the sagacity to envisage the multi-dimensional consequences of their online behaviour, or have cognisance of the biliary bitter reality of ‘Cyberspace is forever; what goes up, stays up’. We need to embed the concepts of privacy, personal space, and boundaries as basic values in the very fabric of our collective social identities.

Remember the ‘generation gap’? Yes, the very same term that we used for crying foul when we were in a conflict with our parents and their generation. Well, the generation gap is a reality that we cannot wish away. Even with our best intentions, it is not logically possible to be on the same page as our children because we are reading different editions of the book of life. Our lives as yesterday’s children are just not good enough reference points for our children’s lives, most of which will be lived in their tomorrow. Discipline is a concept often used to justify physical and emotional abuse of children. Abuse is plain and simple abuse, whether done in the name of discipline or tough love.

So, how do we cut the Gordian knot that entangles young lives and their screens in potentially dystopian patterns of a kaleidoscope that probably uses ‘Black Mirror(s)’? By using the Jedi sword — a lifesaver lightsaber of knowledge, confidence and love, that fosters trust in our children. Ultimately, there are no perfect parents or perfect children. Parents are also the children of yesterday, the children of society; the same society that exists with a million faults and fault lines. And yet we have survived, despite all warnings our generation received over TV usage. We can say with well-placed confidence that our children will survive and thrive too!

Views are personal

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