June 15, 2022
Hero to Zero
By Dr Kathy Weston
A recent high profile defamation case featuring two famous celebrities is being voraciously discussed online and off; everyone seems to have an opinion on it. Young people have been chatting about it too.
A friend’s young daughter recently announced how upset she was that one of the protagonists, who she had once considered “really, really cool”, “actually takes drugs and is really rude!”. Her imagined reality about her idol’s character had been shattered by piercing truths revealed on court TV and, of course, on TikTok. We have probably all looked up to, even loved, individuals who have ended up disappointing us, and grasping the disparity between who they are and ‘who I thought you were before I knew you’ (Defining the Problem, poet, Wendy Cope), can be really tough.
Coming to terms with the unfiltered version of a hero can incur shock, a sense of betrayal and even prompt some self-criticism. How could we have been so blind? What does it say about us that we were drawn in by someone like that? They occupied a large part of my life, now what?
Last week, I experienced a similar revelation when working with colleagues on a project related to sexism, misogyny and violence against women. We came together with English Literature scholar, Dr Ian Kinane, to explore these themes as represented throughout the Bond franchise.
During our time together, I made a shocking discovery. The dashing, late Sean Connery (perhaps once my favourite Bond?) had once given a chilling interview, where he communicated his views on ‘slapping’ women. The video was recorded in 1987, and it’s said that he revised his views in 2006, but the clip still made me gasp. He seemed confident, unfazed even, when he opined that, “An open-handed slap is justified if all other alternatives fail”.
Sadly, this material lives on, in an evergreen way, on platforms like YouTube, and young people will always be able to access it. The question is: who is there helping them to work through, digest and critically assess such material?
It might surprise you to learn that, in 2022, although most teenage boys agree in principle that domestic violence is wrong, a good number also think that, in some circumstances, ‘it might be ok’.
It was only a few years ago that Professor David Gadd, a criminologist based at the University of Manchester, explored what teen boys between the ages of 13-15 thought about violence in intimate relationships. A significant number of them broadly condemned physical violence, but, like Connery, many qualified that view by saying that it really depended on the circumstances. These might include if a girl cheated on them or disrespected them.
Something we need to bear in mind is that (a) domestic violence peaks between the ages of 16 and 25 and (b) that the proliferation of digital technology and children’s access to platforms such as YouTube, means they are being exposed to every view on the planet and anyone vocal enough to start their own channel.
Take the top ex-wrestler and multi-millionaire, Andrew Tate, a household name for many young fans. Hugely popular on TikTok, he has almost 627,000 followers and over 134 million people have viewed his top quotes, many of which promote a lavish lifestyle. Just a few clips into his work, I heard him say that it is acceptable to territorially control which friends your girlfriend sees, is adamant that women enjoy a ‘toxic relationship” and that they “belong at home”, preferably cooking dinner. By simply Googling his name and his views on the treatment of women, I entered a rabbit hole of extremely disturbing dialogue and content, often heartily applauded by his audience, who clearly relish his bravado and version of masculinity. This is a rabbit hole that curious children/Tate fans may easily fall into.
For me, coming across this content raises the critical importance of digital literacy in our family homes and the need to pay (at the very least) some attention to who or what our children are watching and engaging with online. However, we want to parent rather than police! It’s best not to ask your teen, “Have you ever heard of this guy, Andrew Tate?”. Instead, opt for more general questions about their digital diet. “Is there anyone you enjoy watching on You Tube?” “Have you ever seen anyone online who has really shocking views?” “Who do your friends look up to online?”. “If you could recommend one person on digital platforms who you really rate, who would that be?” Such questions should be non-threatening, giving us more of a chance of having an open and fruitful conversation.
Exploratory questions about their personal value system are important to ask, as is modelling how we form our values on particular subjects. In some circumstances, watching and digesting a clip that you find offensive together can aid a great discussion. Try to be patient with your children as they make sense of it. Ask them their views on it. Model your own reaction and how it made you feel. Make it ok to talk these things through and invite them to tell you if they come across material that makes them feel cross, outraged or deeply shocked.
As our children grow, develop and attempt to form connections with others, the values that they bring into those relationships matter. As an antidote to harmful and persuasive material online, we can be there to talk things through, shine a light on toxic content and engage in discussion. Warm, parental communication can mediate harmful effects of digital media, so let’s turn the volume up on it in the face of digital media’s profound and often silent influence.
Many parents bemoan the fact that children are so engaged with digital media and that books and reading have taken a back seat. It is an undeniable fact in most households. Perhaps the summer can be a time where we work hard to put positive, powerful and inspirational content in front of our children. In addition to auditing their digital diets, we might ask what they are currently reading.
Parental observations are backed up by research from the National Literacy Trust, published in 2020, which showed that levels of daily reading among children and young people are in sharp decline. In 2019, just 25.8% of children said they read daily in their free time, the lowest level that the National Literacy Trust has recorded since it surveyed children in 2005. I have decided that I am so worried about the decline in intellectual curiosity caused by phone and iPad consumption in our home that we have initiated some changes.
First of all, we have decided as a family to each choose a book every ten days to read over the summer. In other words, we are starting a family book club. Secondly, every Saturday night, at dinnertime, we are taking it in turns to teach the rest of the family something extraordinary. We might choose to read out a paragraph, play a song or (yes) even show them a clip of something that is genuinely inspiring and mind-broadening. In other words, we show each other how the world of knowledge is vast, extraordinary and one that we should actively engage with. What we choose to introduce to our brilliant minds is important. The goal is to create dialogue and consider content that provokes thinking and leads us down more intellectually inspiring avenues.
I got the ball rolling by sharing a clip about how the alphabet formed originally. Then, my eldest found something very exciting and (as yet unopened) in our family study: a dictionary. He spent several minutes remarking on how flimsy the pages were and then got completely bogged down reading out words and enjoying sharing them with the rest of us. It was even, dare I say it, fun. By engaging with our children in ways that feel fun, but where we are also actively shaping their view of the world, we can help them to think through who they are, what they are about and hopefully help them to become less reliant on more powerful influences elsewhere.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you’d like to learn more about Professor David Gadd’s work, why not tune into our podcast interview, which we recorded last year. You might also be interested in our enlightening conversation with Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, who specialises in studying violence against women and girls.
Luckily, the Tooled Up library is packed with resources to kickstart family conversations about your children’s online habits and build their digital resilience. It’s worth encouraging the whole family to consider their digital values and set some ground rules together – our template will help. If you’d like some inspiration for initiating these conversations, take a look at our prompts to dip into during chats with teens as well as some more general internet safety questions to discuss with children.
At Tooled Up, we are big fans of dinnertime conversation, and with good reason! To find out more, listen to our brand new Researcher of the Month, Mishika Mehrotra, talk through the proven benefits that good quality dinnertime chat brings to children’s academic achievement and wellbeing. You might also like to browse through our 65 Topics for Dinnertime Chat or watch our video on Dinnertime Debriefs.
Finally, it’s Father’s Day this week in the UK, so let’s celebrate all of the positive male role models in our children’s lives. To mark the occasion, we will be chatting to Paul Pomroy, CEO of McDonalds UK, about how he balances a busy career with being a dad to two boys. Join us tomorrow evening (16th June) at 7.15pm BST for our live webinar. Book your place now!