September 16, 2020
Wild West Web
By Dr Kathy Weston
Warning: this week's Wednesday Wisdom discusses the theme of suicide. I am not going to lie. Last week left me reeling. You too may have received word of a video circulating online (on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram) of a man who took his own life with a handgun, live to camera. Unfortunately, it has been viewed by millions of people, many of whom were children, and the video has been shared widely.
Grotesque and alarming memes were rapidly created and the family of the man in question have been traumatised by the volume of toxic content now associated with their loved one’s public death.
My anger was immediately directed at the social media platforms who are being unforgivably slow to remove the video, but also, it has to be said, at any parent who has allowed their child access to phones late at night, allowed them on apps clearly marked for teens, and who have not monitored what their child is doing, seeing or who they are connecting with online.
TikTok is now replete with videos where primary-age children describe what it was like to watch the video. As parents, we have a responsibility to monitor, ‘check in’, discuss, and to teach our children that they must be careful about clicking any ‘watch now’ links that get enthusiastically passed on as a ‘must see’ by peers. Children who viewed that violent video content cannot unsee it and that is devastating.
The types of chats that should happen in the family home will not be one-off discussions. Think about how many times you need to remind your children to wash their hands before dinner or to brush their teeth before they head off to school. Instilling good habits on and offline takes time and lots of little reminders.
Most weekends, my 14 year old son and I sit down and scroll through the content on his phone. Together, we talk about how he responded to particular material that was sent to him, the etiquette associated with engaging socially on group chats (trying to fit in, whilst making sure we don’t say anything we later regret) and potential responses when a friend describes distress, loneliness or talks about issues going on in family life. There is a lot to contend with when social interaction moves online. What we write stays. How we make others feel is important.
Teaching our children how to support others online is important, as is their ability to apologise, delete comments, remove content and exhibit a certain level of discretion when interacting online. It isn’t easy and requires patient dialogue, rather than ‘policing’.
Praise your child for learning from their mistakes and be open to discussing online content. Never be angry when they share something that has upset them. Open dialogue like this is a protective asset when it comes to your child’s digital and emotional resilience.
I don’t know if you remember the bit in the film, The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy begs the good witch, Glinda, ‘will you help me, can you help me?’ Glinda replies; ‘you don’t need to be helped my dear, you always had the power to go back to Kansas’.
Just like Glinda, I want to reassure you that, as a loving parent, you already have the skills that you need to talk to your child about their experiences in the digital world. Cultivate ‘closeness’ and trust, tell them that you only have their best interests at heart, watch your timing, be guided by what happens in the moment and display empathy when they do talk to you.
Digital hygiene isn’t a matter to be left to teachers or the pastoral support team at school. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring that our children grow up with access only to material that is appropriate for their age and stage of development.
When schools and parents work together for the mutual benefit of children, they have a better chance of thriving. So, the next time school sends home information about what children may have been up to online, as per Glinda’s advice, ‘start at the beginning and follow the yellow brick road’. Pause everything and use it as a springboard for further family chat.
To hear more from me about how families can develop resilient strategies at the current time, tune in to my free webinar with the family law firm, Rayden Solicitors, on 24th September.
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