Growing Pains – our kids and the internet

There’s so much reported about the terrors of technology including alarming statistics, with psychologists even saying it’s harder to be a parent of teenagers these days than for previous generations because of the perils of screen time, social media, grooming and gaming, not to mention cyber-bullying.  As the first iPhone was only released in 2006, the same year as Facebook became generally available to anyone over 13 (Javis, 2017), we’re only just becoming aware of the pitfalls.

The challenges posed by social networking are ironically due to its advantages (Boyd, 2014): the durability of content over time, breadth of the potential audience, as well as the ease of ‘sharing’ and ‘searchability’ of content.  These attributes make the usual process of growing up (including working out who you are, taking risks, being influenced by peers) is now done online, in public, in what’s basically a global version of an unsupervised youth centre. Some argue that the use of social networking has risen in response to parental concern for environmental dangers in the real world.  Kids may be no longer be hanging out on street corners, but are roaming the internet from their bedrooms (Boyd, 2014).

Although the risks associated with social networking are not unique to teenagers, psychologists feel that they are more vulnerable because of their heightened need for approval, tendency to over-share, fear of missing out, susceptibility to peer influence and attitude to risk.  Teens haven’t established a clear sense of who they are (their brains aren’t fully formed until their mid-twenties) – and as they lack such inner anchors, are more susceptible as a result.  There have also been incidents where kids haven’t realised the seemingly obvious – that material can be seen by people beyond their ‘friends’ and that whatever they post leaves an indelible trail.

This idea of a digital footprint has given rise to the notion of a ‘tethered identity’ – where they may feel unable to leave behind the person they were in their adolescence and those with whom they associate (Tukle, 2011). Whilst making mistakes as teenagers is not new, making them so publicly with an unknown audience is.  As the BBC’s documentary ‘Child of our Time’ highlighted, people change considerably through their formative years – it therefore seems unfair to hold a person prisoner to what they were like in their teens once they reach adulthood.

The situation is seemingly exacerbated if (like me), you have boys – as they’ve hit the headlines for needing the drastic action of a headmaster who confiscated games consoles from their homes to break the spell held over them.  It also seems that young men are the biggest consumers of online porn, with boys being first exposed to it at scarily early ages.

Just to add another kick in the proverbials, the former headmaster of Harrow School (Barnaby Lenon) was recently quoted as saying “Ninety-nine per cent of boys I have had to deal with are lazy” (words of a man who taught boys, but only has daughters himself).  Here’s hoping his experience reflects a peculiarity of the privileged.  Otherwise boy-bashing may become a self-fulfilling prophecy – it’s not the current generation’s fault that their gender may have conferred advantages for their forefathers (and still would certain parts of the world).  This backlash seems to be doing little more than creating a gender inequality in reverse.

So, the tsunami of panic gathers momentum amidst warnings of an unavoidable social Armageddon involving those closest to our hearts – but as with all ‘problems’, solutions are also being proposed.  Psychologist Ian Williamson (2017) gives a useful steer for getting through those tricky teenage years.  He suggests that we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff (untidy rooms and moodiness) to avoid diluting the message and distracting from what’s important.  It’s music to my ears that not everything matters, after all, we’d drive ourselves (and our kids) nuts if it did.  Never mind the stresses facing our youth, what about us? There’s so much to worry about, we’ll need a rota to get through it soon.

Of course, some remove their families from the perils of modern life (as highlighted by Channel 5’s ‘New Lives in the Wild’), but it’s harder to tread a middle line.  I don’t want to deny my kids access (and then face the insatiable lure of forbidden fruit), but nor am I champing at the bit for them to be on the internet, updating their status or texting into the night. Whilst I don’t like idea of snooping on them, we face the problem that these days ‘Katie, aged 13’ could be Tony, aged 47.

Despite lacking in the charm department, Lenon does however some good tips for dealing with teens.  There are some reoccurring themes in the advice for dealing with teens amongst psychologists and social commentators alike, with the following offered by Williamson:

  • Don’t try to be your child’s BFF, there should be consequences for misdemeanours, so we shouldn’t avoid conflict, but accept being a good parent doesn’t mean always being in their good books, or being their best friend
  • Let the small things go, e.g. messy bedrooms – one less thing to argue over can only be a good thing
  • Rules and curfews for internet-use are a help not a hindrance – such as no phones after 7/8pm for under 16s (apparently kids can’t self-regulate at this age); nor should they have passwords on their phones at this age.  He also suggests parents should periodically check their messages (but not stalk them!). Elsewhere, others say computer-use should be restricted to two hours per day for those who are under 16
  • Don’t get drawn into tit-for-tat arguments – as teenagers love drama and a bit of door-slamming, he suggests that it’s best not to rise to the bate, but accept that a degree of irritability and self-centredness is part of growing up, so we should let some of it go
  • Use consequences, but don’t lecture – he cautioned about the value of ‘talking it through’ with kids, saying that it doesn’t work.  Instead he suggests implementing consequences that have a real impact them, for example, by restricting their money and mobile use.  He advises to ‘link responsibility and trust to independence’
  • Beware if it’s going well – he says that the 15-19yr age group are masters at deception, so if all looks fine on the surface, things may not be as they seem (eek…)
  • Low grades for effort show fear of failure – this muddies the water a bit with Lenon’s view that most boys are lazy, but it feels a bit less damming to consider other explanations for lack of effort

He concluded by saying that kids really just need “resilience, a work ethic and a moral compass” to get by in life and that it’s our job as parents to help our kids build them. But maybe there’s also something to be said for trying to ensure the real-world offers real pleasures, so that the online world is less mesmerising as a result?

Further Reading:

Read similar articles about parenting and child development

Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood (book)

References and related content:

Biddulph, S. (2017). 10 Things Girls Need Most to Grow Up Strong and Free

Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens

Candy, L. (2017). Parenting: How to help girls grow up happy (references Biddulph’s book).  The Times 16 April 2017

de Botton, A. (2014).  The Dangers of the Internet, The School of Life

Whitworth, D. (2017).  The trouble with boys (are their dads to blame?) (Interview with Lenon). The Times 11 April 2017

Jarvis, P. (2017) ‘Caution: Identity Under Construction, The Psychologist, p.28-41, May 2017

Lenon, B. (2017). Much Promise, Successful Schools in England

Rachel Carlyle (2017). Raising teenagers: The top psychologist’s guide for parents (cites Williamson’s book). The Times 22 April 2017

Tukle, S. (2011). Alone Together

Williamson, I. (2017). We Need to Talk (published on May 4)




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