Our kids have an added dimension of self-hood; their virtual selves, yet we are doing nothing to shape it.
I have just returned from a very scary conference about child and adolescent mental health. The effect of the internet on young people’s mental health is terrifying: cyber bullying, the effect of porn on expectations of relationships, the increasingly negative perceptions of femininity, participation in trolling, creating and distributing sexual images, all are affecting our children at increasingly young ages.
As a teacher, I have often spoken to parents about monitoring their kids’ online activities. There are lots of basic things you can do – limit smart phone use, only allow internet access in shared areas of the house etc. Monitoring is great, but I have come to believe that it is not enough.
Just as we want our children to be self-regulating adults in the real world, we want our children to be self-regulating in their virtual realities as well, and it is not going to happen unless we actively socialise them on-line just as we do in real life (IRL, as the kids say). We do not expect children to gain the skills they need in real life just through monitoring, nor will this work in the virtual setting. I believe that parents must move to a more active engagement with the construction of their children’s online identities.
We must find a virtual equivalent of everything we do IRL, in effect, we must become virtual parents. We teach our toddlers not to run around naked IRL, it is just as hard and just as important to teach the same online. Lessons about kindness and feelings need to be taught in a virtual setting as much as on play dates. We must try and instil a sense of virtual right and wrong that will guide the child even when she is totally anonymous.
I have no real idea about how to do this. Off the top of my head, I would suggest modelling and scaffolding our children’s online experiences as we do other things. We guide their hands and narrate our processes when we bake cakes together, perhaps we need to narrate our own online choices, talk through our responses to a bad photograph or an opinion we encounter that we disagree with. We could work with them to help construct their own online identity through social media. Perhaps we even need a starter site, where parents can work with their children to interact in a monitored setting. I am very sure that if we don’t engage more actively than simply monitoring, the things that scared me so much over the last couple of days will become even worse.
If you have any ideas about what virtual parenting might look like or what we might do, please share them below. As I said, I have no proficiency in this field, I am simply aware that a need exists.