By Tanu Shree Singh
“Oh, come on Mumma! You are simply paranoid! Your generation is scared of technology.” And the boy shrugged, turned and walked out of the room in a gait that could put a sloth to shame. Sounds familiar? I can bet you have had similar discussions. The alarming part is that most of us resign and grumble that “the generation today doesn’t listen”. Sometimes, we end up using words that set off nuclear wars rather than lead to any understanding. The following are the things that have been useful to me in the past. It is still a struggle, but it helps to know what might work:
1. Digital footprints
According to Webopedia, “On the Internet a digital footprint is the word used to describe the trail, traces or ‘footprints’ that people leave online. This is information transmitted online, such as forum registration, e-mails and attachments uploading videos or digital images and any other form of transmission of information – all of which leaves traces of personal information about yourself available to others online.”
What to do: Get the child to send a chat message to you, take a screenshot, and ask him to delete the original message. Despite deleting, the message remains just like everything else we put out there.
What to say: The Internet is not a private place. Even if it is a so-called private chat room, consider it a public place and hence, anything that you’d be embarrassed saying in front of others, do not say online in private.
2. False sense of security
Quite a few kids create pseudonyms on gaming sites which give them a false sense of security. They might be careful initially while chatting with someone seemingly of their age, but as time goes by, they mostly end up lowering their guard and unwittingly giving information away.
What to say: After chatting for a few weeks, one tends to think of the online “buddy” as a real-world friend. And what does one do when one’s friend asks for say, the phone number? One does tend to give it without much thought. So what started out as you feeling secure under anonymity, has ended up with a stranger gaining some private information about you.
3. Things are not always what they seem
“How do you know that this girl is 13?” “Umm….she said so… and her profile too says the same.” That is the commonest reply you’ll get.
What to do: Create a false profile (preferably of gender other than yours) and show them how easy it is to lie about everything online. Show them news articles about online predators.
What to say: I understand that a lot of times the profiles seem legitimate but as you can see it is fairly easy to be someone you are not online. I also am willing to agree that not all profiles are false but looking at the risks involved, do you think it is worth it?
4. Recognise the need to be independent and their inherent curiosity
As children grow older, there is a nagging need to be independent, meet more people and forge their own relationships. Sadly, in today’s world, the easiest route to do this is the internet. The curiosity about other cultures fuels the urge to befriend someone from another country or culture and hence when the chat window pops saying “Amanda from California wants to chat with you,” they bite the bait.
What to do: Find out about the child’s offline life. Does he have friends? Does he face any difficulty in making friends in the real world?
What to say: I understand you need your own space and we can work towards it together but anything that jeopardises your safety is not a part of being independent. Sometimes in our confidence of being a grown-up, we forget that bad things could happen to anyone despite the age or gender. We tend to look at all the safety videos and talks as “something that happens to others”. That “other” can be us and as grown-ups, even we forget it sometimes. You and I need to remember that.
5. Distinguish between real world and virtual communication
Let’s face it. It is easier to say whatever we want to the computer screen than to a real person. And for someone who is in the age of learning social skills, online substitution could be a fatal mistake. The ease of online communication can ultimately widen the chasm between the child and the real world since talking to real people would seem increasingly difficult.
What to do: Pull out a sample of chats from the internet, preferably not the child’s personal chats as that might put him in a defensive position. Now read the chats together (some might be embarrassing so adjust according to age) and ask if it is possible to say all this to a person’s face. Chances are that the child would recognise the difference.
What to say: When we chat online with someone, we end up saying things which we possibly can not repeat in reality. But we do need to remember that we exist in the real world. Anything that you cannot say to anyone verbally, probably needs reconsideration.
6. Understand the need to have friends
They are at the age where they value friends and ironically when you are in middle or high school, friendships do not get forged easily. The pressures are immense and the need to be popular very strong. Hence, when Internet offers an enticing proposition of both – friends and popularity – one bites the bait.
What to do: Take the blinkers off. A child’s life doesn’t revolve around academics. Understand and recognise the pressures. By saying, “don’t bother” or “friends are useless, you need to focus on studies”, we are not doing away with their urges. Recognise the need to have a social life instead and also the difficulty in making friends.
What to say: Having friends is a cool thing but sometimes we tend to go along with the flow simply to fit in. Sometimes making friends in class or the park gets difficult and we end up feeling inadequate. Don’t be in a rush. Confusing friends with feathers in the cap can get lame. Give yourself time. Being stuck without friends or a just a handful few is surely not the worst thing to happen. You will make real world friends in due time. Till someone comes along, I am there.
Conversation points: How many friends do you think a person must have? How would it change things? Who are real friends? How many real friends do you think I have?
7. Accept infatuations and sexual urges
So you have talked about birds and bees and given yourself a medal. Have you talked about virtual sex? What if you chanced upon a conversation that has the child responding to sexual advances? Again, look up the internet, it is a real occurrence and the assumption that our child is safe since we have had the “talk” is silly.
What to do: Educate yourself first. Learn about the urges that a child experiences. Accept their normalcy. Do not confuse it with morality. Talk to the child about sexual urges and how it is perfectly normal.
What to say: I understand that you are embarrassed about me chancing upon your conversation. You having sexual curiosity and urges to act upon them are perfectly natural. (It is a better idea to first have the talk about urges and hormonal changes. I used a book to help me.) But when we act upon these urges in a seemingly safe environment where a screen separates us from the other person, we are also distorting our idea of a real relationship which you might chance upon in the future. Because it is easy to make out online, somewhere our mind assumes that it would be equally simple in real life. When it isn’t, it gets frustrating. Thumb rule – anything that seems easy is probably not the right way to go about things!
8. Internet addiction is real
About five years ago an article caught my eye that talked a de-addiction centre that was set up in Delhi. It doesn’t get more worrisome than this. On further conversations with fellow psychologists and counsellor, a common disturbing theme surfaced; a bigger number of children were coming in complaining of isolation and social anxiety. Social media dependency and online communication blunts real life communication skills.
What to do: Gather research with facts and figures that talk about internet addictions. Discuss how addiction works. Also accept a fact – the smartphone is NOT a necessity for a school-going child!
What to say: This one will be more of an open-ended conversation depending on age. The crucial part is to be truthful and present facts. With older children, a time limit on the usage of internet needs to be worked out with them. Imposing blanket bans without discussion seldom works and creates entirely avoidable stress. So discuss the need to limit and then act on it.
These are strange times with online life sometimes blurring the distinction between virtual and real world. But you and I cannot take extreme positions of either being the proverbial ostrich or simply choosing to live in dark ages minus the wifi. We need to find a middle ground that would undoubtedly be a rough terrain and involve some amount of sleuthing. Till such time that we find the balance, we will always stumble, fall, get shocked out of our brains, talk, deep breathe, cross our fingers and hope that they do not repeat their mistakes which they invariably will, resulting in another stumble.
(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)