It is not unusual – and it is becoming more and more common – to have in front of me the tear-streaked face of a child who has compromised herself or himself by sending embarrassing photos of themselves to someone whose fires of passion have now gone cold and who, for whatever reason (simply because he or she can, or out of vengeance, prurience, thoughtlessness, mischievousness or whatever), sees the need to distribute the images to the several hundred people the “ex” has on his or her contact list.
There is not a lot to be done at this point, except to equip the child concerned to deal with the fallout. Even more common is engaging in a public argument over a social media platform.
While it is interesting and often admirable to be able to express one’s views on whatever topic, the public nature of the conversation and the lack of context can, at some point in the conversation and especially in the case of a complex topic, result in misunderstandings. These misunderstandings can be extremely hurtful or humiliating to one or more of the conversation participants.
Of all the challenges facing teachers and parents in this day and age, one of the most difficult to deal with involves the issue of internet access and influence. It’s not necessarily the case that parents or teachers simply do not want to engage with social media bullying, plagiarism, exposure to objectionable ideas, hate speech, pornography, or unsuitable games or advertising. It is far more likely that adults – charged with the role of guide and guardian – are not even aware of what our children are exposed to.
It may also be the case that with the explosion of digital opportunities, parents are simply overwhelmed. Parental and teacher apathy and lack of engagement remain a primary concern for children who may have grown up in the internet age but do not have the moral maturity or the level of understanding to deal with the information to which they have access.
Our children have ready access to the internet and social networking sites such as Facebook, BBM, WhatsApp and Twitter, which have come to be almost indispensable for staying in touch with friends and peers, and for making social plans.
It is estimated that in South Africa, 4.5-million people have access to the internet, making our country the 46th-largest internet user in the world. We are, however, ranked third in the world (behind Russia and China) for our level of criminal internet activity, perhaps because of the average South African’s lack of sophistication concerning the digital threats and dangers faced by our children – as well as all their friends, family members and other contacts.
Statistics of this nature are designed to sober and to frighten, and when these confronted me they achieved their objective admirably. I might think all the noise around cyber-threats to be slightly hysterical – were I not aware of the levels of social media bullying and other internet threats our school and most other schools are experiencing.
I know how many times we deal with issues relating to children sending compromising photographs of themselves to others. I know how Facebook is sometimes used as a way to cause a great deal of pain to children. In such cases of cyber-abuse, the associated difficulty is not confined to the one individual who inappropriately shares a photograph or writes a hurtful comment.
Cyber-abuse is extremely public – potentially circulating to hundreds, even thousands, of people in seconds – and the damage can be permanent. It is an issue parents and teachers absolutely need to engage with.
A little research on the topic yields some worrying information. The average age of a child”s first exposure to pornography is 11 years old. The largest consumer group of pornography is between 12 and 17 years. About 70% of children aged 15 to 17 are routinely exposed to hardcore pornography; 60% of this same age group admitted to having viewed pornography online (some while doing homework). Equally concerning is the fact that 75% of all children between seven and 17 routinely give out their home address and other personal information online.
At last count there were 26 children’s characters (including Pocahontas, Pokémon and Action Man) linked to thousands of porn sites. Even an innocent search of Google images for “bunny” can bring up some rather surprising and potentially offensive variations. It is clear that we cannot protect our children from inappropriate sights and from hearing unsuitable things. In even the most religious and censorious schools, children are exposed to insalubrious materials by various media and by their peers.
At a recent English department meeting, we were discussing the importance of developing the faculties of discrimination and critical thinking in our pupils. There was some disagreement on the value of doing film studies using movies that may have age-appropriate restrictions but that may show nudity or depict violence. But in light of the fact that, according to the available statistics, at least 93% of our children use the internet on a regular basis, teenagers in middle- and upper-income families having a similar usage pattern to Americans – not to mention their exposure to billboards, circuit films, television and other media coverage of sex and violence – it is clear that our children are confronted daily with what we would consider unsuitable material.
While we can make our homes and the school as safe as we can, it is as certain as night follows day that our children will see and hear things we would not choose for them. This means that our children are going to have to develop the resources to deal with inappropriate ideas, lewdness, smut, filth and violence. They will need to be able to distinguish between nudity and pornography, and they will need to develop the good sense and robust self-esteem to deal with cyber-inappropriateness.
This includes a friend who, for a less-than-successful joke, posts an objectionable status on Facebook, as well as the malicious kind of cyber- bullying that has resulted in thousands of children feeling hopeless and despairing, with a miserable – and growing – group resorting to suicide to end their pain.
It is the educational model (as opposed to the ostrich model) I believe in.
For the same reason that “ordinary” bullying is not usually best dealt with by disciplinary hearings and punishments but is most often better resolved by a careful mediation, preventing cyber-bullying is not necessarily achieved by swaddling pupils in layers of protection and pretending that there are no ills or ugliness in our world.
For children to deal with these real and omnipresent challenges, schools and parents need, firstly, to be aware of the pressures on children and, secondly, to provide them with sane and moral options to manage them.
The question is not: Will our children have to deal with cyber- challenges? They certainly will – in fact, they are. The real question is: What advice, guidance and wisdom can we offer children to prevent them from making avoidable mistakes, and how can we help them if a mistake is made?
To grapple effectively with these challenges, parents and teachers need, at the very least, to be aware of, and informed about, the possible ways in which things can go wrong in the Information Age.
Mark Falconer is the headmaster of King David High School, Linksfield, Johannesburg. This is an edited extract from his book Notes from a Headmaster”s Desk, newly published by Pan Macmillan and now available in bookstores