WhatsApp is banning users aged under 16 and the Health Secretary has called for strict screen-time limits for kids. But what do we actually need to teach our children about this strange digital world?
“I’m so glad I’ve had a boy,” my friend whispered to me over the head of her newborn son. “Can you imagine bringing up a girl these days?”
“These days” are the times when Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt threatens to slap internet giants with new child protection laws, because: “I fear that you are collectively turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children being exposed to the harmful emotional side effects of social media prematurely.”
They’re the days when, just days later, one of the most popular communication apps, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook), decides to close its doors to under-16s. The app, whose minimum age is currently 13, announced yesterday that it would no longer accommodate younger users.
Worries about the effects of premature social media use on young girls are common for parents whose growing up straddles the pre-and-post Facebook realities. But how should the generation whose experience of trolls was confined to collecting one of each hair colour advise the next generation?
We can’t imagine what the baby girls of 2018 will experience before they reach 18, but we do know that we’ll have to arm them with everything they need to navigate the murky waters of a civilisation reforming itself around 0s and 1s.
According to Ofcom’s 2017 ‘Children and parents: media use and attitudes’ report, Childline gave 12,000 counselling sessions to young people with concerns about online issues last year, and around an eighth of young people have been bullied on social media.
It’s not just the extremes - grooming, pornography or cyber bullying - or even the sad realities of trolling and harassment. It’s a complicated soup of these plus the subtle emotional effects of constant social media use, the physical health threats of using screens for upwards of six hours a day, and the propagandist effects of learning about the world through strange digital prisms - all with shadowy figures and anonymous algorithms dictating what you do and don’t see.
We have to teach our daughters (and our sons) how to read the internet. Because now the internet is life.
For our daughters to not just survive the digital age, but thrive in it, we need to teach them a more complex collection of skills.
1. Critical thinking
When is a meme a meme and when is it a political message? This is really just a modern version of not believing everything you read in the paper.
It’s about looking at who stands to benefit from what you’re seeing, and using your judgement and experience to decide if something is true. Separate fact from opinion. Question everything.
This applies as much offline as online, and it’s about building the inner strength and confidence you need to bounce back from setbacks. Online it’s knowing that just because no one liked your latest selfie on Insta, it doesn’t mean no one likes you.
3. Be happy with how you look
Though we’re moving in the right direction, it’s unlikely that the patriarchal tradition of judging women more for how they look than what they do will have died by the time our daughters hit puberty. And thanks to the ubiquity of selfies and the rate-me nature of social media, we need the ability to be content with how we look more than ever before.
It’s a lesson most of us will spend our lives trying to learn, but the earlier we can get the message of body positivity and diversity over to young girls, the better. It starts with the way we talk about ourselves – if our daughters hear us trashing how our nose looks in a selfie, then she might just start doing the same thing.
4. There are good and bad sides to everything
The internet has polarised many things - politics, in particular - and we’re losing the nuances that make up real life. Understanding that most things are multifaceted, and that you can agree with someone on some things but not on everything is vital if we want our future societies to function. Read: Twitter debates are not always the best medium for changing someone’s mind.
5. Protect your mental health
We’re getting better at talking about mental health and de-stigmatising mental illness. But at the same time, many more things in the modern world threaten our mental wellbeing.
The internet can be an amazing tool for finding reliable information on mental health conditions and conversing with other sufferers. But it can also be a lonely place that pulls you in and away from the IRL community - we all need to stay mentally fit.
6. Life still happens in the real world
Step away from the screen. Play sports, meet real people, go to the theatre, swim. Just because your social life can be lived entirely online, doesn’t mean it should be.
7. Don’t let anyone make you feel like this isn’t your space
Girls are taught to be ‘likeable’, to ‘not make a fuss’ and generally be agreeable and amenable. But the internet and social media has given us a new voice and a space to develop it and share our opinions. Use it. Question, campaign, organise. Be part of a bright future.
And it goes without saying, block, de-friend and most importantly report anything you’re not sure of.
Ultimately, as they grow up, we need to trust our girls. They are the independent-thinking, intelligent women of the future, and as digital natives they will be far more adept at dealing with hyper-modern issues than those of us who were born into an analogue world.