teen at computer

I was enjoying the spring sunshine on election day with some of my family, strolling in Sydney’s Centennial Park, when we came upon a scene illustrative of contemporary life and relationships: a boy and girl lazing beside the lake, hands moving in almost perfect unison, their gaze locked at exactly the same angle as they scrolled down their separate tablets.

It was another of those “What is the world coming to?” moments that assault me with increasing regularity as I get older. Maybe the so-called connected generation is not really connected; that is certainly not what I was doing beside that lake when I was 18.

Young people treat their phones like a piece of their anatomy and idly will scroll down the thing while you are trying to have a conversation with them. They are either ignoring you and having a conversation with another unseen party or partially ignoring you and “checking”.

The real and virtual are blurred, and parents with teenagers and young adults have only really discovered this in the past 10 years so are making up the rules as they go along. It is a source of anxiety to most parents and, in the tussle between the real and virtual, parents feel they are losing.

Facebook in particular has allowed a sort of secret third eye to be constantly present, and going on to Facebook yourself hardly helps morale. It’s a portal to a world of bizarre infantilism, ferocious bullying and mind-boggling idiocy.

Facebook has limited serious application, despite the hype. It tells you something about the medium that the Australian Electoral Commission’s page has just more than 15,000 likes, up from about 5000 before the election period began. These are people who receive the AEC’s posts within their newsfeeds by choice.

Meanwhile, immediately after the election a Facebook page was set up dedicated to bullying and insulting new Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s daughters. It got 76,000 hits in the first two days. The content is of course disgraceful, full of dreary, disgusting innuendo about them and their father. That people did this to three hapless girls for “fun” is shocking. But the real shock is not that some evil politically motivated character set this up but that it was not closed down and was meant to lure the young, impressionable and stupid. A cyber Lord of the Flies.

Reynaldo Rivera is the Rome-based project manager of InterMedia Consulting, which has taken up the challenge of designing an educational program to prevent violence in the feral world of social communication.

There is evidence that children using communication technologies from an early age (preschoolers) are bigger users of social networking sites such as Facebook when they reach ages 11 to 13. But generally the boost happens between 13 and 15. However, the time they spend networking is generally not excessive. In Italy and Spain, where mobile penetration is very high, only 19 per cent of 14-year-olds spend more than seven hours from Monday to Friday on social networks, updating their profile, posting, chatting.

There is a similar pattern on weekends: 48 per cent of the sample spend less than three hours on such sites during the weekend, and 27 per cent less than six hours. Rivera says this indicates social media are real spaces in ordinary life for the so-called digital natives and do not occupy all their free time. So perhaps it is alarmist to fret about addiction or isolation.

However, what is worrying is what they do online, which has a direct effect on the way they think. Almost as many — 17 per cent — view pornography as read articles or upload videos, and 7 per cent practice “sexting”. But worse, 19 per cent had threatened acquaintances; 32 per cent would not hesitate to use violence to protect what they considered to be “their rights”; 27 per cent would insult their friends if they were provoked by them; and 10 per cent said they were ready to crack humiliating jokes about other people.

Rivera’s research shows 37 per cent think it is logical to try out new and exciting experiences such as sexting or cyber-bullying without worrying if they are unconventional or a bit illegal. There is a low level of conviction of the harm that certain types of conduct may do to others. Another dimension of the issue is anonymity: it is easier to play a “joke” or do serious harm when there is no direct contact with the victim. Remember, emotionally they are still children.

So what is to be done? Rivera recommends not just monitoring but “positive monitoring” by parents, which means dialogue with children, understanding the online world, developing one’s skills and, particularly, teaching by doing – a rather purgatorial piece of advice as far as I am concerned.

Curiously, only 29 per cent of adolescents talk about the political and economic situation of their town or country. This implies poor civic education and underdevelopment of social capital. Research has shown that having a vision of history enables teenagers to go beyond their infantile egocentrism towards a greater openness to their social context.

It develops broad-mindedness, which is a great weapon against internet babble. Rivera found evidence online social networking is positively associated with the capacity to establish social relationships and with freedom of speech. However it needs to be combined with dialogue about the world, about emotions and, God forbid, sex. Lack of family dialogue on key issues for adolescents is related to low self-esteem and active bullying.

What is interesting is how many of the young in Rivera’s focus groups are disconnected from parents and friends. If they can’t go to their parents they might go to their friends, but only 28 per cent found the help they needed. This raises the question of where the rest of them find assistance. The internet becomes the place where they look to satisfy their unmet needs.

There are two main lessons here. Recently educators have increased their efforts to develop adolescents’ soft skills, especially decision-making, assessing the reliability of information sources, and making active use of information technologies. But education can do only so much. Parents have to become allies of educators, participating in the activities organised by schools, promoting through personal example of positive lifestyles, and helping their children to organise a healthy leisure time.

Parents and educators have a key role. But they cannot do it alone. Politicians must promote prevention projects focused on the family and school. Children must be at the centre of social policies. Kids’ positive development should be the main criterion of the quality of media products — and the companies that make them. And as for Facebook, just hope they grow bored with it.

Angela Shanahan is a columnist for The Australian newspaper, where this article was first published. It is reproduced with permission.

Angela Shanahan has worked as a freelance journalist for many years and has been published in most major Australian newspapers. She is one of the founders of the Thomas More Forum, a...