kids

REBECCA SPARROW COLUMN: Parents, get your eight-year-olds off Instagram.

I have three stories to tell you.

Story One:

An eleven-year-old boy asks an eleven-year-old girl to send him a naked photo. The girl tells the boy to get lost. So the boy hits back with, “Well, you’re a fat, ugly bitch anyway.”

These kids are both in year six.

Story Two:

Two eleven-year-old girls – best friends – love texting each other. And as is not uncommon – when talking about what went down at school that day, they routinely discuss other girls in the class and not always in a, err, positive way.

Then these two best friends have a fight. Gloves are off. One of the girls forwards ALL the text messages to other girls in the class who had been gossiped about. It’s schoolyard Armageddon the next day.

Story Three:

Nicky’s* mum gets called by the school because her daughter has been describing fairly hardcore porn to her classmates.

Turns out the young girl who has her own iPhone (with no parental controls or restrictions in place) started looking on YouTube for “videos of girls called Nicky*” That request sent her down a rabbit hole into some very dark corners of the web. Nicky* is seven. *not her real name

I could keep going. Seriously. I have another twenty stories just like those three.

Every week I’m told tales from school principals and teachers and parents and kids. Stories about kids – primary school kids – wreaking havoc in their own lives or the lives of their classmates because of their inability to handle life online.

I know we have a generation of tech-savvy kids. I get it. But that does not mean they are emotionally mature enough to be handling Skype Chat or to have their own smart phones where they can send text messages or request naked images of their classmates.

Last month the inspirational Melinda Gates – former Microsoft employee, philanthropist and wife of Bill – wrote a sit-up-and-pay-attention honest account of the impact smartphones are having on today’s adolescents.

In a piece in The Washington Post entitled “I spent my entire career in technology. I wasn’t prepared for its effect on my kids”, Gates acknowledges the tremendous benefits that technology brings (the incredible learning resources, the way social media can help us find like-minded souls and support networks) but openly discusses her concerns that smartphones and social media are making our kids lives harder than they need be.

“Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control,” she wrote.

“It’s more important than ever to teach empathy from the very beginning, because our kids are going to need it.”

Do we need to talk about CONSENT? Yes. Yes x 1000. We need to drill that message into kids about not sharing photos or messages that you have no right to share. Consent is an incredibly important concept.

And it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that we also need to have on-going conversations in our homes about KINDNESS and what that looks like at school, online and at home.

"I know we have a generation of tech-savvy kids. But that doesn't mean they're mature enough to use it." (Image: Supplied)
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But even with those on-going conversations, tweens (and teens) generally have diabolically bad judgement. Really bad. They make truly bad judgement calls. (Remember? Think back to what you were like! ) Screwing up is part of your job description as a kid when your brain is still developing.

I am not against technology. I work online, I have several social media accounts. And my three kids? They LOVE playing games or watching movies on the iPad. I also know that we are a generation of parents who have been blindsided by all this technology and the way in which it has been adopted by our kids. It is exhausting and overwhelming as a parent.

There is no judgement here - I have made a mountain of my own parenting mistakes, trust me.

But I truly believe that smartphones / messaging apps / texting / social media requires good judgement. The vast majority of tweens don't have that good judgement. And if they do – then it’s likely they could fall prey to their classmates who probably don’t.

LISTEN: Adults need social media rules too. These are Bec's (post continues after audio...)

If your child is in primary school, my advice (for whatever it's worth) is: don't rush into giving them access to their own smartphones and social media accounts. And the more parents who stand together and make the kids wait - the easier it is for all our kids to wait until high school.

As Gates herself admitted, “Parents should decide for themselves what works for their family, but I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my children’s pockets.”

Amen to that.

Rebecca Sparrow is the author of Ask Me Anything (heartfelt answers to 65 anonymous questions from teenage girls) and Find Your Tribe (and 9 other things I wish I'd known in high school).  She co-hosts the award-winning health and happiness podcast The Well with Robin Bailey and #TeamGirls in 10 -  a podcast specifically designed for mothers and daughters. Each year Bec talks to thousands of school students about friendship, resilience and giving back.  She is a proud ambassador of  Givit.org.au, The Pyjama Foundation and #TeamGirls.

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