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If there was ever a time to reconsider children’s online engagement, it’s now. With last week’s invasion of TikTok by a graphic video of 33-year old veteran Ronnie McNutt broadcasting his self-inflicted death, even the most pro-tech of parents have cause to contemplate recalibrating their children’s digital lives.
Not another preachy mum! I can anticipate the objections from many, pointing out that this kind of online travesty is a ridiculously small percentage of otherwise broadly beneficial digital content that is making our world – and our children’s lives - better.
But is it?
Watch: How 'Proud Parent Syndrome' affects your child's cyber-safety. Post continues below.
While no one can deny the convenience and creativity of our digital existence – and it’s difficult to imagine life without connectivity in a pandemic - I have an uncomfortable suspicion that when it comes to preserving childhood, the good things the internet delivers for our children are not outweighed by the bad. Although I don’t have a PhD to evidence this instinct, I do have lived experience as a parent of three, a twenty-year career in the not-for-profit sector including with mental health organisations, and my time to date as a volunteer Crisis Support Worker on a national suicide hotline.
This lived experience informs my lingering and uncomfortable suspicion that parents should be deeply worried by the Robbie McNutt viral video. It’s uncomfortable because, as a suicide prevention volunteer, I have come to learn that the contagion effect - where a number of connected suicides occur following an initial death – is real, and it’s much more likely to affect young people than older people.
It’s doubly uncomfortable because, if I choose to listen to what my instinct is telling me, the consequence might require behaviour change – for me and for my children – and we humans hate change. Faced with the discomfort of trying to shove the genie back in the bottle – by reducing my children’s screen time, enforcing new boundaries, enacting real consequences – renegotiating my children’s online engagement has often felt too hard. Not now, however; Robbie McNutt’s viral death by suicide means I can no longer simply hope that it’s all going to work out.