Thursday, April 5, 2018

The minefield of social media. How teens and even younger kids can't resist the lure of leaving an indelible mark on the world wide web - A ReadItTorial

As tech-savvy parents, we've often wondered how long it's going to be before the odd 'screen time' sessions that our daughter currently enjoys will be traded for a complete absorption in the pre-teen and teen phenomena that arrives around the same time they sign up for their first social media accounts.

We've undoubtedly all read so many horror stories in the press about how kids as young as 8 are now sneaking off to sign up to Facebook and other social media platforms (notably ignoring the few 'kid friendly' ones on offer, mostly because none of their friends go there) thus enrolling them in the worldwide 'army' of folk whose online presence will become an indelible mark, something that travels with them for most of their adolescent life (and of course beyond, because even adulthood and death are no escape from daft stuff you've written as a kid).

The recent press stories about Facebook data harvesting, user influence and of course the whole Cambridge Analytics thing highlights the extent to which companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter insinuate themselves into our lives in order to make colossal amounts of cash from sharing our data, selling it on, and therefore shaping what we're exposed to (or in some extreme cases, allegedly shaping opinions to affect electoral results).

Watching the current smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn in the press has actually sparked some pretty interesting conversations around something that kids fully understand. The difference between being 'in' and being 'out' (played to great comedic effect in the recent Netflix version of "A Series of Unfortunate Events", incidentally) takes on a more insidious tone when you see the press actively throwing everything it has into rubbishing someone's reputation in order to maintain the current state of affairs or the current balance of power.

How does this relate to children's obsession with social media developing at an ever-increasingly early age? Kids very quickly become aware of social media and its power to ensnare us - not just in 'fake news' but in matters of absolutely no consequence, that end up taking huge swathes of our time as we perform parlour tricks for ticks and likes.

C is a keen observer of adult behaviour around social media, in particular Twitter. She's well aware of what it is, knows that it's often a conduit to conversations with 'famous people' but she's also aware that likes and popularity on Twitter are now seen as something 'important' and that the more likes or retweets something gets, the more popular it is.

Before the Internet, kids really only had one measure of a person's popularity. How many friends they had, or hung around with. Not the 'friends' of the social media meaning of the word, but real actual people you interacted with 'in real life'.

Until kids click 'submit' on their first sign-up form for social media, this is still the yardstick by which they measure their success as well-rounded popular individuals, but that radically changes as soon as they realise they can reach, communicate with and perhaps even influence (or be influenced by) people who are nothing more than an online presence.

We've seen a few extremely dry children's books that touch on online existence, social media, online trolls and the seedier side of hiding behind an online mask - when kids are targeted by folk who would want to hurt or abuse them for their own ends.

The excellent "Chicken Clicking" by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross is one of the best picture books we've seen for tackling the subject of the internet, and its uses and abuses in a way that instils important lessons in younger kids, hopefully sticking in the mind long enough to serve as a cautionary tale for when they're older.

"Chicken Clicking" by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross (Andersen Children's Books)
Some of the books for older children (particularly early - mid teens) sometimes seem to take a really dry and off-putting approach with these finger-wagging lessons, and I wonder if that's the right approach at all. We've seen various books (including the one written around the "Be Cool, Be Kind" campaign) that feel like the lightest pass on the problem - but could do so much more. So it's a hugely difficult thing to get right.

But how do you strike a balance between being too preachy (the very last thing kids want to hear from their parents is an adult perspective of what's acceptable and what's not) or not preachy enough?

Just like most aspects of steering a child through their adolescence, it sometimes feels like the odds are hopelessly stacked against you when huge corporations can't be brought to book or even reined in a little bit to take stock of what they do and how their technology can adversely affect the young and impressionable.