* Trigger warning – proceed with caution. This post contains distressing themes and details.
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The story is told and unfolds – every word etched in pain, sorrow and loss. Emotional pain so acute that it sears the soul, and is wrapped around words that hurt to hear. It’s the story of yet another young passenger who boarded the digital life train, leaving their big person on the platform feeling a little dazed and confused at how quickly that train left the station without them aboard.
Let’s start at the very beginning
Molly is 11. She’s one of 3 children and home life has routine, expectations for behaviour and a healthy balance of up-time, down-time and a smattering of family-centric screen time. Generally, Molly is a happy little thing – she has the usual sibling ups and downs, she thinks that chores are unfair, and she wants more screen time than she’s allowed.
The beginning of unravelling
By the end of Year 4, Molly began pestering her mum for her own iPad. She felt left out because her friends all had their own devices, and they were allowed to chat together on a messaging app after school. Molly’s mum was definite – no way, too young and Molly could share the family iPad with her siblings easily enough.
By the beginning of Year 5, Molly was fixated on having her own device and thrilled when her school started a BYOD program. Loathingly, Molly’s mum gave in, and a shiny new iPad joined the family. Despite early promises of sticking to the strict rules about times and spaces that the device could be used at home, family life was busy, and increasingly, Molly’s mum saw that the device was missing from the charging station after bedtime at night. Even stricter measures were discussed and agreed.
Molly was desperate to have the same messaging app as her friends and traded chores for chat time. Molly’s mum had the password to the app and would enter it for Molly to allow her time with her friends – and she regularly checked who was in the group and ran her eye over the chat content.
The slippery slope
The following 6 months are a lesson for every family. Molly’s chat time increased slowly, slowly, “Just 2 more minutes Mum…” The creep was insidious, and Molly’s mum often felt torn that her daughter was missing out on all the social buzz that other children were experiencing and bonding over online because she stuck to her strict limits.
Molly often slept over at her best friend’s house and generally the device went for the sleepover too with assurances from Molly that Susie’s parents were “stupid-strict’. In emptying Molly’s bag after a sleep over one weekend, about mid-year, Molly’s mum perched on the end of the bed and flicked open the iPad. She was startled to see a range of social media tiles on the screen and opened each one with increasing alarm.
Molly had been busy with Susie, the girls dressing up in Susie’s big sister’s clothes and posing for photos in one app and doing choreographed dances in another. There was some make up, some exposed shoulders and some sexually provocative moves that Molly’s mum felt distraught over. No way could that be her little girl looking much older than her now 12 years.
Immediately the device was banned and the apps were removed. Molly’s mum expected Molly to be upset and remorseful – but defiance and resentment followed. There were lots of escalating upset moments in the weeks to come where Molly declared her mum to be ruining her life and never liking any of her friends. Molly felt humiliated that she had been unceremoniously removed from all groups and apps and that her friends and followers knew why.
The last steps in a complicated dance
Molly’s behaviour spiralled at home, and she moved between pleading and promising never to do anything on those apps again without permission, to threatening to run away – and worse. Despite being given a bit of screen time back, she defiantly took more and screamed and lashed out at her mum when the device was forcibly removed.
Towards the end of Term 3, Molly’s behaviour was causing significant problems at home with her siblings. Molly’s mum wondered whether this was just about becoming a teenager, or whether it was to do with Molly’s increased use of her device. Hours were spent asking Molly for passwords to apps she downloaded without permission – and if they were removed, Molly defiantly said she’d just use them on a friend’s device instead.
Molly’s mum felt lost. Was this just a case of early onset teen- attitude? None of her friends seemed to be having the same issues with their children – so there was a bit of embarrassment and self-flagellation at being a terrible and incapable parent. And there was also an element of giving in for the sake of peace to flatten some of the daily tension at home for Molly’s siblings.
And then, it happened. Molly was at a sleepover, when the call came from her friend – where Molly was sleeping over – that Molly was in critical condition.
In the agonising minutes, hours and days that followed, the story unfolded, detail by sordid detail. Molly and a small group of friends had dared each other to take photos and set up dating profiles on an app to see if they got noticed and who got noticed more. What started with the intent to impress themselves and each other ended up in Molly being asked to meet up. What followed left Molly in critical condition, fighting for her life – and when that fight was won, the fight for her mental health began. And it continues. And it will continue for many years to come.
The long and the short
There’s so much pain in this story for every stakeholder. Molly is trying to live with knowledge and scars of acts perpetrated well beyond her tender years. Guilt racks Molly’s mum every day. The parents of the other girls grapple with the guilt of relief that it was not their child, and outrage that their daughters engaged on platforms not meant for children but with no restriction to access. And my horror grows at our children being irrevocably damaged by uneducated and unregulated digital life.
Together, let’s learn, grow and educate
“If only I knew…” “If only I asked…” “If only the school never introduced devices…”
There are so many ‘if only’s’ in this story and the many others that get told through tears and tissues. While the stories differ, the learning is the same.
- We are bringing up children in a digital world – that’s a fact, and that means every child and parent needs to be equipped with preventative and protective skills and knowledge
- Device use in schools is common – and positively, it’s preparing our children for life beyond the classroom.
- We’re having to accommodate devices in our homes maybe earlier than we wanted.
- Our children are exposed to more of the world and all it’s nefarious concepts and contacts much earlier than ever before – and that’s a real danger-point.
Even if we don’t allow our child to participate – others do. And that exposure will make its way into secrets traded in the playground, into knowledge before the time is ready – even if we hold the line.
So, if you’ve made it all the way to here, this is what I ask, in fact, I beg:
- If your child’s behaviour changes massively from on-screen to off-screen, it’s not a stage of life thing – it’s a technology thing, so stick to strict limits and careful supervision.
- If your child is being secretive about what happens on their screen, investigate thoroughly – much better to ask forgiveness for invading their privacy than experience the story above.
- Just because everyone else is (allowing) does not mean you have to too. No means no. 13 is the lower age limit for social media – hold the line.
- Always, always check in with your child about what’s happening in their digital life and be prepared to investigate beyond their assurances.
- Seek help – set aside that embarrassment or feeling like you’re a terrible parent – you’re not. Every parent is struggling with limits and exposure. You’re not alone and you’re not incapable. You’re just dealing with a huge influence in your child’s life, one with massive (carefully programmed) power to steal their attention, muddle their morals and create anxious patterns of going back for more.
We have to realise that education not avoidance is the only way to truly prepare ourselves and our children for digital life. We need to teach more in those precarious tween years when our young adults are just starting to emerge and engage in social behaviours that we know are typical of tweens and teens. We have to up-skill ourselves with skills and knowledge and not shy away from teaching our children the skills to be safe, civil and savvy online.
DiGii Social is a carefully designed digital-life training platform just for tweens. It provides the opportunity to practise skills towards mastery before spending too much time on other social media platforms. DiGii Social is easy to use and available as a school subscription with a parent education channel included.