Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Computer is on. What are the Children Doing?


 ‘Forbidden fruit’ is powerfully alluring, especially for teenagers. Researchers have discovered that when children and adolescents are ‘forbidden’ from drugs, media consumption, and even certain peer relationships, they will resist those limits and assert their independence. If you tell a teen not to do something you almost ensure that as soon as your back is turned, they’ll be experimenting, investigating, poking, prodding, inhaling, swallowing, or otherwise trying to experience whatever was just deemed contraband.

The super-peer of the media is addictive, influencing an entire generation of teenagers into accepting whatever norms those behind the messages seek to perpetuate.
This is partly due to teenagers’ basic desire for autonomy.
“You can’t tell me what to do.”
Another reason is that humans’ pre-frontal cortex (which is the part of our brain responsible for executive function and forward planning) does not fully develop until our early twenties. Lacking the neurologically advanced development that adults possess, our teens seem all too enthusiastic to chase after whatever we suggest would be best given a wide berth. This is especially the case when they sense their autonomy is being threatened. The more dictatorial our approach, the more enticing the forbidden fruit.

To add complexity to a challenging situation, as teens develop, their willingness to accept parental influence diminishes at the same rate as their increased acceptance of peer influence. Mum and Dad become restrictive while peers offer limitless opportunities for exploration and discovery.

Of all the peers that have an impact on our children’s decisions, there is one that is ubiquitous, pervasive, and all-too-often insidious. The media acts as a super-peer and influences our children with more effect than the most persuasive of teenagers’ normal peers.  The super-peer is subtle. The super-peer rarely explicitly demands that teens conform to a given ideal. Rather, it presents models of the ‘good life’ and teens follow the direction laid out for them without question. While the influence of the super-peer can be positive, it can also be frighteningly negative.

The super-peer of the media is addictive, stimulating, rewarding, and even intoxicating. As teenagers become increasingly enmeshed in a world saturated with carefully crafted messages about what is desirable and what is not, the super-peer influences an entire generation of teenagers into accepting whatever norms those behind the messages seek to perpetuate.

Yesterday I spoke at a media luncheon about a study conducted by McAfee and independent research body TNP which was released this week that exposes just how powerful the reach of the super-peer is. 500 Aussie teens and 500 Aussie parents were questioned about the way the Internet is used in our families. (You can read more, and see a great info-graphic on the research right here.)

Australian teenagers access the online world close to four hours every day via laptops, tablets and smart phones. That is four hours of online exposure to a world with minimal regulation and with essentially unquestioned capacity for influence. While in that virtual world they are often productive, regularly using the Internet for study purposes, however at least 22% admit to being exposed to unwanted sexual content and a slightly smaller percentage of teens intentionally seek such material out.

Source: sickfacebook.com
McAfee’s research shows that 80% of parents say that they are talking with their children about their online activities and the potential dangers of the Internet and media. But based on what teens say they’re doing online, the message is not getting through, or the forbidden fruit is too stimulating, too tantalising, and all too desirable. The super-peer holds all the aces of influence.

In the McAfee study, kids admit to accessing inappropriate, violent, sexual, and degrading content and deleting browser histories or working around other security controls. They also admit that much of what they do online is secret, and they enter into a covenant of silence with other teens in order to keep knowledge of their activities from parents.

If 80% of parents are talking with their teens about their online world and yet teens are still chasing the forbidden fruit, consuming it, and keeping it secret, perhaps parents need to learn new skills, and new ways of communicating with their children.

In an ideal world those involved in promoting material designed for adolescent consumption through various media forms including music, marketing, movies, and the web should be encouraged to provide messages that promote healthy developmental and sexuality. The unprecedented access our children have to sexual material in the present generation has never been seen before in the history of the world. It has also never been so depraved and readily accessible for any and all to see – and it seems that many of our teens are taking full advantage of this.

Keeping a PC in an open space is no longer enough to protect children from material that will change their neural wiring, change the way they relate to others physically, and potentially change the course of their lives. The McAfee study shows that large percentages of children now access illicit material via laptops, i-pads, tablets, and smart phones, usually with no technological limits or filters installed.

In the absence of an ideal world, the secret online world of teens is a growing concern for parents in the 21st century. Here are three simple solutions that will go a long way towards protecting our children.
  1. Talk a little, listen a lot. Communication should be teen-centred, straight forward, and honest. Asking teens to explain what they do online, what they know about what exists and how it might affect them will lead to more effective self-monitoring and self-imposed limits. As parents we can guide teens by filling in the gaps of their understanding. But the most effective communication we can have with our teens regarding Internet safety and the influence of the super-peer involves listening, listening, and more listening.
  2. We should limit the use of limits. Too many limits and restrictions can make forbidden fruit even more appealing, and increase the influence of the super peer. The ubiquity of the Internet and the media more generally will not change. Attempts to ban access will only promote underhanded and devious behaviour when parents aren’t watching. Some limits are necessary, but they should be collaboratively determined.
  3. Finally, POS (parent over shoulder). While helicopter parenting is restrictive and should be avoided, parents should be involved in their teens’ online world. That means utilising technology that helps you see their digital footprint, monitor messages, and highlights search histories. Be involved in their digital world by friending them on facebook, checking their history, and asking them to teach you about skype, google plus, tumblr, and more.
Parents, policy-makers, and those who provide media content of all types have a responsibility to work to keep children safe and to minimise their exposure to material that may cause long-term harm. In so doing, the influence of the super-peer may be tempered and teens may pause and think about whether that forbidden fruit is really worth the risk.

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