Beat them or join them? You don’t really have an option when it comes to technology and the young generation.

Recently, Bellavista S.H.A.R.E. hosted an evening talk to look at the cyber world and its impact on relationships, with some emphasis on cyber bullying.

The generational distinction in the room was marked. After one hour of solid, research based input on the reality that technology has propelled young people into a new social world, and is relentlessly advancing, there were still plenty of 35-somethings who believed that parenting and schooling youngsters through the disruption involved gate keeping, limit setting, search history checking and removal of devices as a primary response. In other words, the Boomers and the GenX just don’t get it yet.

 Our world is disrupted. Cyber relationships exist and are as real and demanding and difficult to navigate as any face-to-face interaction, individually and in groups. There is a cyber culture that exists and is thriving. There are group dynamics on an undefined playing field. Symbols and conventions are the new ‘body language’ not a failed emotional intelligence. There is bonding and collegiality, romance and animosity in the digital dimension of human interaction, as much as in the face to face. I am bold enough to assert that to simply attempt to shut down/ remove/ isolate as a mechanism to understand and support our youth we are failing to be the adults they need us to be.

Karen Moross, facilitator of the Family Life Center’s Adolescent Counseling Training in Johannesburg shared her insights into the ever evolving virtual world of electronic and computer based communication and information sharing has drastically altered an individual’s social interactions and ways of communicating. Digital media technologies have created new social contexts and in some cases altered existing ones. Along with the potential benefits and opportunities, this explosion of technology brings several challenges that require our attention. The salient points raised:

  • Cyber bullying is not tightly defined yet and we are imposing what cyber bullying is on the cyber “natives’ who can define it better.
  • Cyber bullying can mean devastation and we need to get a feel for it.
  • In defining it, we need to understand intent, the repetition (i.e. how big is the audience?), the power differential at play and the extent of the relational aggression involved.
  • Our young people are ‘always on’.
  • The persistence of the aggression is a further factor.
  • Young people will not tell adults (parents or teachers) when they are being bullied in cyber space, as our default position is to take the tech away. This is not helpful. Rather, we are imposing social suicide.
  • We need to support, understand and guide a response that is empowering and relevant.

Today’s youth are relating to others everywhere and anywhere, 24/7/365. They need support in the form or relationship etiquette in this reality. They have to contend anonymity and disinhibition, communications that involve ‘asynchronicity’, i.e., these can be edited and changes. Regardless of ‘privacy settings’ their posts and interactions are networked publicly and these are stored for a period undetermined by themselves. These communications are replicable and searchable. Every online user is making a digital footprint that has the potential to shadow them forever.

How do we get over our denial as adults, our ‘ban the device’ mentality and, in truth, our fear? To start, we need to develop critical thinking in our young charges. We need to teach and coach digital citizenship no differently to how we teach manners and common decency. We need to respect privacy and yet build a secure relationship with the child or adolescent that includes trust. It is our role to restrict access appropriately, for example at family meal times, but also to build resilience when the child is knocked down in the virtual world. Until early adolescence, we can be active and proactive gatekeepers. Once adolescent, we need to negotiate fair and respectful monitoring.  We need to be available in person, and I suggest, 24/7! Perhaps, most controversially, we should take our heads out the sand and join their world. What is it to be ‘always on’?  What pressure do you feel when noone likes your picture? How does it feel to post a profile picture or an Instagram update from a body image point of view? Who is looking at your posts?  Who is looking at your significant other’s posts? Whose posts are you curious about? What is it like when you message someone and they don’t return the call? Is it comfortable to have a ‘friend’ or ‘follower’ who you don’t actually know in person? What loaded meaning accompanies a full stop or an emoji?

We can’t lead the next generation safely into a world that is not going away if we don’t know what that world is. More than any hashtag out there, we need to embrace #know!