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Surviving the hyper-social digital chaos

Every school has it — a gang of kids that posts pictures of themselves drinking, smoking and doing unmentionable things on social media networks seen by everyone but teachers and parents. Sanchita Sharma

columns Updated: Sep 08, 2013 02:26 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

Every school has it — a gang of kids that posts pictures of themselves drinking, smoking and doing unmentionable things on social media networks seen by everyone but teachers and parents.

Last September, in Saratoga, California, for instance, 15-year-old Audrie Pott told her parents she was sleeping over at a friend's house. Instead, she went to a party where she got drank too much, passed out, and woke up with no recollection, to find all the kids at school sniggering at naked pictures of her on Facebook.

Even after she'd hanged herself a week later, her parents and teachers were still trying to understand how this could have happened.

Teens live in a hyper-social parallel digital universe that firmly excludes adults and other aliens. The Curiosity rover has made it possible for us to know more about what's happening on Mars than in Teenworld.

What is worrying is the spate of studies, such as new research from the University of Southern California, released on Friday, which confirms that what teens see online, they do.

When teens see pictures of their friends drinking alcohol or smoking, on sites like Facebook and MySpace, they are more likely to drink or smoke themselves, reported researchers this week in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The study involved about 1,600 10th-grade boys and girls, all aged 15, from a school district in Los Angeles County. About 25% of the students were Asian.

Although the number of 'friends' the teens had on their online networks was not associated with risky behaviour, seeing photos online of these friends partying or drinking was linked to an increase in both smoking and drinking. Teens whose close friends did not drink were more likely to be influenced by online posts.

While there are no statistics for India, US data show that 25% of adolescents and tweens online find unwanted pornography while surfing, by mistyping addresses, going to sites with misleading names, and clicking on links from other sites (Online Victimisation: A Report on the Nation's Youth).

Social media is now so enmeshed in our lives that its impossible for parents to monitor their children online. Asking what they're up to likewise gets you nowhere, as does checking their browser history or chat logs. All kids can google and among the first things they learn is incognito browsing.

You have to be transparent in what you do to ensure that your teen continues to engage with you and doesn't label you another unreasonable adult and block you out.

What works is monitoring headlines and the news for stories about internet misuse, to highlight its very real, and often unpleasant, consequences. Children need to know that using the internet at home may feel safe, but being online is almost the same as being outside.

Emphasise that everything sent over the Internet or cellphone can be shared with the world, so it is important for them to use their judgment while sharing personal information or posting messages and pictures.

As an adult, you have to stress that deleted texts and posts can be retrieved and that gossiping, spreading rumours, bullying or damaging someone's reputation (even by sending or forwarding embarrassing texts or images, or hacking into someone's account to send inappropriate texts or emails to others) can have serious consequences, possibly involving the police, suspension from school, and notes on the record that could hurt their chances of getting into college.

In Pott's case in California, for example, the three 16-year-old boys who took photographs of her when she was passed out and posted them online were charged with sexual battery.

The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends two hours of screen time, including internet, computer and television use, but with schools increasingly using online tools, this seems unrealistic. As a parent, the only option before you then is to keep your child informed of the risks so that they think before hitting 'send'.

First Published: Sep 08, 2013 02:22 IST