A How Not to Guide on Teaching Children Internet Safety

She said X was the closest park to her house

This is genuinely a line in a YouTube video called “The Dangers of Social Media” that claims to teach parents how easy it is for a ‘paedophile’ to groom a teenage girl: by identifying the neighbourhood she lives in to 30 million viewers.

In fact, the video reveals identifying details of three teenage girls, including street views of their homes and their parents’ faces. Rather than giving any information to help parents actually teach their children how to navigate social media safely, the video invites us to participate in the public shaming of these girls. We are allowed to watch the parents shouting at the girls but not actually engaging in why these girls arranged to meet a stranger they met online. If the aim was to highlight their lack of skills in navigating the internet, a more pertinent question was why no one bothered to teach them any. Why isn’t the focus on the parents rather than the children?

There are so many issues with this video that it’s hard to know where to start. The language itself is incorrect – the term paedophile has a specific clinical definition. The vast majority of child rapists are normal men who make a choice to harm a child; they have no pre-existing psychological condition.

The video also reinforces the ‘stranger danger’ myth. Statistically, fathers form the majority of perpetrators of domestic violence – whether this is physical, emotional and sexual abuse of the children themselves or witnessing the abuse of their mothers. Fathers, brothers, cousins, grandfathers, uncles, and stepfathers are far more likely to sexually abuse a child than a stranger. If we focus on ‘stranger danger’, we ignore the majority of men, and most child sexual abusers are male, who are actually a danger to children. This isn’t to say we pretend that strangers never harm a child; rather that we need to understand risk and help children develop the skills to keep themselves safe. Pretending that the only person who is a child rapist is a creepy man in a trench coat puts them at risk.

Rather than going for scare tactics like those in the video -having parents dress up in skeleton masks and drag their kids into a van- we need to teach children the skills to negotiate a world where a large number are at risk of experiencing domestic and sexual violence and abuse. We can start by using the appropriate words for body parts like vulva and penis.

Children also need to be taught about consent starting as toddlers. One easy way to do this is with tickling. If a child squeals no, stop and ask them if they want you to continue tickling. Then keep asking them. Another way is by telling children that they don’t have to hug or kiss anyone anyone that they don’t want to. Granny might want a hug but a child shouldn’t feel pressured or obligated to do so. Doing this teaches children that they have the right to bodily integrity and that their boundaries should be respected.

Children need to learn the skills to negotiate social media, including online gaming safely. Banning social media until the age of 13, as Facebook does, and then expecting children to be safe online is simply ridiculous. How are children meant to differentiate between unsafe and safe adults when their parents have 900 ‘friends’ on Facebook? If we depend on ‘stranger danger’ myths, do these 900 adults then become safe because their parents ‘know’ them? Equally, we give children mixed messages if we tell them not to talk to strangers but allow them uncontrolled access to X-Box Live. How are children meant to recognise that the older boy from down the road is a child rapist or that the really cool guy on Minecraft is a safe person if we don’t give them the tools to do so.

More importantly, shaming is not an acceptable teaching technique. Publicly shaming your child will not encourage them to have open and honest dialogue with you. It teaches children that their parents are more interested in the performance of ‘safety’ than their actual safety. It makes it impossible for children to ask for help when being bullied at school, never mind when experiencing abuse by a family member or a stranger they’ve met online.

Parents, and schools, need to take more responsibility for helping children develop the skills to negotiate social media and gaming safely, but, as Lynn Schreiber, an expert in social media, says about the video:

Scaring parents will not protect children. Blaming victims will not protect children. This video also reduces the eSafety message to one (fairly rare) danger, while ignoring the far more commonly occurring issues of children viewing violent or sexual content, cyberbullying, going viral, reputation management, and public shaming. Our children are growing up with this technology and need to be taught how to use it in a positive and sensible way.

The average age a child views porn online is between the ages of 9 – 12. Many children experience online bullying and harassment. Others live with domestic and sexual violence and abuse within the home. These conversations on personal safety, online and off, are very difficult but that is why they are necessary. We need to teach children the skills to deal with unsafe people and navigate the real world. In our global economy, the Internet is the real world.

This is what child protection should start with: teaching children their emotions are valid, that they have the right to say no, and that is completely unethical and unfair to publicly shame them on social media.

 

Originally published in the Huffington Post on 02/8/15.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Everyday Victim Blaming on 17/8/15

Feminist Mothering with Fibromyalgia

I have fibromyalgia. I rarely admit to having it in public. If people ask why I look exhausted or am limping or struggling to use words, I say I have migraines. People have sympathy for migraines. They know it means extreme pain and sensitivities. When you say, “I have fibromyalgia” the response wavers between “I have a sore knee too” or “I’ve heard of that. My third-cousin twice-removed, next-door neighbour’s parakeet’s beautician has it and they got to go on disability for life.” Neither response makes it possible to explain what fibromyalgia does to your body.

Fibromyalgia has been called the “aggravating everything disorder.” I cannot control my body temperature. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like outside, my body runs on its own internal thermostat which is, inevitably, wrong.  I’m the one in the school playground in a t-shirt in the middle of winter and a hoodie on the hottest day of the year. I am also light sensitive, which means I’m also the one in sunglasses in the rain. My biggest ‘aggravator’ trigger is noise. When it is bad, the noise is so over-whelming that I can’t differentiate sound. Everything is extreme. I wear headphones to drown the noise out.

My immune system goes on strike regularly and a mild runny nose can result in my being in bed for a week. The last time I had the flu, it took nearly 6 months to recover properly. I get every bug going and, sometimes, it feels like I am always sick. We won’t discuss the side effects of the irritable bowel syndrome that co-exists with fibromyalgia.

A Facebook meme a few months ago made it clear: “my pain is not like your pain”. I have pain everyday – sometimes it’s manageable with painkillers and heat pads and sometimes its not. Sometimes I can’t turn my head because the muscles have seized. On more than one occasion the pain at the base of my skull has been so severe that piercing the back of my neck with a knitting needle didn’t seem like too bad an idea.

I’ve been really open about how hard it is as someone who loves writing to be unable to put my thoughts out coherently: that what ends up on the paper isn’t what was in my head because of the way the fibromyalgia has effected the ability of my brain to communicate clearly. It’s also affected my ability to speak since I lose words and have huge pauses in between words (that I don’t realise are happening). I also find it difficult to process what is being said to me when tired: I know people are talking but I can’t hear the actual words and, even when I can hear some of the words, my brain can’t actually process the message. When it’s this bad, the only thing I can do is nap. This isn’t exactly conducive to being a writer.

It is the fatigue that is the worst symptom. Sleep deprivation is classed as a form of torture for a reason. I am often in a severe state of exhaustion. I can’t sleep so the pain increases and because of the severity of the pain, I can’t sleep. So, I have depression as well. The depression and severe pain require long-term medications, which result in weight gain. Weight gain makes it harder to exercise and the circle continues.

Obviously this pain and exhaustion impact on my daily life, but it is my mothering where it impacts the most. Living with fibromyalgia makes mothering nearly impossible. I can cope on school days when the pain is in a ‘good’ phase because I can nap during the day. Weekends are more difficult. I cannot manage the day without a nap that means I have to plan my time with my daughter around my sleep schedule. It is even worse when the pain is severe or I have a cold.

I have two daughters. My eldest was 9 nine before I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I used to take her to castles, the zoo, and to the beach all the time. We would walk for miles in the woods, scramble up hills, and go camping. With my youngest daughter, walking three blocks to school can result in a four-hour nap. Camping outside is a no-go since tense muscles and pain don’t respond well to sleeping on the ground – and this is without dealing with the issue of my inability to control my body temperature.

How do you explain to a young child that the reason you can’t listen to their story is because the distortion in your ears is so intense that you can’t actually hear their words? Or, that the much promised trip to the zoo is impossible as you can’t walk?

The guilt is immense.

The guilt is not improved by media constructions of the “good mother”. How many news articles are written about children watching too much television or spending too much time on an iPad? Television fetes mothers who bake cupcakes, run marathons, and volunteer for the PTA. When they only thing you are capable of on a bad day is making a packed lunch, the myth of the SuperMom feels like an extra massive kick in the teeth. To be a mother with fibromyalgia is to be a failure.

Today is Fibromyalgia Awareness Day and I’m having a relatively good day. I have time for a nap before collecting my daughter from school and I managed to get some work done. I’ve balanced the need to pay my rent with caring for my child. Most days aren’t this good and, even if they were, it wouldn’t change the stigma of being a disabled mother. Or, erase the guilt for not being a great mother.

In child protection, the term ‘good enough mothering’ is used to describe women with multiple support needs who have children – whether these needs involve substance use, alcohol dependency, mental illness or trauma. This is what mothering with fibromyalgia is: good enough mothering. It’s just not that easy to remember this when faced with a disappointed child who only wanted to visit the zoo.