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Don’t panic: Navigating the internet with a twelve-year-old

19th October 2019

There’s a certain hypocrisy inherent in being a parent. Sometimes I shout ‘STOP SHOUTING!’ at my bickering kids, for instance; or I take the form of a buzzkill sugar-Nazi, doling out mealy-mouthed double-squares of chocolate to the children and then necking back the rest of the family-sized block myself in the bathtub. These days, I find myself grappling with a new hypocrisy, in which I frown at my twelve year old texting, before I go and sit in my lovely private toilet to scroll Instagram; gormless and slacked jawed in that anaesthetizing blue light.

My eldest child – let’s call her Peanut - has an iPhone now, you see, and like every parent I know, I am all at sea about how to manage her access to the internet. Right now Peanut has no social media. She uses her phone to listen to Queen, message her friends and watch comedy YouTubers. She is adamant that she will never use it for anything else. But her the 2021-model internet is nearly as impossible to imagine as my 2021-model daughter. They are both in flux, utterly unpredictable and constantly shapeshifting.

Here’s my dilemma: how do I allow my child an online life while safeguarding her beautiful, idiosyncratic, developing self from the worst parts of the internet? Not just the porn or the violence, or the approval-seeking, but the time-suck of her very attention?

I try not to panic. It’s also true that with this phone, Peanut and I have added a dimension to our relationship that is joyous and deeply connecting. We share funny memes, inside jokes and combined interests, and we communicate to a pleasingly subtle degree through the layered language of gifs.

It’s true too that society has always railed against the dangers new technologies pose for our precious young: the novel! The talkies! The wireless! Still, there’s no denying that this cultural moment, sometimes called the ‘smartphone dystopia’, presents an entirely new threat, with anxiety, depression and even suicide linked to extended screen time.

We are all being gamed by sophisticated algorithms that monitor and respond to our moods, seducing us with highly engineered software tweaked for targeted content and social feedback; and plying us with delicious dopamine cocktails that activate the same neural pathways in our brains as drug use and gambling. The longer our attention is hijacked, the more data that tech companies can gather about us, and the more advertising they can sell. Our devices are intentionally addictive.

As we raise our kids in this massive social experiment, we all figure it out on the fly. I tell two mothers, separately, at the school gates, that I take away my daughter’s phone every night at 9pm. ‘That’s late!’ one says, surprised. ‘Isn’t that a bit early?’ says the other, her voice betraying the impossibility of negotiating this rule with her own child, who is deeply attached to her phone in the evenings. Some parents, including both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (insert hypocrisy emoji here) placed extremely strict screen time limits on their own children. Others, like author Glennon Doyle, require that all children playing at their house surrender their devices at the door. Stories of struggle are ubiquitous. Daughters post belfies (bum selfies, for those taking notes) and sons stay up all night playing Fortnite (a hobby surely impacting a child’s ability to spell as well as re-wiring their biochemistry.) One friend tells me that she’s relieved her teenage daughter isn’t out roaming the mean streets. Instead, she’s in her room, online all night. ‘At least I know she’s safe,’ her Mum says. I don’t know what to reply.

I am a fan of the talking cure. Peanut and I discuss the dastardly algorithms of YouTube and the difference between true relaxation and the anxiety that often follows an internet session. We talk about shame and guilt, the myth of willpower and the difficult work of building and maintaining good habits.

I also try to maintain a certain distance. Knowledge is power, but too much knowledge is crushing. Peanut needs some privacy in which to make her own mistakes. I don’t want to get too up in her face about it all, such that I end up becoming that mother who appears at the bedroom door, bearing pancakes, after my adult children have spent the night with a new partner. ‘Morning, darlings! How’d you go?’

Peanut is having to learn self-regulation. This is tough at twelve. It’s tough at forty-seven, too. We are both new to all of this. Peanut is new to adolescence and to managing her own phone, and I’m new at parenting a high-schooler, which involves finding that sweet, magical, impossible spot between authority and permissiveness. Most critically, we are both new at being pawns in an ‘attention economy’ that tricks us into addiction. My solution, such as it is, is to walk this wily and unfamiliar path with her, as safely as we can, navigating its hidden rocks and pitfalls, its sudden swerves and cliff edges; its possibilities both wondrous and dangerous. And also, enjoy the gifs.

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