Parents of the 21st century:
We live in a world where preteens are going head to head in beauty contests over instagram. And where sexual assuault victims being bullied to the point of suicide is a thing that happens. More than once. And each time something new like this pops up, I am floored by the number of parents who are shocked.
Much of what we love about our new digital reality — the ability to find communities of people with shared interests; the speed with which we are able to connect; the forums we are provided to share and explore — also opens the door to things we sometimes would rather not confront. The ability to mirror and amplify views and opinions that many might find repugnant; the cloaking effect of anonymity that seems to give so many with ill will comfort; the echo chamber that somehow normalizes extreme views and actions.
This isn't to blame the internet — technology may be able to reinforce and perpetuate hate and ill will but it doesn't create them — nor even to pass judgement on the people who inhabit the darker fringes of the online space. But as parents we have a responsibility to at least know what's out there and to damn well talk to our kids about it.
As digital parents, we must commit to knowing what is out there. Emerging pop culture fads like Snapchat and Vine; subculture standards like the darker subreddits of Reddit or NSFW boards of 4chan — it's incumbent on all of us to know what these things are and how they can be used by people of nefarious intent.
Furthermore, we must commit to thinking beyond the computer. We're living in an era of hyperconnectivity. Mobile phone apps and text messaging... even gaming consoles allow people to connect online. And this doesn't even begin to consider what's known as the deep web — the parts of the internet beyond the browser, where filesharing and discussion forums go on far past what most people see. And where there's connectivity, there's the risk that someone will try to use it for something inappropriate.
However alarming this all may seem, though, we must commit to living in this world. For most of us, disconnecting is, for the most part, not an option. This is our reality; this is our society. Many of us consider ourselves digital natives. Our children most certainly will. This is how we live and it isn't going away, nor should it. The good far outweighs the bad. But the bad is real and we do our children a disservice to pretend otherwise.
So we must commit to educating our kids as well as ourselves. Not restricting. Not coddling. Educating. Engaging. Making sure they understand the risk and the rewards of digital life. Teach them to respect, not fear, what technology can do. Make sure they know what screencaps are; how passwords can be compromised; how cache searches mean nothing is deletable anymore. Make sure they know the implications of what they do online and also how to react when they see others being victimized.
And we must commit to teaching our children to value and respect others, whether in person or online. Don't focus solely on making sure they aren't the victim, help them understand how not to be the victimizer or the passive observer that allows them to do what they do. Ultimately, this isn't really about the technology at all, it's about what the technology enables. Creating a culture of respect will do far more in the long run than exploring the deep web ever will.