reviewed by Karen Fontaine
When it comes to teenagers, some things never change. Broken hearts, rampant acne and hormones-gone-haywire are all par for the course during the often-rocky road through adolescence.
Still, the parents of today’s teens are pioneers, of sorts. The ever-evolving internet is a brave new world for everyone who enters it – and although our children have never known anything different, today’s parents are navigating a digital landscape that their own parents’ generation never even dreamt was possible.
As Dr Michael Carr-Gregg points out in his insightful new book Beyond Cyberbullying: An Essential Guide For Parenting in the Digital Age, “the internet is one of the few things parents haven’t experienced themselves as teenagers and many haven’t kept up to speed with the new technology, or the recent developments – despite the fact that the information superhighway now runs right through their existence and is at the heart of their children’s lives”.
As Carr-Gregg says, we are living in the midst of the greatest communication revolution since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1440s. And consider the impact of that, which, with the mere ability to print 3000 pages a day, sent literacy levels surging, broke the monopoly of the literate elite and challenged the power of the political and religious authorities – changing the world forever.
But what does living in the midst of a revolution mean when you’re the parent of a teenager?
If you believe the breathless headlines, the internet is a one-way ticket to nowhere, full of sexual predators, cyberbullies and other nasties.
In Beyond Cyberbullying: An Essential Guide For Parenting in the Digital Age (a fully updated version of his previous book, Real Wired Child), Carr-Gregg, a Melbourne-based and internationally recognised authority on teenage behaviour, balances the beaten-up facts with the opportunities the internet can present.
WHAT (it’s all about)
Forget the hype, here are the facts, writes Carr-Gregg. And they’re not all headline-worthy. Some are just plain commonsense.
“Clearly, parents need to be alert,” Carr-Gregg writes. “But there is no need to be alarmed. This book is about giving parents the knowledge and skills they need to confidently manage their children’s use of this ubiquitous technology.”
As Carr-Gregg points out, the moment we give our children a mobile phone, laptop or tablet and they start using social media, in the eyes of the law they are now a publisher – and what they publish matters.
”They need to have more than a passing familiarity with the laws governing their digital media activity,” he warns.
Carr-Gregg very helpfully lays out lists of laws under which children as young as 10 (the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australia) can be charged if they do the wrong thing online.
In chapter 3, entitled ‘What Kids Are Doing Online’, Carr-Gregg dissects the most popular social networking, video-sharing and microblogging sites, as well as a number of applications which he warns parents to pay close attention to given their unsuitability for children.
Clear boundaries are what Carr-Gregg recommends.
“The best way to set boundaries is to externalise the rules,” he writes. “Agree on them as a family rather than making them up as you go along and base those rules on values, and on what the family wants (rather than what they don’t want).”
WHY (you should read it)
Given the rapid pace of change that the digital world undergoes on an hourly, daily basis, this book presents a no-holds-barred yet very even-handed, where-we’re-at-now look at the pitfalls, pressures and pleasures of the internet.
As Carr-Gregg points out, technology has dramatically transformed our kids’ relationships with one another, their families and communities. At no other time in one’s life has the desire to be in touch with one’s mates been so strong.
“But we cannot stick our heads in the digital sand and pretend that it’s all bunny rabbits and rainbows in the online world,” he writes.
“While the media has rather predictably tended to focus on the downside of information technology, the great news is there is a substantial upside to information and communications technologies not only in terms of increasing children’s educational opportunities but also in promoting resilience, helping them deal with stress and treating common psychological problems. With 95 per cent of young Australians regularly using the internet, online technologies have great potential to facilitate access to mental health promotion programs.”
A central thread running throughout Carr-Gregg’s book is that the internet has become a ‘natural’ space for young people and one which is fully integrated into their lives.
“If you can just get past the media focus on cyberbullying, you will see how the net empowers them in ways that were unimaginable in years gone by,” he writes in chapter 8, entitled ‘Using the power of the internet for good’.
“Their use of new media allows them to create a continuous stream of multiple conversations, interweaving differing media formats and generating content for blogs, animations, videos, photos and digital collages.”
As Carr-Gregg reminds his readers, a central question for all adolescents is “Who am I?” and the net provides them with a significant means of self-expression.
“Their online activities enable them to explore their own identity, trying on one face after another to find one that fits – ‘This is me. This is what I like. This is what I do.‘ Through their social networking they can also find affirmations for the expression of their political, ethnic, cultural or sexual identity,” he writes.
This ability to share aspects of their personality with peers, says Carr-Gregg, reinforces relationships, which become increasingly important as adolescents begin the journey to independence.
Chapter 1 spells out some super simple stuff about the digital world and how it operates. Carr-Gregg does offer a disclaimer – “if you use the internet fairly regularly, you’re probably savvy enough to skip this chapter…” – but even still, it’s difficult to imagine any parent would need to have such basic stuff spelt out for them.