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Are there lessons we need to learn from the Molly Russell tragedy ?

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019
Ian Williamson

Are there lessons we need to learn from the Molly Russell tragedy ?

The tragic suicide of 14 year old Molly Russell has once again raised the thorny issue of the influence of social media on teenager’s lives. There will likely be much huffing and puffing from government and media companies about this tragedy but it’s more likely that nothing will be done about it. The bottom line is that parents will have to deal with it as best they can.

This piece is an attempt to offer parents some help and guidance. Let’s start with some facts about adolescent development. It is a period of immense turmoil and insecurity. Intense anxieties about self are never far from the surface even with the most secure of teenagers. The second important fact is that all teenagers have a very ‘private self’ that they don’t share with their parents. This needs to be borne in mind so parents don’t fall into the trap of believing their teens tell them ‘everything’. The bottom line is teens are invariably economical with the truth.  It’s a fallacy to believe that because you have a close relationship with your teen that you know exactly what they are up to and what they are feeling. 

With these thoughts as the back drop where precisely does social media come into all this. The first thing to remember is that social media is a 24/7 evaluation site where teenagers habits, compulsions and vulnerabilities are laid bare for everyone to comment on. Envies and jealousies abound unchecked, it’s a veritable bear pit. No teenager however stable and secure is going to be immune from the anxiety inducing effects of these evaluations. The second thing to remember that the sites are specially engineered to keep teens on them for as long as possible. In other words they are addictive.

I suspect many reading this already know what I am talking about,  but feel powerless to do anything about it. If we are honest, too many of us take refuge in the myth that everything works out in the end and/or its just a phase they are going through. This, to my mind, is a cop out. What it really means is that it’s too difficult and time consuming to do anything about. 

In order to try to keep a lid on all this we need to be clear about what does and does not constitute teenage privacy and we need to know how to deal with teenage tantrums.

In my experience we seem to be in a muddle about this privacy issue. I frequently hear parents say they are uncomfortable about looking at their teens phone or tracking what kind of sites they visit on the internet. They argue that teenagers are entitled to their privacy. In theory this is fine. But my question is privacy to do what ? To make the picture more confusing many parents are adamant that they know exactly where their teens are when they go out for the evening sometimes to the extent of putting tracking devices on their phones or phoning other parents. In short most parents would never dream of letting their young teenager go out in the evening without knowing where they are going and what they are doing.  We don’t consider this an invasion of privacy but an issue of their safety and here is the rub. We don’t actually think that what they engage with online is a safety issue and this is where we get it wrong. In my opinion adolescents are at just as much at risk from what they are looking at on their screens as they are when they go out for the evening.

So what do we need to do?  Here are some thoughts.

  1. A young teen (13-15 or it could be 12-15) can have a password on their phone/screen but the parents should know what that password is ? This doesn’t mean that parents should be looking at their messages every 5 minutes but the fact that they can will have some effect on inhibiting what they write or watch. If they wont agree then I suggest you remove their phone for a while.
  2. No screens in their bedrooms. If they want privacy to call one of their friends that is different  but absolutely no screens/phones in bedrooms.
  3. They have to hand in screens and phones at bedtime.
  4. Use the technology that is available to control how much time they can spend on these sites. This is especially important if they take their phones to school. The less time they spend on social media sites and the like the better.

I don’t for one minute think your teenager is going to greet any of the above with anything other than absolute fury and if we are totally honest its the fury that intimidates us. The volcanic rages, the verbal abuse are exhausting to deal with, but if we are parenting our adolescents on the basis of how fearful we are of their reactions then we aren’t doing our job properly.  Try to hold in mind that adolescent fury is little more than a sophisticated temper tantrum, there is a lot of noise but not much else, stick to your guns. Also hold in the forefront of your mind the fact that having a smartphone isn’t a basic human right despite their protests to the contrary.