Jayne Dowle: Perils of parenting in age of Twitter and Facebook

Parents are said to be too afraid to discipline their children in case they take revenge on social media, warns the president of the Girls' School Association.
Parents are said to be too afraid to discipline their children in case they take revenge on social media, warns the president of the Girls' School Association.
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THERE are times when I despair of modern parenting. It’s pretty common nowadays for parents to turn to Facebook to tell their children off. How desperate can things have become if this is your ultimate recourse?

Yet I have seen it with my own eyes; mothers posting stroppy notes recounting the many and various ways in which their children have let them down, mothers – why is it always mothers? – sending public messages to their offspring begging them to phone home or come home.

It smacks of parenting which has exhausted all other options. Now though, there’s worse. Alice Phillips, president of the Girls’ Schools Association, warns that parents are becoming too afraid to discipline their children in case they take revenge via Facebook and Twitter.

Speaking at the GSA annual conference in London, she says there is a real fear that domestic disputes are becoming the subject of online scrutiny and criticism. Cue hair-raising tales of youngsters bragging about being grounded, adults publicly lambasted by teenagers they have never met, and particularly chilling this, parents being recorded as they rant. Can you imagine anything more embarrassing?

What kind of world do we live in when communication between parent and child is reduced to characters typed on a keyboard? I’ll tell you what kind of world we live in. It’s one in which sharing your every move via social media is becoming increasingly accepted. You only have to look at the recent furore over celebrities and their naked pictures “leaked” on the internet to recognise that. The problem is, young people have little understanding of boundaries unless you set them. And when parents either can’t be bothered or don’t know how, it’s inevitable that certain lines will be crossed. No one wants to come over all Victorian, but we must remember that first and foremost our children are our children, not our mates.

I always say you can’t judge until you have been there. However, I would say to all parents that the speech by Ms Phillips is a warning. We should never take our children’s opinions for granted, or assume that they don’t have minds of their own. We should also be aware that the internet is moving faster than we can think, and it’s targeting itself at ever-younger children. Google, for example, is reported to be revamping its products to appeal specifically to the under-12s. If the thought of your primary-school child surfing the net to find “rude pictures” terrifies you, there is no point pretending it will go away if you ignore it. Someone in their class will show them what to do, believe me. I once had to ring the school and warn the head-teacher that my son’s Year Six class had worked out how to get round the computer lab firewall – with inevitable results.

However, there is no need for moral panic. If something frightens you, the best thing to do is to face it down. If I got even a sniff of naming and shaming, the first thing I would do is to sit down and talk to my children. I would warn them that what happens in these four walls stays in these four walls, unless I say so. I would also explain that doing this to parents is not only disrespectful, it is tantamount to bullying. Would they like it if someone picked on them like that? And of course, I would remind them who pays for the wi-fi and the laptop and the mobile phone and the iPad. And if I deemed it necessary, I would simply remove all access to the above. For as long as it was necessary to ram the message home. And whilst I was about it, I would hack into their accounts and change all the passwords. Don’t have a clue how to do that? You should learn.

I hope it doesn’t come to that, though. That’s why I have made a vow to use social media as positively as I can with my two children. My son, who is 12, has never named and shamed me – as far as I am aware – and I hope it stays like that. Mind you, I’m trying to set him a good example. When he does something praiseworthy or behaves especially well, I send him a public post with a simple message so all his friends can see it. It usually amounts to nothing more effusive than – “well done Jack”. The last thing I want to do is gush. I just want him to see social media as the empowering force for good that it is, rather than as a tool with which to beat his parents over the head.

I realise it’s a thin line. I don’t want to appear creepy or overprotective. And when he gets to 14 or so, I’ll stop. He might even decide that his mother isn’t cool enough to be on his friends list any more. If he does, I have prepared myself to bow out with dignity. For now though, I want to be there to hold his hand and not to find it raised in a virtual fist against me.