Jayne Dowle: Responsible parenting in the social media age

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I’VE drunk some things in my time. Hand on heart though, I have never ever necked a cocktail of vinegar, tomato ketchup and flour. My 11-year-old has already outdone me. It’s the natural way of things for children to go one better than their parents. When this involves drinking ridiculous combinations of ingredients in a dangerous escalation of “dare”, it needs to be stopped.

Our Jack has always been a curious child, never afraid to try new things. And yes, I admit, never one to pass up an opportunity to act daft. When he was messing about in the kitchen with a friend, I thought nothing of it. I was clearing the table after tea, busy with other things. It was only when I went up to the bathroom and found the floor splattered with that unlikely combination of ingredients that I exploded. What a mess. I shouted at him to come and clean it up. He and the other lad were doubled up in his bedroom – I wasn’t sure whether it was with stomach ache or hysteria or a combination of the two.

Then I got a Facebook message from a friend telling me to check out Jack’s page. When I did, there was a short video of him and his mate egging each other on to down the disgusting cocktail. I didn’t know it then, but they had become early adopters of the latest online craze Neknomination.

This involves young people encouraging each other to drink ever-more ridiculous combinations of ingredients and sharing the videos online. The idea is that you film yourself swallowing something horrible, then nominate your friends to outdo you. This is bad enough, but it is underpinned by an insidious undercurrent of peer pressure. And the practice is believed to have already led to the deaths of several young people who have thrown back lethal combinations involving alcohol.

I suppose I was lucky, in a way. Jack is only 11. He knows that the drinks cabinet is absolutely, strictly out-of-bounds. He can only imagine the wrath that would fall on his head and the sanctions that would follow if he should take anything from there.

In that I am not a slack parent. I have to admit though, this Neknomination crept up on me and caught me totally unawares. Although I yelled at him that day, it happened again, several times. With different combinations of ingredients. It took several weeks for the penny to drop. When it did, I came down hard. I had to take some parental responsibility. If you catch your kids messing about in the kitchen cupboards, I suggest you do the same.

It’s a tough one for us modern parents though, this responsibility thing. Some might say Jack shouldn’t have a Facebook account in the first place. Technically, he’s got another two years before it’s legal. I struggled with the idea for ages before I finally allowed him to go ahead. Ironically, I only gave in because he was being picked on at school. Nothing terrible, but enough for me to reason that it was better for him to be part of the conversation than left out.

I pride myself on checking his Facebook page religiously. And I’m part of an informal vigilante group of parents who keep an eye on what’s going on online with our offspring. He’s probably got more freedom than most though. I’ve always reasoned that the best lesson a parent can teach a child is for them to stand on their own two feet.

Where to draw the line, though? We modern parents face challenges that would be unimaginable to our parents and grandparents. Only the other week I had to stop the car and tell several eight-year-old girls that if they didn’t stop talking about sex I would take them all home immediately. The graphic conversation my daughter’s friends were having would make some grown women blush. I’m definitely no prude. I’m will answer any embarrassing question honestly. Some things, though, are simply not suitable for children to talk about, full stop.

I wasn’t shocked to hear that a Welsh head-teacher is contacting parents after being horrified to witness pupils as young as six acting out violent rape, drug-related and torture scenes from the video game Grand Theft Auto in his playground. I’ve banned the “R” word in this house. It disgusts me to hear it from the mouths of children. Yet it’s bandied about these days as if it means nothing.

Really, in an ideal world, there should be a way of also banning young people from posting those dangerous videos. And stopping children from ever seeing extreme video games. Or witnessing anything which could warp their minds and give them a distorted view of what is and is not acceptable. It will never happen, though. Facebook won’t take responsibility. Video games manufacturers won’t take responsibility. And more often than not schools won’t even take responsibility for what happens in the playground. It stands to reason then that first and foremost, it’s up to us modern parents to shoulder it all, however squeamish it makes us feel.