When I finally succumbed, a year ago, to my 11 year old child’s incessant badgering about all her friends having email ids and social network presence, I set three ground rules. One, I would create a social network account with my personal details (including age) so as to not lie on the Internet. Two, the account would be set with a pseudonym related to her name (which is not lying per se), and nowhere online must she use her real name or post photos. Three, until I considered her old enough to not need helicoptering, I would have access to her account and if she changed the password without my knowledge, her internet privileges would be suspended until she became eligible for old age pension. Since then, it has become my routine weekend duty (right after cleaning the gunk under the refrigerator), to sit at her laptop and subject myself to Tom Felton, Taylor Swift and kittens – I may arguably be the only adult in my neighborhood who not only knows who Justin Bieber is, but also what he wants in a girlfriend!
A few weeks back, as I was listlessly browsing the hangout-history, a couple of words jolted me out of my stupor – the dreaded four letter word that rhymes with (and is) “yuck” and a five letter word that, in its innocent avatar, refers to female canine. A ten-year old had used them in a hang-out of which my kid was a part. My knee-jerk reaction was to pull the plug on all Internet activities of my kid and send her back into the safety of my womb, but better sense prevailed. On talking to my kid (in the process explaining to her the derogatory nature of such words from a feminist viewpoint) and the other kid’s parents, I realized that these children do not know the meaning or repercussions of such words, and use them merely to “sound cool”.
Yielding to peer pressure is not a new phenomenon; acceptance into society is very important as a means of survival and wanting to “look cool” is just a manifestation of this need at a certain age. Use of words that are considered rude or unacceptable in a “grown up” society is one way in which youngsters show their natural rebellion and attempt at establishing a personality, even if offensive. Even in families that set boundaries for language, it is not unusual for teens to experiment with “bad words” with their friends. Where Internet has complicated this matter is in extending this “age of experiment” to tweens and sometimes even younger kids. Thus without early intervention and appropriate mentoring and prep-work, the Internet may foster undesirable behavior in kids.
The exposure of kids to profanity at an early age not only adversely affects their own poise, (although a number of people actually endorse using swear words on social media because it is just a word), but also affects their general behavior. In 2010, Sarah Coyne, a professor at Brigham Young University, surveyed more than 200 Missouri middle-school kids and correlated their exposure to profanity with their tendencies toward aggressive behavior like hitting or gossiping. She found that children who were exposed to profanity in the media were inclined to use swear words themselves, in addition to being disposed to acts of physical and non-physical aggression.
Inculcating language values (indeed all ethical values) is not a trivial or easy matter in the digital age because such values are significantly influenced by social and economic forces, in addition to age, and the pervasiveness of the net over a world with widely varying cultural, ethical and often conflicting child-rearing values. What is considered offensive in some societies could well be part of the natural vocabulary in others – “shut up” being a classic example. This phrase, now part of the youth talk to mean “be quiet”, is considered disrespectful in more conservative societies, and the parent is often caught in conflict when her child uses it as a matter-of-fact and cannot understand why the “old-fashioned” parent over-reacts to it. Scatological terminologies, and other racial, sexist and politically incorrect slurs are easier to ban because they are universally (at least for now) considered objectionable – whether they are tolerable is left to the individual’s discretion.
A cursory look at the “bad words” used (mostly by youngsters, but by some maladjusted adults as well) in the net, shows them to be of two types – illegal (or at least positively “bannable”) words/phrases that include harassment, libel, threats, gender or racial discrimination, and obscenity, and inappropriate words and phrases. The latter is the gray area between acceptable and unacceptable language, because its use is driven by context and background – what could pass off as “lingo” in a youth online hangout (“Yo! Bro”) may not be appropriate within the classroom or in a formal setting. It is up to the mentor (parent/teacher/advisor/older sibling) to teach the child the limits and boundaries of words.
Several traditional behavior modification techniques can help in establishing the code of conduct among children, both online and offline, to practice acceptable forms of communication. The code must be built on the three R’s of the Internet - Respect, Reason and Responsibility. It is important to teach children at an early stage that there is a steep cost to breaking language (and other ethical) rules. Equally critical is the child’s knowledge that once she has clicked the “post” button, her words are made immortal and thus the action of “click” must necessarily be preceded by “stop” and “think”.
While children can potentially be trained or mentored to post responsibly on the Internet, it is difficult, if not impossible, to control what they imbibe from it. Children learn from what they hear and see and it may not be always possible to shut them off to bad stuff online without denying them the benefits offered by the digital tools. It is, however, possible to educate the child about good and bad, so that the child, when accidentally exposed to unacceptable content, has the discretion in her to not be affected by it. This, in turn, hinges on an honest and open relationship between the child and the guardian.
There is a very thin line between hovering and overseeing and each child and guardian must sit together and draw rules and limits to freedom and control. Much as it may look like an insurgence into a child’s freedom, it is important for the child’s safety, for the parent (or guardian) to monitor a child’s online activity, at least until the appropriate age, which must be decided by mutual consensus (15, in our rather conservative household). It is also essential for the parent to be aware of the digital neighborhood of her ward – knowing her friends is a sure way of knowing who she is or could become.
While it is easy to be caught off-guard when a child uses inappropriate language online, it is important for the parent to not overreact or belittle the child because the parent’s response to the child’s probably experimental rebellion may have a lasting impact on her. A warm and positive relationship with the child will induce her to seek the parent out for information and advice about words and behavior.
Perhaps the most effective way to guide our wards in responsible online behavior and language etiquette is to be role models ourselves. A survey showed that many children learn to swear from parents. Gandhi’s maxim, “be the change you want to see”, is probably best suited in parenting, and it is important to choose our own words with care if we want our children to maintain verbal decorum. Early nucleation of the language code of conduct in children will help our digital natives eventually plunge into the unmonitored waters of free Internet with ingrained etiquette and ethics. That would undoubtedly contribute to our success as responsible digital parents.
Lakshmi is a parent and Mobicip blogger who is alternatingly excited and exasperated about the endless possibilities and freedoms afforded by the Internet.