It has been a little under a month that India witnessed its first death due to the suddenly famous phenomenon called the Blue Whale game. The name is a misnomer – it is well-established that the Blue Whale Challenge is not a real game. It is neither an application that can be downloaded, not a website you can register at. All it really is a group of people talking to another group of (particularly) vulnerable people(sadly, our kids) and manipulating their sense of self-esteem into committing dangerous acts, culminating in suicide.
While a lot of us have read, heard and seen enough against the use of technology for children, this one comes as a special shocker. Suddenly, monitoring our children’s online activity becomes just as important as monitoring the rest of their lives.
The rise in the use of social media, and our revelling in online likes and comments leads to increased social isolation. One study by the Pew Research Center in 2012 revealed a trend of parents spending more time online than non-parents. This is enhanced for parents whose children are also on social media, with parents attempting to get a handle on their children’s digital lives. With increased domestic responsibility, it is also possible that parents experience significantly more social isolation than non-parents, making then report to social media to fill the void.
Every like and comment triggers a small dose of dopamine in our brains, giving us a slight high, making us seek them out from the online communities surrounding our digital identities. Our digital activity is an integral and an important part of who we are.
As parents of today, we understand that it is impossible to do away with our online identities. However, it is crucial that we learn how to manage our digital identities which can only come from a deep understanding of the nature of our digital identities.
Because, it is not just us anymore,it is our children too.
For one, children can learn to over-identify with their online personas. While many kids experience the first rush of alcohol and other drugs for the first time during adolescent years, increasing their risks for addiction, they also learn to crave the constant stream of social approval on their timelines. They also learn to project a filtered version of their lives to their friends, while totally ‘believing’ the filtered versions of their friends’ lives.
Cat Coode, a digital identity expert and a guest on our Momspirations series founded Binary Tattoo, a company whose mission is to help people navigate the digital world. The name BinaryTattoo signifies the permanent nature of our digital imprints
In an interview I conducted for our series with Cat Coode, a digital identity expert and founder of, we spoke about what parents can do to navigate the complex world of digital imprints and identities. The name, and Cat’s mission is to educate people about how the digital world really works.
Here are a few recommendations from Cat:
Profile photos are never private
We can toggle all the privacy setting we want, but profile photos are always public. By putting up pictures of children as profile photos, we are allowing access to them by public photo crawlers. What’s more, it’s easily identifiable alongside your name. When coupled with facial recognition technology, it becomes very easy to track the target.
Today, most children have a digital identity by the time they are six months old. Some of them are on social media even before they are born(!), with parents putting up ultrasound images and name ideas for an expected baby. Cat says that by the time they’re old enough( which is 13) to sign up for their own accounts, many of them typically have about 2000 photos online.
Anything on the internet never goes away. These pictures can leave a lasting impact on the kids, leaving them open to embarrassment and subsequent bullying during the already difficult teenage years. Even potential employers are known to seek them out, affecting even their professional lives. The recent body-shaming outrage against a one-year-old child’s(!) photo that was inadvertently open to the public is a testimony to this effect.
Some nations like France have taken these risks seriously and have taken drastic steps to stop parents from putting up pictures of their kids online. Parents can face prison time for sharing their kids’ pictures indiscriminately.
A family digital contract is a great help.
While contracts sound very normal in a professional setting, Cat recommends that we treat the child’s digital world with the same level of respect, rigour, and commitment. She recommends the use of a digital contract as an agreement between the parent and child around the use of devices and online networks.
The child’s part of the contract could include things like:
- Agreement on not using the device to abuse, bully or threaten others.
- Agreement that anything uncomfortable should be immediately brought to the notice of the parents.
- The number of hours of use, the purpose of use, places they can and can’t use the device, etc.
- The knowledge that everything that goes online will remain there permanently.
The parent’s part of the contract could include:
- What amount of control the parent will exercise on the child’s online activity
- Agreement about how they will learn to navigate the digital world together.
Showing is knowing
Many parents assume that they are well aware of the uses of a particular application. Yet, many time, kids use it in entirely different ways. Very recently, a mom discovered her 12-year-old girl using an app in a particularly dangerous manner – live-streaming from her bedroom.
Cat is of the opinion that the relationship between kids and social media/technology can be likened to other risks that parents know teenagers will take. Every parent can warn their kids about the dangers of it, yet they’ll try it anyway and hide it from the parents. The better approach is to equip the kids and yourself with the right information.
Says Cat, “For example, when parents have access to children’s passwords, the child will go ahead and create additional secret accounts that their parents have no clue about.”
Stay away from providing false information.
Today’s children find themselves with gadgets to keep them engaged, with the consequence that children are far more savvy with technology than adults. When my daughter has a science project coming up, I see messages flying on Whatsapp groups (still on my phone, thankfully). Kids can’t wait to get on apps that help them connect, and email is a strong way to connect. If you are considering opening an account for them when they are not yet 13, one of the easiest options is to lie about their age.
It might seem innocuous, but parents should be aware that most programs will fire a switch when the child is officially eighteen. At that time, the child will be exposed to direct targeting, advertising, and features meant for adults – even though your child is not actually the right age.
Cat explains, “If any trouble were to arise from the interactions from this additional content, it could get blamed on the parent since they legally agreed on their child’s age.”
The cyberbullying deal is real
Cyberbullying has emerged as a top parenting concern, even displacing teenage pregnancies and substance abuse.
Cyberbullying can include repeated targeted messaging to a select person in the group, stealing passwords, misuse of information, disseminating false information, spreading inappropriately morphed images, direct threats, etc.
Reports suggest that most children don’t report issues with bullying to their parents, the primary fear being that they’ll be banned from using the network. This might be most instinctive and easiest thing to do when parents find out about cyber bullying, yet experts warn against this approach. The threat of being pulled away from the network will increase the peer pressure. Instead, it helps to calmly assess the extent of the bullying.
The best way to deal with it is to have knowledge on how to report abuse on the internet. Social media networks support ways to reach out and report offensive comments and content. (Here is a comprehensive list on how to report internet trolls and cyber bullies.)
“Always take screenshots of the offensive posts before you disconnect from the user in case you need evidence of the trolling or bullying,” advises Cat.
Create a positive image.
Help your child to maintain a positive image online. Practice the pause before sharing anything online and guide them to do the same. Social media platforms are designed to make it easy to share thoughts instantly, but it’s helpful to remember that what you put out there is permanent and will serve as a reflection of who you are.
Maintain positive, respectful, unambiguous language while sharing your thoughts online. Refrain from making derogatory comments about someone’s appearance, religion, ethnicity, etc.
Practice Neutral Language
Cat also suggests working to maintain a neutral language. For example, the comment, “Did you see Cat’s shirt?” could be interpreted as either positive (complimentary) or negative (mocking). Better to put, “I liked Cat’s shirt” or, “Did you see Cat’s shirt? I like it.”
The expression “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is very appropriate for social media.
Even in cases where we might think that the message is meant only for a certain recipient (as in private chat apps), it’s important to follow this rule. The app’s servers store these messages and the receiver also could store it through a screenshot.
Create a professional identity early on
Cat also recommends creating and maintaining a LinkedIn account for anyone over the age of 16. The professional nature of the network does not require any personal information and allows you to have a positive digital identity.
Raising the current generation is very different from the way we were raised. Our kids are infinitely smarter and savvier, but also lonelier. Their concept of fun is different, as is their understanding of friends. All adolescents go through the phase of identity crisis, and the pressure of looking good in front of peers never goes away.
As parents, it’s time we stepped up and took the time to understand the digital phenomenon in a deep, engaged, and responsible manner. After all, the internet is what we make it.
A modified version of this article first appeared on Parent.co.