Of children dead "because" of social media
There is no shame in NOT being an astronaut TODAY.
On January 21st, 2021, a 10-year old italian girl died in her bathroom, hanged to a belt. So far, it seems very, very likely that she unvoluntarily killed herself, to participate in a challenge seen on the TikTok social network.
Four days later, another italian child, only 9-years old, was found dead in his home, hanged. At the moment, there is no definitive evidence that the two deaths are related in any way, but of course it is hard to feel they aren’t.
Almost immediately after the first death, the Italian Data Protection Authority announced that it would “block TikTok”.
Are such bans appropriate, sufficient, or even necessary to avoid more deaths like these? Let’s discuss it another day, if nothing else because it may still be possible that TikTok videos and challenges had little or no direct influence on either death. The point of this post is only to highlight something that must be done anyway, bans or not, and whatever the causes of those deaths are.
Three Facebook accounts, and about ten Instagram ones
According to her own father, the 10-year old girl had, with the consent of both parents, not just her personal smartphone, but also, besides TikTok, “three Facebook accounts, and about ten Instagram ones”. All unmonitored by the parents, because “there were no secrets among us”.
Evolution takes TIME. A LOT of time
The possibilities of “communication” (note the quotes) offered by today’s social media are a cultural evolutionary leap that is not just epochal. Above all, it is a leap that is practically instantaneous in social, psychological and maybe even biological terms.
The fact that, at those levels, computers and the Internet are an instantaneous leap has an implication that is as simple, as it is important: right now, where “now” means at least one more generation, 99.999% of the human species is still absolutely unable to properly manage that leap.
An obvious, but never enough repeated of this species-wide incapability is that “schools” cannot really fix it at scale this year, the next year or in the next ten or twenty years. Nor can traditional or new media, or the entertainment/cultural industry, or anybody else you may be thinking of.
To see what I mean, remember smallpox. Even when a vaccine was found, it took almost TWO CENTURIES to really eradicate it. Computers and internect “infect” us at an entirely different level, of course, and one that can be hugely beneficial. But they are at least as big as smallpox. We cannot get herd immunity from their negative effects in less than years. Quite some years, probably.
What and where is the parents’ fault here?
For every child or young who dies, or is otherwise physically harmed “because of the Internet” there are many millions who are dealing, or will deal, with equally important problems, from the same sources. So…
In my opinion, if the children of today get any kind of permanent harm from using “the internet”, it is firstly and largely their parents fault, but stay with me here!
I do not mean that parents should properly “teach” their children to use computers and Internet appropriately. How could I, right after pointing out that almost all parents living today are unable to do it but that’s is their fault… just as much it is their fault to be born with an appendix?
Forget for a moment, if you can, that that italian girl is dead. Even if she had not died, or if it turned out that TikTok had no part in her death…
I would still feel that her parents did a serious mistake to give her a personal smartphone so early, and to let her use it to get any account on social media. They should have just told them “no, let’s talk about this again in 4⁄5 years “.
What I consider to be the fault of not just today’s parents, but also almost all their advisers, starting from pediatricians, teachers and journalists, is ONLY ignorance of these three, extremely simple guidelines:
- just acknowledge the reality that computers, but especially social media, are an evolutionary leap. One that will be mastered years after today’s children have reached adulthood. No schooling is needed to get this fact, just common sense
- what’s firstly wrong in “children with personal smartphones” is not the “smartphone” part.
- consequently, just delay individual ownership or unsupervised usage of certain devices and services for children until they are, in my opinion, 13 or 14 years old
Don’t get stuck on the 13-14 years figure!
We can discuss the exact age some other time. Focus on the basic facts for now:
- the human species is still unable to handle these changes
- things are considerably made worse from the fact that practically all of today’s smartphones, apps and social networks are deliberately, specifically designed to maximize addiction, even for adults
Just ignore the undisputable, but very isolated exceptions: until such conditions persist, the only solution that is both sensible AND really scalable, that is safely adoptable by the masses, is to delay unsupervised usage of certain digital devices and services.
The day may very well come when all digital devices and service are appropriate for all children, and all children have adequate “environmental” support to learn how to use them alone.
But that day is not today, or in the next few years. Just accept it. Maybe some day space travel will be as commonplace as driving a car today. But today, there is no shame in NOT being an astronaut. This is the same thing. If you are a parent today, the last thing you should do is to feel ashamed, or inadequate, for telling your children “just wait”.
In case it wasn’t clear:
None of all this means that children should wait until that age to learn how to use the internet and computers properly!