Online hoaxes show that parents need to grow up

Apologies, all. I write while paddling in the tides of the Momo hoax, a story I am extremely sorry for continuing just when you thought it was safe to open your laptop and one I’m loathe to repeat because, well, then I’m just another voice screaming into the waves, but… oh dear too late, here I am, soaked. Britain’s media, schools and police forces were told last week to stop promoting an online hoax about the “Momo challenge”, which centres on the idea that a scary wide-eyed monster is using WhatsApp messages to encourage children to kill themselves. Questions were raised in parliament about what the government planned to do about it, while hundreds of schools sent warning letters home.

In 1983, a woman called Pat Pulling, whose son had killed himself, insisted Dungeons & Dragons was to blame. She started an organisation called Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD), claiming that the game used (among other things) demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, blasphemy, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, satanic-type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, desecration, demon summoning and necromantics, inspiring violence in those who played it. Yet, after an intensive media campaign, the most notable result was that D&D’s revenues quadrupled.

When people have children, to varying degrees, they all become Pat. A piece of their heart has cracked off and been given its own bedroom, its own closeable door. And the addition of phones to an ancient fear – one that in the past has manifested itself in a frantic worry about things such as Pink Floyd records played backwards, Neknominate games and razor blades in apples – has amplified and quickened it. A child’s phone adds a squeaky newness to the question of how much of an inner life they can expect, or indeed be allowed. How far can a parent let their child roam, unchaperoned, down the steps into an app they can’t even pronounce? And what are the ethics of this? In 2019 what privacy can a teenager expect to find?

While 20 years ago parents might have gazed down a lamplit street wondering where their children were, today they know exactly where to find them – they are inside the internet. But the presence of their body two rooms away is no balm – rather than calming fears, it adds new depths to them. Existential fears about the vast dark landscape the child seems lost in, fears of the adult’s inability to navigate those landscapes when they can’t even work the remote control, and a fear of sending them out there without even a coat – a fear that it’s this parent’s neglect and busyness that means they’ve used the internet as a babysitter, without even a casual CBT check.

If the grown-ups sharing warnings about Momo appearing in Peppa Pig clips were to question their terror, they might see it was a fear of YouTube itself, that never-ending story that, like Momo, compels their child to watch, and then, to act. To buy, to share their deepest secrets with strangers, to climb inside and be seen themselves, spreading their unboxed makeup across the duvet they ironed on Sunday.

The government made internet safety a compulsory part of the curriculum in 2014, and schools teach “e-safety” during PSHE lessons. But what this hoax has taught us is that it’s not just children that need lessons in using the internet. Adults need educating, and quickly. As well as the expected filtering and monitoring that parents must do with their children’s internet use, all adults need to learn what we are paying when we use an app that’s free. We need to be reminded to approach the internet with healthy cynicism, to be prepared to interrogate what is real, and why.

Rather than focusing on our guilt at raising children on screens, a side effect of some positive things (like more mothers working) and some negative (like having to work all the time, everywhere), we can work to use our own screens more consciously. The internet is changing the way young people grow up, but adults need to work harder to understand it, rather than run from it, screaming about monsters.

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