The Dangers of Technology - Part 1
Gen Z is a generation that struggles with a new type of predator or bully; its name is technology. They are known as "digital natives," meaning they've never known a time where they cannot be connected or in conversation with someone via the internet. This connection can be a wonderful thing, especially during intense isolation, such as the Covid-19 pandemic—many youth struggle or desire to be liked far more than they desire health or safety. Gen Z's battle with technology is what I want to address today and how we as parents, leaders, and mentors can be more proactive and aware of ways and reasons they use technology and the harm that might ensue.
How do we address the dangers of technology with our children, you may ask? Well, I would argue many of us do not realize that someone is unsafe or a villain until it is far too late, whether that's online or in person. Further, our kids are craving connection and relationships and will accept unsafe behaviors to maintain access to those relationships in the outside world online. Dangerous relationships happen online far more than you would think. Why? The 40-year old living in his parent's basement, who's online all the time, evoked suspicion 10-20 years ago, but accessibility to the internet makes those that are unsafe much less overt. Today, many children crave attention and adoration, even if it is from someone who may not be safe. When we allow access to the internet without proper safety or knowledge of what's out there, we open them to unintended consequences and risks.
Technology has allowed youth today to de-localize relationships; they are not content with meeting people in their zip code. Instead, they can talk or video chat with anyone worldwide through technological apps or mediators (TikTok, Omegle, and Instagram). The problem is that each app's safety and security protocols vary. For example, Omegle is an app on which people do random roulette video chats that pair users with people worldwide. The concern lies with the age verification process, which requires a user to enter a birthday. Once complete, teens have access to the site. Omegle has posed such a risk that TikTok has placed a ban on sharing Omegle links due to safety concerns. Since the pandemic, Omegle has seen a 61% increase in online traffic amongst the teen demographic. In fact, in the past year, there has been a rise in online sexual exploitation of children and minors, as seen by The National Center For Missing And Exploited Children, which cited that since the start of the pandemic (March 2020), they have received over 30,236 reports of online enticement or exploitation against children. That is double the national average of 16,000 for 2015-2019.
To examine this, I want us as leaders and parents to ask ourselves why youth are drawn to or are engaging with this type of online interaction? The CDC reports that 54% of Gen Z struggles with anxiety, isolation, depression, and suicidal thoughts. They are the most connected generation from a digital aspect, but the ability to foster an authentic or meaningful relationship, friendship, or connection is lacking. Because of this, Gen Z is more likely to engage in online activity to gain connection or positive affirmation. The US Health Association reports that youth 8-18 spend 7 1/2 hrs a day on media devices. The internet allows for instant feedback and critique. The feelings and confidence one receives from likes and comments are staggering. Combine that with the release of dopamine in the brain and the reward system it engages. Suddenly, youth begin to crave and desire positive affirmation regardless of the provider. The temptation and desire for that confidence boost far outweigh the risk in their minds, which is how media addiction is born.
So, after all this scary and disheartening information, what can parents do to help and guide our children as they navigate this digital age? First, we need to remember that we do not walk this road alone. Deuteronomy 31:6 says, "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." Knowing we do not walk this path alone can bring some comfort, but we also need to take a proactive approach vs. a reactive approach to our children and the internet. We need to help prepare our teens to navigate the dangers of the internet and notice the warning signs of manipulation. Manipulation is challenging to recognize when it is happening to you. Teaching them to look for the red flags below will help prepare them should something occur.
1.) If someone asks them for personal information, photos, or video chats: Teach your children not to engage in online activity without knowing that person in real life.
2.) If someone becomes overly controlling or persistent: When engaging online, it's best to disengage any conversation or interaction that is controlling or aggressive and encourage teens to report it to you or the authorities should that be necessary.
3.) If someone is reluctant to share their personal information: We need to teach our teens to be skeptical when a stranger pursues them online. If the person reaching out gives incomplete or confusing information, encourage your teen to cut contact and report suspicious behavior.
4.) If someone is continually pushing boundaries: If the person they are engaging with online is continuously pushing family boundaries, encourage your teens to report this to you immediately and communicate they should do so without fear of punishment.
Educating your children on what they should do if they enter an unsafe site or a conversation with someone they feel is unsafe. Below are some steps to help:
1.) Teach them to be cautious with personal information: We need to teach our children to be careful with what they share and who can see or access the information they share online. Setting boundaries on what is shared and who can see or access their posts or profiles is essential.
2.) Seek help when unsure: We need to teach our children that they should never do online engagement alone. We need to uphold healthy online activity boundaries for our kids and demonstrate those same rules apply to ourselves. It's vitally important that your children feel they can come to you, should something occur; building that trust by holding yourself to the same standards communicate you follow what you say.
3.) They are not at fault: Letting our children know that should something happen, the blame does not lie with them, and they do not need to feel guilty is immensely important.
Take A Deep Breath:
Ok, so I just threw a ton of info at you, and you are probably afraid, overwhelmed and unsure of where to start. I would encourage you to take a moment, breathe deeply and speak to your child. The world is a scary place, but again, we can place our fears at the feet of Jesus and remember he goes with us. Lastly, I would encourage you to pray before you have these conversations, just that there would be soft hearts, open ears, and peace as you embrace these challenging but rewarding conversations. As we continue this discussion with Part 2 of this blog, I will focus on the tactics that youth use to avoid parental monitoring, detection and why we should be aware of these responses and how to navigate this with your children.