Floods Hit Quickly: Digital Safety in a High Speed World

Mach Speed Changes

The scholar and technology expert leading the parenting discussion group slapped her hands together and shook her hair back from her face. We parents, gathered in the conference room of a high school to hear her speak, didn’t seem to get it, and were now wrangling through the Q&A. Why the heat? We resisted her premise.

Resisted? I flatly disbelieved her. At least I wanted to.

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“What all this data means,” said this author of multiple articles and a seminal book on kids and technology, “is that the tactics you used 5 years ago to raise your kids won’t cut it today.” She cleared her throat and said that again, slowly, her eyes level. Then she added, “In 5 years, what you were doing today won’t cut it. And in 6 years, what you were doing a year earlier than that won’t cut it. Times are changing. And they’re changing at mach speed.”

That warning came well over 5 years ago. And I, despite my incredulity at first, and like any parent paying attention to the trends, have seen her prediction come true. We’ve seen mach speed up close, and, gums flapping, are now white knuckling it against the coming whiplash of inevitable warp speed.

What our lecturer hadn’t mentioned was something that she might not have been able to foresee. “Speed” in this digital age refers to more than how rapidly technology and the world it’s driving are changing. “Speed” is obviously about how rapidly all these influences are changing our kids’ choices, brains, behavior.

How do you keep up with warp speed without getting warped yourself?

Floods Happen All at Once

At the risk of overstraining the metaphor, I need to go back to our house flood to essay an answer.

When we walked into our home on January 1st 2015 after a week away, we were shocked to find the entire ground floor flooded. My first thought: Hadn’t we been paying attention to a leak in the previous months? If we’d had even a clue, we’d have been responsible renters and stopped said leak. Had we overlooked any previous plumbing problems in the house? (No.) Had we forgotten to winterize outdoor water lines? (No.) We’d double-checked that every faucet and valve had all been off in the bathrooms and laundry area before leaving, hadn’t we? (Yes.). Our house had been, by all indications, downright watertight.

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So what happened?

Something had gone seriously wrong. An external water source sprung, and since the entryway from the garden to the house wasn’t secure, (its structure and weather-stripping weren’t sound), most of the water entered right under a single door frame. What we discovered later (after jackhammers took out the whole screed, or concrete sub-flooring) was that the foundation of the house wasn’t secure, either. The rest of the flood water had seeped in under outer walls right to the foundation.

Hundreds of liters of water made their way in. In no time at all, safe and dry became swampified.

So it is in our increasingly digital environment. Our virtual connectivity, coursing more and more through handheld gadgets which more and more of us, including more and more young kids, manipulate, works like a system of hyper-speed aqueducts that transport an arbitrary mix of the necessary, the fabulous, the exciting, the inane, but also the corrosive into our lives. The flow is unavoidable. It is constant. And it’s potent, pushing against our entryways and under our foundation with more force, ubiquity, and instantaneity than ever before. Certainly more than even our lecturing expert and her colleagues might have imagined only half a decade ago.

Sealing Against the Gush

Kids lack the emotional maturity and discipline – the sound weather-stripping, if you will — that most adults have developed to navigate the depths of the online world. From fabulous to toxic, data and stimuli flood or seep into and soak their minds the way water enters an open door and soaks your sofa.

What happens, then, when a flood of corrosive data (Bullying? Violence? Sexually explicit images or messages?) gushes into a young mind?  As a school psychologist, who treats kids with tech-related issues, told a group of concerned parents like myself, “In recent years, I’ve seen a whole lot more real decent kids slide into trouble. In no time flat.”

From dry to drenched at warp speed. If any of this sounds at all familiar to you, then welcome. Many parents are standing in figurative floods, ankle (or neck) deep in water, wondering, “Hadn’t we been paying attention to a leak somewhere? If we’d had even a clue, we’d have been responsible parents and stopped the flow. Had we overlooked any previous weak points in our child, in our family, that make him or her or all of us vulnerable to digital dangers?  Had we forgotten to filter, set limits, model healthy digital citizenship? Did we double-check every device and gadget, and direct our family to real (as opposed to virtual) activities?”

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Some Tips

The school psychologist then taught us to watch for signs that, in spite of all our precautions, there might be a “flood” in our family. While parents have probably noted any one or two of the following red flags in their child, it’s a combination of three or more that would be cause to check your doors, foundation, and, yes, even your Windows 10.

  • A change in sleeping and eating habits
  • Anger at being interrupted while on the computer/device
  • A slump in interest in normally enjoyable activities
  • Visible restlessness when not on a computer/device
  • Withdrawing from social activities/family to be alone on computer/device
  • Losing track of time when in front of computer/device
  • Hiding online activity from parents
  • Strained vision/dry eyes
  • Secretiveness, unwillingness to share feelings
  • Agitation, aggression, depression

You might be interested in these resources about teens and social media, or about technology, teens and college students. Or how technology has changed our perception of time, or the general relationship between technology and speed.

Share Your Opinion

From your experience, was the first technology expert right?

If so, how has “warp speed” affected your parenting, your family relationships, your children’s behavior?

If not, how are you doing whatever it is you’re doing?

From your experience, was the second expert (the school psychologist) right?

If he wasn’t, what, in your opinion, keeps a kid from “sliding”?

Watertight? Swimming in Today’s Digital Ocean

Our Little Citadel

There was a time when my husband and I thought if we made our home a fortress and stood sentinel at its drawbridge, a major part of our job as parents was done. Queen and King of our little citadel, we’d keep our hawk eyes on every coming and going. Good stuff in; bad stuff out. We managed making a stronghold for our family.

(But then, there was also a day when our house didn’t spontaneously spring a leak and leave us waterlogged for the better part of a year…)

Back in that Once-Upon-a-Time time, physical fortification worked. For example, because we weren’t excited about most public television, we decided to raise our kids sans. (We got the TV for those parent-approved DVDs, but otherwise never hooked the thing up for local channels, forget cable.) They read lots of books and integrated deeply during our years in Norway and France. And since we weren’t thrilled about video and computer games, we just never got them. One child did play them occasionally at a friend’s house, but he never did it enough to get hooked.

And so on.

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Thus we managed. From our turret. Overlooking our moat. Admiring the pet crocodiles we’d tossed in for effect.

Then all at once, the whole world flooded.

The Digital Flood

At least it seemed like the flood was all at once. Somewhere in the early half of the 21st century — Monday, September 3rd of 2007, to be precise — I realized our fortress was under serious threat, tides were climbing swiftly, and soon we’d be neck deep in something I would never be able to control.

That was the day our eleven-year-old started a new school. In it, the One-to-One program was being piloted, meaning that personal laptops were required for every student and for all classroom work. That same year, same school, our youngest, then seven, also began doing much more schoolwork through digital means. I volunteered every week in class, and noted that many of his grade school aged classmates had smart phones. Some slightly older kids, still preteens, had social media accounts. At the same time, I discovered our sixteen-year-old was downloading movies, sitcoms, and something I learned was called Youtube clips on her laptop. (And I’d thought she’d been doing extra homework.)

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Over the course of that single year, I watched rising, churning currents, the foisting tide of stimuli climbing our bastion walls. Whirls of Twitter, eddies of Pinterest, later surges of Instagram. Then came the stream of WhatsApp, WeChat. Snapchat . Torrents of Skype, LinkedIn, Tumblr. In no time – in the following few swift years — the tide spilled clean over the upper edge of my fortification. Today, I’m dog-paddling wildly, maybe like some of you friends, just to keep afloat. Talk about a sea change.

No wonder the latest digital tool is called Periscope.

The Flood and The Ocean

I need to add quickly that, as with nearly every flood, the current is mostly plain water. Common, innocuous — even life-sustaining, potential-filled, phenomenal — water. We need free exchange of information, and we need connectivity.

Furthermore, I’m certainly no techno-Grinch.  I haven’t taken to living off-the-grid, eschewing texts for smoke signals, homesteading and homeschooling in the Yukon, hauling wood chips for grilling road-kill possums on a spit, and weaving my own cloth from hemp and acorn floss.

No. I’m here with you on this screen, btw, passionately part of the modern world, and, um, on Instagram, Twitter, my three pages on Facebook …

But I am increasingly alarmed by three qualities of the digital ocean: the swiftness (we can’t possibly keep apace); the surreptitiousness (we can’t possibly plug every point of entry); and the mix (we can’t possibly filter all the possible toxins.) So please, elbows on the table, brows furrowed, I want a toe-to-toe, rigorous conversation with you about this.

If the digital ocean has radically and permanently revolutionized everything, what does that mean for parenting? From my teeny sample group of our own four children (raised pre and post flood), and from my larger sample group of countless youth and young adults with whom I’ve worked closely as a teacher, leader, counselor and lecturer in many different countries around the world, I’ve learned that our digital ocean has profoundly altered – heightened the need for vigilance and spiritual wisdom in — parenting. No home, including my own, is watertight. No physical fortress holds against this kind of pressure. We need something else, our kids need something else, and that something else has to be so much better than bricks, mortar and denial.

Check Out These Resources

To illustrate, consider if you are fully aware of what is happening in your child’s digital world.

Are you sure you have a clear sense of your child’s online activity?

Have you discussed in your family whether your child is being bullied, or is herself an online bully?  

Do you know of others involved in cyberbullying?

In disgust, fatigue or exasperation, have you gone off grid? Or have you considered instead, as I have, immersing yourself mindfully in the ocean?

Do you have stories you can share about how the digital ocean has altered your child’s behavior, including sleeping and communication patterns? Or what have you observed regarding the digital ocean’s effect on family cohesion – for better or worse? For depth, you might read this, or  this,  and/or this, and then share your comments.

Do you monitor your child’s online activity? 

What do you know about your child receiving (or sending) sexts?

Finally, and most pervasive and pernicious of all, how informed are you about young children, teens, and porn, deemed in this piece to be “the biggest health concern”?

If you’ve had success in responding to these needs, what is it you’ve done?

Finally, if you are interested in scholarly research on the topic, I really appreciated this piece.

A Sea Change, the Internet, and Swimming in the Infinite

As you can sense, our nasty house flood stirred up in me more than concerns for our physical watertightness. Above all, that flood was an ugly wake-up call to how vulnerable we are to the figurative floods that encroach, soak, infiltrate, and inundate. No home — whether a moated fortress or a firm German rental, like ours — is, in the face of today’s digital ocean, ultimately unassailable. No one is watertight. The age of fortress parenting with its high walls and sentinels is as outdated as the medieval fortress itself.

The Internet doesn’t hold us buoyant in a digital ocean.  It lowers us into complete immersion. So is our modern world. Today’s toddler who swipes her Daddy’s iPhone screen as naturally as my first toddler plugged his pacifier back into his own mouth, is growing up totally saturated in the vast digital ocean.  And with that ocean comes wonder, beauty, possibility as well as undertows, predators, and devastation. Given that truth, how will we – and as importantly, how will our children — learn to swim, and not drown in, the digital ocean’s infinite possibilities?