Sexting, parental monitoring, laissez-faire content approach: Aussie teens sound off

A panel of Australian teens at the World Congress on Family Law & Children's Rights sunk their teeth into the meatiest of Internet and mobile use topics — sexting, how they (don't) interact with inappropriate content, and how parents should go about monitoring their kids' digital activities. 

Andrew D. Brosig,The Daily Sentinel/AP
A group of Australian teens on sexting — laws seem unfair; inappropriate content — ignore it; parental monitoring — announce it.; a minimum age for social networks — 13. Here, a 19-year-old snaps a photo of her friend's puppy in Texas, Feb. 27.

My visit to Australia for the World Congress on Family Law & Children’s Rights has been rich in hospitality and insight — I’ve had the privilege of talking with people in government, online-safety advocacy, industry, school (students!), primary and secondary education, research, of course many parents and grandparents, and even “Australia’s Dr. Phil,” as Michael Carr-Gregg has sometimes referred to himself (but the latter is still a clinical psychologist as well as media personality). I can’t possibly fit all that I’ve learned into one blog post, so I’ll be breaking it out into several posts). First anecdotal, next published research….

A panel of smart, candid high school students, moderated by Dr. Carr-Gregg, lasted for a mere 30 minutes. I could’ve listened to them for a couple of hours, so I sought them out afterwards, and they kindly shared more of their thinking. [Here they are, in uniform because most Australian students seem to wear school uniforms and they came right from school, thoughtfully formulating their answers to a question I'm asking. Between us is Dr. Carr-Gregg in yellow tie. The photo was taken and posted by Jeremy Blackman of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, my gracious hosts.]

Here are some highlights from the panel (Ethan, Jon, Claire, Filip, Cameron, and Ashley):

  • Sexting: For some reason, this topic — and what the minimum age should be for criminal responsibility in their country — was raised with the students first (more soon about it from a brilliant researcher here). Naturally, teens are as confused as are adults and the laws in many countries. “It depends” seemed to be the consensus, sensibly — because neither trust between friends nor a law is being violated in every case of sexting that even gets legal attention. “The law is unfair and needs to be altered,” said one panelist, in sync with what I’ve heard legal scholars say. They seemed to struggle with the age factor — one said that children need to be held accountable for their actions too — but the panelists agreed that children need education about the consequences, and “education is better than prosecution.”
  • Inappropriate content: When asked about whether pages depicting violence, hate, misogyny, etc. should be taken down, one student said, “Nobody’s forcing you to look at or like that page. You can block it too, so that you never have to look at it if you don’t want to.” Another said, “Free speech is important,” adding that it’s better to allow people to “express their displeasure” with and on an offensive page than to require a service to delete it. A third panelist said that, if it promotes violence, it should be taken down, “but people say awful things to each other in person, and [online] is just another place where that happens.”
  • They’re self-regulating. Bearing out a finding from MediaSmarts in Canada, they’re both aware of the need for balanced use of digital media and working on that in their own lives. One panelist referred to the “Great Friend Deletion of 2010,” so that, ever since, he only has FB friends who he actually knows offline (about 300). Another has her privacy settings set as private/friends only. But one panelist called on parents to help their kids strike a balance between online and offline. He made an important qualification, though (which I hope parents will hear): If parents go overboard and take social media away altogether, “you can become a social outcast and get bullied. That’s a concern.” Another panelist said that digital media are “enmeshed in and important to daily life.”
  • Great advice for parents: The students said their generation will “go online whether you say to or not and will do what they want,” so “teaching us why or why not is better than just saying no. You can’t take our technology away without a good reason.” But, hey, said one panelist, “it’s not bad online. We go online to talk about what we had for dinner half the time. Bad stuff happens, but that’s not what social media’s all about. People talk badly about others offline too — this is just another medium, and people should get used to that.” Another panelist agreed: “People are doing things on the Net that they do in offline life — it’s the same thing. People need to be more educated before they pass judgment on social media.” His comment is representative of a finding from Australian research I’ve quoted before, that “rather than sliding into a moral vacuum when they go online, young people draw upon the same moral framework that shapes their offline engagements.”
  • Of parental monitoring. There seemed to be acceptance of this, but not of secret monitoring. Panelists seem to agree that they should be notified by their parents if monitoring was going to happen. This was a finding in the Canadian study too.
  • Of “digital citizenship”: When I asked them about this afterwards, they didn’t seem enthusiastic about the concept. “You’re not a separate person online,” said one student suggesting that the term suggests something different from “citizenship.” Another simply said that it’s “a weird term,” and a third felt it sounded like someone was “rebranding” Internet safety. It’s the early days for this concept in Australia, it seems.
  • Socially very mobile: Like US youth, and bearing out the EU and AU Kids Online research, these teens seem to use social media mostly on their phones and devices of similar size and portability — whether it’s Facebook or Kik Messenger (Australian youth’s No. 1 texting app it appears). Remember how we’d pass notes in class? Texting — and in Australia, Kik, specifically — is the new note-passing, it seems (in elementary school too).
  • A minimum age? Yes, the panelists said. The minimum age for Facebook and all social media should be 13, because otherwise kids would grow up too fast, one said, suggesting that 12-year-olds shouldn’t feel pressure to “wear what 18-year-olds wear and go clubbing.” Another agreed, saying U13s “can be really irritating” to have around in social media, and — besides — they shouldn’t be exposed to inappropriate photos (he wasn’t given the chance to define “inappropriate”).
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