Last night, after Manchester United crashed out of Europe in pretty spectacular fashion, I stopped following someone on Twitter. Because he was, not to put too fine words on it, getting on my tits. He’s a forthright gentleman at the best of times, but last night’s exercise in schadenfreude was a bit too much for this United fan. I shut him off.
A week ago, my daughter (who’s 12) found herself getting into a fairly sticky social situation because of the way she’s been talking on MSN Messenger. Someone got the wrong end of a stick, and it ended up with a phone call from her school. One verbal conversation and the problem went away.
What connects these things? Digital communication, that’s what. My anti-United friend was simply indulging in a time-honoured tradition of baiting. And the one thing you learn when you’re being baited is to take it. Any sign of a negative reaction will be accompanied by hails of hilarity because, as anyone educated in England knows full well, taking the piss is a cherished cultural activity. The key parental advice you receive in England is not that one day, you can be President. It’s that if you ignore them, they’ll go away.
But Twitter, and pretty much all online interaction, radically changes that. Because on Twitter, I can turn you off. With a simple button-press, your riffing on my pain is eradicated, and karmic peace descends.
But, as my daughter discovered, this brings other pain. The thing I hear from her and her friends more than anything else when I call them on their online comms styles is this: “I was only joking.” And the minute you’ve said that, you know something’s gone wrong. Because communicating inside little text boxes is a pale imitation of real speech. It’s easier to offend, either deliberately or accidentally. It’s impossible to accompany any statement with a visual warning that “this is a joke.” It’s an irony-free zone out there. I know, because I’ve insisted on Ofsted-style inspections of my daughter’s online discussions, and some of the stuff kids say to each other is eye-catchingly awful. The charming little friend with a nice line in dry wit can come across as an obnoxious cow online. But it’s OK, because she’s “only joking.”
And of course adults are falling into the old (well, maybe a decade-old) trap: the kids understand this stuff much better than us, we’re just not equipped to advise them on it.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. We have to teach our kids how to communicate online. We have to help them understand that words can hurt. We have to teach them the difference between unfollowing on Twitter and physically turning your back. A friend of mine is a deputy at a massive London comprehensive. And do you know how many sessions they’ve had for the teachers on social media? How many lessons the teachers have had in online communication to allow them to pass stuff on to the kids in their care? None. Zero. Zip. The kids really do know more about Facebook than their teachers. And this is a Very Bad Thing.
There’s no Kwik Fix for this, but I would suggest this: we should all be looking at our kids’ online communications. Screw the squeamishness. If they’re under, say, 16, we should be able to view what they’ve been saying to each other at a moment’s notice, without warning. We should be able to tell them what’s appropriate and what’s out of line. We should be able to question obvious deletions. It should be a condition of access to the Internet that this happens. Transparency might not suit tweenagers and teenagers, but it’s essential for parents.