This article contains affiliate links. Fight the New Drug may receive financial support from purchases made using affiliate links.
“Look both ways before you cross the street.” “Be careful who you talk to.” “Don’t get in the back of a white van with a stranger who offers you candy.”
These are all fears parents today can relate to from when they were growing up. That could be why many still believe physical dangers like kidnappers and rapists lurking around dark corners are the primary, more prevalent concern rather than the dangers their kids are facing online.
Pediatric ER Physician Dr. Free N. Hess shares, “Statistically speaking, our world is much safer outside in the neighborhood. Those physical dangers are much less likely to happen than the dangers that we’re seeing online.”
In fact, the physical world is actually much safer now than it used to be—with violent crimes in the United States down dramatically from 1990 to 2018.
But most parents aren’t using technology in the same way their kids are, so they don’t understand it enough to know what to be afraid of. And for those who are aware, the “not my kid” syndrome as experts describe it is far too common.
“My kid won’t do that. My kid would never. My kid’s friends aren’t like that. My kid’s school isn’t like that.” Dr. Hess adds, “You’re wrong. Everybody’s community is like that. Every school is like that. Every kid has the potential to do any one of the things we’re talking about here.”
Our affiliates at Bark, the monitoring tool that uses AI to alert parents and schools when kids face dangers online, and Fight the New Drug were recently featured in a documentary that aims to help anyone who wants to better understand the world kids are navigating in today’s digital age.
Childhood 2.0 features actual parents, kids, and industry-leading experts as it dives into real-life issues kids face daily—like cyberbullying, online predators, suicidal ideation, and more.
Guinea pigs in a new digital age
Kids are so intuitive with mobile devices today, they run circles around their parents. With how quickly technology has evolved in the last 20 years and continues to do so, it can feel impossible to keep up.
In the documentary, Chris McKenna, Founder and CEO of Protect Young Eyes, describes it this way: “Its pace has been so fast that some of the guardrails that are necessary to keep an industry accountable have been set aside in the spirit of innovation.”
Of course, there are significant benefits to today’s tech and ways to use the internet for good—like staying connected, educational opportunities, and location tracking features for safety. But it also brings a whole new selection of mental, physical, and emotional dangers.
According to Childhood 2.0, 53% of American children own a smartphone by age 11. Many feel pressure or judgment to get one, or are ostracized or bullied if they don’t. As the age kids get devices drops younger and younger, the rate they develop problems is increasing.
On average, kids are spending seven hours a day or more on their phones. That’s like an entire work shift on top of school, sleeping, and eating.
Rising suicide, cyberbullying, and “mass narcissism”
From 2000 to 2017, suicide rates amount youth ages 10-24 skyrocketed by 56%. Physicians have seen a dramatic increase in young children coming to the ER for non-suicidal self-harm, suicide attempts, and suicidal ideation.
Here are a few other quick facts about suicide from Childhood 2.0:
- In 2015, 1.12 million kids were presented to the ER for suicide attempt or suicide ideation
- 43% of those 1.12 million children were under 11 years old.
- According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death for children ages 10-24—and #1 in the state of Colorado.
Of course, suicidal ideation is a result of many factors, but it’s clear that kids don’t have the skills to self-regulate or deal with difficult emotions—and their mobile devices play a significant role. Bark alone sends out over a dozen imminent suicide alerts per day.
Bullies used to have limited access to kids—usually just during school hours.
But now, they follow their peers everywhere on their devices and broadcast their cruelty for the world to see through comments, DMs, or text threads—with no means of safety or escape.
Cyberbullying can be as direct as telling someone to “kill themself” or as subtle as blocking someone, failing to tag them in a post, or posting about an activity someone hasn’t been invited to. As it’s often understood, kids can attach their worth to those things and feel like they have to change who they are to be liked.
Kids face constant competition and comparison, and crave likes and follows. Of course, the affirmation makes them feel good, but the lack of it can be shattering.
Kids compare themselves, especially their bodies, to others in the chase for likes. Social platforms have capitalized on this through a strategy that, for them, is much cheaper—instead of getting your attention, they get you addicted to getting attention from other people.
This “mass narcissism” as Co-Founder and Executive Director for the Center for Humane Technology, Tristan Harris, calls it, is detrimental and happening to kids younger and younger. Their online status is connected to their popularity at school. Kids want to be adored and validated.
In Childhood 2.0, Joel Stoddard adds, “It’s not as if a separate part of our brain developed in the past 10 years to separate those social signals on social media from those social signals that we get in real life. The social feedback is literally rewarding when it’s positive and it’s literally punishing when it’s negative.”
More skin means more likes, and kids are also pushed to sexualize themselves—even if they know the photos they’re seeing of other people are edited or not 100% authentic.
Porn on every platform and device
Unlike the world most parents grew up in, no physical barriers exist to accessing hardcore pornography. Kids carry it around every day in their pockets.
An Australian study covered in Childhood 2.0 found that about half of children ages 8-16 had exposure to porn and many of those were actively seeking it out. 26% of adolescents ages 13-17 actively seek out pornography. 20% of youth report that when they came across porn for the first time, it was unintentional or unwanted.
In 2019, porn sites received more traffic than Amazon, Twitter, and Netflix combined. Porn is saturated on every social platform—even the ones parents think are safe.
Consider how the education about sex kids are getting from porn distorts their views of sex and intimacy, and their expectations in their own relationships. Analysis of the 50 most popular porn videos found that 88% contain physical violence and 49% contain verbal aggression, mostly against women.
Parents need to talk to their kids about sex—sooner and younger. Even if devices are safeguarded, kids are often exposed through someone else—like at a sleepover or at school. Some children even “practice” pornography they’ve viewed on other kids—a trend experts say is happening at an alarming rate because what they see, they feel neurologically compelled to do.
Teen dating relationships are being affected, too. Relationships often begin when “a guy says you’re hot,” texts you for a while, then you hook up before you’re dating. People rarely go on actual dates and struggle to communicate in person.
According to Childhood 2.0, it’s common for teen boys to quickly ask for nudes or videos of girls engaged in sex acts, to send unsolicited “d— pics,” and to dump girls who won’t comply. For teens, sexting is considered the new first base.
The peak of sending nudes, according to Childhood 2.0, is in middle school—we’re talking 6th or 7th grade.
Girls are called prudes if they won’t sext, or worse if they do. Girls who send nudes get more followers, and this yearning for clout leads many to do anything for attention.
Kids are pressured to send nudes to stay in a relationship, and once they break up, their nudes are often distributed without their consent. It’s important to note that any explicit image, even if it’s self-generated, of a minor is legally defined as child sexual abuse material, or “child pornography.”
The prevalence of online predators
“Stranger danger” in today’s world has a whole new meaning with online predators. Childhood 2.0 discussed how 60% of the youth who are blackmailed, forced, or threatened to send explicit images actually know their perpetrator, while an astounding 40% meet the person online.
A lot of kids don’t know many of their followers—they just want more and don’t care who it is. Kids commonly get unsolicited DMs offering money, gifts, or affection in exchange for nude photos. Predators use psychological strategies and pornography to methodically groom kids to engage in sexual activity.
Most parents underestimate the commonality and scale of this issue.
Between 2017 and 2018, reports of international and domestic online child sexual abuse to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children increased 541%—that’s over 18 million reports that included violent and graphic sexual images of children, including infants, and reports of on demand sexual abuse or live streaming.
What can parents do?
If all of this leaves you thinking, “What can I do?” That’s a positive start.
It’s tough for kids to come forward and tell their parents what they face online. What they need is a safe place to go and someone they can trust to work through problems together.
Ultimately, the best line of defense is engaged, educated parents who do not use shame or shaming.
Kids today are stuck in a tough spot—between the world their parents grew up in, and a new digital landscape we’re just now beginning to learn the consequences of.
Parents can teach kids how to wisely use rather than be manipulated by their technology. They can become experts and innovators themselves, and model healthy behaviors in the ways they consume technology.
The best filter parents can give their kids is their own brains—along with an open door, a safe place, and an environment of trust. Parents, will you let the internet teach your kid about sex, friendship, their value, and their safety before you do?