Yesterday afternoon, with some coaching and hand holding, I downloaded the new Pokemon Go! I wanted to find out what the new craze is all about and within three minutes the Pokemon spell was working. Like millions of other people I was striding out in pursuit of those strange looking floating objects, tapping excitedly when they came into view and letting out a triumphant cheer when the words Gottcha flashed on my screen. I went from 'no knowledge' to 'signed up player' in a moment and it was easy to see why, for many, the only thing that matters is where the next Pokemon is going to appear.
This was all in the name of research, of course, but I share this to remind us how quickly such online crazes take hold. Whilst Pokemon Go is proving great fun for so many, I have suggested that parents should make themselves aware of the safety risks for younger teens playing the game. And this is the same message for the plethora of Internet crazes that we see emerging at regular intervals. What can seem like a lighthearted good laugh to start off with can often get out of hand. In the cases of some of the more infamous crazes - the cinnamon challenge; the choking game; and drinking challenge, Neknominate, the outcomes can be fatal.
I raised my concerns about Internet crazes on the radio today and was joined on air by two mothers who had experienced the unthinkable tragedy of losing their sons to such games. Both were sociable, sensible teenagers with their lives before them. In both cases it happened in the home, whilst the rest of the family were in the house and whilst dinner was being prepared. The loss of her child was described by one mother as a 'prison of grief'. I am grateful to them for sharing their painful stories which they did to alert other parents to the danger signs that were so hidden for them.
Few parents understand or can keep up with their teenager's online world which is fast moving, disorganised and by definition - 'not their territory'. But as adults, we do have a duty to keep children safe online - just as we do in the physical space. Whilst our priority must surely be to welcome the vast possibilities of learning, discovery and connections that the digital world can bring, we must also be worried - and take action - about the more dangerous things that children can be exposed to, whether it's pornography, dating apps or self-harm websites. Internet crazes, that can develop with such reach and speed need also to be in our view.
Such crazes can be terrifying for parents, who are baffled by why their children would take such unnecessary risks. In many cases children simply won't have thought through the possible consequences. But there is also the strong influence of peer pressure. The temptation to upload something in an instant, to be part of the crowd can seem overwhelming. This can be particularly strong for those who are less confident and feel isolated. If a film clip goes viral, you can be an instant hit with hundreds of thousands of people.
Companies who are in charge of channels and platforms that enable these dangerous crazes to be communicated so rapidly have responsibility to their young users. They need to appreciate that teenagers can be impressionable and may want to copy what they've seen without making informed decisions. Dangerous activity should be taken down before crazes can take hold. This means better monitoring of content and making it easier for young people to report worrying content.
But as parents we can't rely on this and the message from Gill and Subrina who spoke about their own terrible experience and loss today was to add the dangers of these crazes to the many things that we need to warn our children about as they become more independent. If we have Internet crazes on our radar, we can help children stand up to the pressure and think again about taking the risk - no matter how many of their friends think it's a good thing.
I have recently set up an expert parenting group to offer advice to other parents who want to help their children manage their digital lives. It also will be important to raise these matters with schools, pathologists and the police. I very much look forward to working with Subrina and Gill to make this happen.
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