The usual term for capturing the lived-experience for those growing up in the digital age is 'digital native', but this is incorrect. Digital natives are in reality, information natives. Millennials now grow in a world in which they are likely to witness all that is good and bad in the world at younger and younger ages. With all of the best parental controls in operation, news will still slip through, and sometimes automatically play for you, whether you wish to view it or not, as we saw in relation to the recent, tragic shootings in Virginia. As Amazon announce the £50 tablet that will go some distance to close the gap between the digital 'haves' and the 'have-nots', it is inevitable that more and more young children will occasionally stumble across content that we would think is better shown only to adult eyes. As the world shrinks, and information from all of its corners drips through your newsfeed, we realise that we can no longer just try to listen to young people as they navigate the digital world; we need to be able to talk to them about what they are learning. This means that we too are having to view and acknowledge all sorts of uncomfortable truths, and then be able to talk about them.
Listening to the recent, excellent programmes 'Mending Young Minds' (http://tinyurl.com/oejbyw4) on the work of the Tavistock Clinic, I was struck repeatedly by the complexity of the lives many young people live, irrespective of the digital world. Critical to development, and perhaps later, recovery, was the ability to learn from experiences, even negative ones, and eventually become more resilient. The Director of Children's Mental Health Services, Rita Harris, made the point clearly that processing experiences, through conversations with an understanding adult, or perhaps a peer, was key to developing a robust and resilient personality. That doesn't mean children do not need protection from the experiences or information that would overwhelm the developing mind, but we cannot ever provide total protection. Indeed, it may even cause dissatisfaction with life or distress if there is a promise of an elusive, better world which is never punctured by shocks and surprises, but which never arrives.
Young people left to their own devices are unlikely to develop greater resilience and understanding without some opportunity to share their experiences with adults. But what can we say when they want to discuss some of the more disturbing events that they discover, not just 'on the internet', but in the offline world that we all inhabit? We may not understand all of the Apps or devices that they use, but we will have thoughts about what is good and bad in the world, and the sharing of values can be a fantastic way for young people to process their experiences. Finding ways to discuss some of the more challenging content that they come across, whether pornography, beheadings, ultra-thin models or animal cruelty can really help young people. Too often it is the technology that dominates the debate when conversation about content might be of much greater use. And as a skill, being able to talk about experiences, whether a shocking incident, or how to make friends online, may be of greater help than being taught how to set parental controls. But this does expose us all to how much we don't understand, or are even fearful of in our world.
Cleaning up toxic content online is a worthy if challenging task. So is the task of improving the digital literacy of all parents, so that they can offer their children some technical protection from content they are too young to see. But the greater challenge is helping all parents, and all adults working with young people to have meaningful conversations about may be discovered when online, without parents fearing that they have nothing to offer. As usual, young people are remarkably tolerant of what we don't know, and will guide us when we struggle. And as our conversations with them honestly touch on issues of morality and conduct, and the uncertainties of why some things happen, they are no longer left alone, aware of so much, but with no capacity to process that information. When we cannot bear to speak about difficult issues, or try to erase or shut them down those issues become more rather than less frightening, and what has been seen just cannot be un-seen.; talking together then really makes a difference.