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Left to their own devices

by
23 August 2013

Young people are under pressure online: they need more straightforward communication, argues Tess Kuin Lawton

WE HEARD the terrible story, once again last week, of teenagers' taking their own lives after online pressure. Last Friday the funeral was held of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old who was found hanged after being bullied on the internet. She had posted a question about her eczema on the ask.fm site, and received anonymous answers that were abusive and filled with hate. On the same day, the death of 17-year-old Daniel Perry was announced. He had jumped from the Forth Bridge, after being blackmailed over an explicit internet video.

The question whether it is time to stop the culture of online anonymity is one that the Church needs to engage with, if it is to make sense to its younger members. Most children have a mobile phone by the time they are about eight - not least because it is a safety device that enables parents to allow greater freedom. Facebook accounts are supposed to be opened only after the age of 13, but most of the 11-year-old pupils whom I teach use Facebook or Kick, Keek, Vine, Snapchat, WhatsApp, ask.fm, or Twitter.

With all these options, there are a range of excitements for a child, promising relief from boredom, raucous fun, the lure of celebrity, and a pushing of boundaries.

What all of them have in common, however, is the fact that the children type messages in the seclusion of their own room, to an audience of their own imagination. Even those who write regular messages to their friends admit to getting the nuances wrong, or misunderstanding what is being meant. How much greater is this effect when you are writing to a stranger?

Anonymity also allows children to try out different identities, or to vent one of their many different moods of anger or unhappiness. But this communication is not a dialogue: it is talking at an unknown other.

In the Bible, "knowing someone" is a big deal. As a phrase, it is used to refer to sexual relations, thus transforming the act of intercourse into a means of communication. Crucially for this debate, God says: "I have called you and know you by name. You are mine" (Isaiah 43.1). The Christian message of love is that God has created us, and knows each one of us individually.

As a school chaplain, I find that this is the message that has the most resonance for the pupils I preach to. And no wonder: they live in a world where communication is not about conversation, but about one-sided, anonymous text.

I think that the most important lesson we can take from these recent and similar teenage suicides is that of a need for a more old-fashioned kind of communication: one where parents and children, and those in schools, youth groups, and churches talk to each other. It is about creating a climate of openness and kindness which will enable children and adolescents to speak more freely about what is troubling them.

One result of the screen-world we live in can be a strangely companionable silence, as we all sit in the same room and interact with our individual gadgets: we are left with a surreal situation in which we are communicating all the time, but not with the human being who is sitting next to us.

It is strange to think that sites such as ask.fm are flourishing, while we are with our teenagers without asking them anything at all. Of course, communication can be one of the great difficulties with adolescents: it is almost as if they wilfully block any attempt that we make to speak with them. Diplomatic language becomes bellicose too easily. So, as adults, we take the easy way out, and say nothing, leaving them to their own devices.

But a climate of openness and basic kindness recognises that what teenagers are desperate to do is to find themselves, to be important, and to be known. This is the quest of all our lives, and it begins with the sense of being precious and being loved by God.

Children and adolescents are good at knowing what other people think of them. Ask them about someone's relationship, and they can tell you immediately.

We have heard much in recent months about the online world of predatory adults, and this is an area that can now be addressed by the law. But these recent suicides remind us that there is also an online world that children inhabit alone, because adults have little understanding of it, and often little interest in it. Meanwhile, the rules are being made by Ralph and Jack; and Piggy is going to die.

Steve Biddulph writes in Raising Boys and Raising Girls (Harper Thorsons, 1997, 2010 and 2013) that children need their mother from birth to seven years, their father from seven to 14, and an uncle, aunt, godmother, or trusted teacher from 14 onwards. As Churches, we can include this in our discussion with godparents, and encourage mentoring between our twentysomethings and teenagers.

As a school chaplain, one of the first things I am asked in a conversation with a student is whether it is confidential. "No," is my careful reply, because sometimes people share things that could mean harm to themselves or other people. In these circumstances, I tell them, we need to work out a way together in which we can tell other people about it. Every pupil I have ever seen will listen to this, and then launch into the most hair-raising details about his or her private life.

The online world has not killed communication - quite the opposite. Teenagers want to talk, and want to be heard. We should all be interested enough to ask them about their opinions, their ideas, and their understanding of the world.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." We believe in a God who spoke the world into existence, a God who communicates, and who can teach us how to communicate in ways that will ultimately save us.

The Revd Dr Tess Kuin Lawton is NSM in Bampton with Clanfield, and Chaplain of Magdalen College School in Oxford, where she teaches all years.

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