A 14-year-old shares his thoughts on technology and the potential privacy and security implications of the internet
Talking to kids and teens isn’t always an easy task – we’ve all been teens, haven’t we? When I first approached Xavier (14) to talk about how he interacts with the online world, I was quite concerned that I would be seen as just another adult trying to reduce his screen time† And besides, I would have to explain that his thoughts would be used in a blog post where the Global Parents Day like children’s day (which is celebrated in some countries these days), even though we all know that a 14 year old isn’t a kid anymore!
But all that was no problem. During a video call, I explained to Xavier that this interview is intended as a kind of conversation starter for parents and their children about internet use and safety, something like a starting point for discussions on a topic that often causes controversy, if not heated. quarrels between parents and their children.
Is the online world part of the real world?
Despite being only 14, Xavier has already lived in a few countries. Born in Brazil, he moved to Mozambique, then Portugal, and now lives in France. For this reason, most children his age may have only attended two schools, but Xavier has gone through different systems of education and even different languages of instruction. But above all, he has met other children in all these places and made some friends everywhere he lived.
This is partly why, said Xavier, social media platforms are the only way for him to… stay in touch with friends several thousand miles away, and sometimes with his current classmates. “I use WhatsApp, also direct messages on TikTok and Discord. I am really shy as a person. I’m not much of a texter and prefer video calls,” he says.
“So you think online life is real life?” I wondered. “Yes, it’s part of my life. I act more like the person I really am,” he admitted. Offline he says meanwhile that he is sometimes afraid of what others think of him. “I don’t know why I don’t act like myself anymore. But I’m working on it.”
A place of (self)discovery
When the pandemic-induced lockdowns began, everyone suddenly had to adjust to being physically separated from their friends and classmates. Homeschooling did indeed change the lives of all children, not just because a laptop became a daily necessity (not accessible to everyone). However, for the lucky few, time in front of the screens became a minor issue as classes, homework and entertainment were all limited to a few square feet. For parents, this was both a blessing and a nightmare.
For children, especially teenagers like Xavier, it may even have become a quiet moment of self-discovery. “Since I would just stay at home, I would spend some of my free time playing video games and watching TV shows. And even though it seems like a lot, it really helped me. It taught me a bit more about myself and my personality While I was stuck with the online ‘fashion’, I got to experience and invent new things”.
For example, Xavier continued, “it helped me get into anime, comics, manga, books and video games that I didn’t know existed…I used to love the music I listened to on the radio, but when I started to search for music only online, i found i like other kinds of music like korean doll†
For Xavier, this reality where all that content is online, where “even our idols are online” is something for parents may not understand† They forget, he notes, that they “had television and magazines, and now everything is on the Internet.”
Children of all generations, Xavier explains, “are just… curious and want to find new things”, although he is aware of the dangers the internet poses to children. “Unless it’s unsafe or inappropriate for their age, parents should consider letting their children explore the online world with confidence and ‘discover themselves’, albeit not without some supervision. The parents may find some things shocking because they may not be used to it, such as ripped jeans or big boots! It’s freedom of speech. People just need to be able to express themselves.”
Video games and apps
Two of Xavier’s favorite games
Most parents have heard of Roblox, the gaming platform that is also Xavier’s favorite online service. “It’s not like you only have one specific video game, though. Roblox differs from many other platforms in that it is an app with several games in it, and the games are not made by Roblox, but by real teenagers”. Roblox isn’t just fun – it can also give teens a foundation in coding and 3D modeling, while helping them learn the importance of teamwork.
Does that mean you play with other kids? “Yes,” answered Xavier. “There are also many other video games where you can play with friends. One of the games I play, Genshin Impact, is usually your own world, and you kind of explore it, but sometimes your friends can join in too.” But who exactly those “friends” are is understandably a parent’s main concern, I told him, referring in part to “weirder danger” online and the need to be wary of people the kids have never met in real life.
The internet as a study tool
“Some parents may think that kids go to the internet just to waste time and it doesn’t help them with their studies, but in fact there is so much information that even your teachers may not give you enough,” Xavier claims. All devices became a source of almost unlimited knowledge and they are accessible to almost everyone, so “even expensive professional calculators can be used for free on the Internet”.
“The Internet is not only a waste of time – it is also a place to learn”, and more than school knowledge, the Internet also has “the knowledge that parents may not want to talk about. There are topics that both parents and children may be too shy about to talk about and we can find many resources that make us more open-minded than our parents.” The internet, concludes Xavier, “gives us much more information than our parents ever had access to”.
How can parents help their children stay safe online?
For Xavier it is clear that “they are parents responsibility to prepare their children for the online world and guide them online,” he emphasizes that he still needs parental permission to play and use apps. But things are not always smooth between the two sides of the dining table. To help solve this, Xavier, in his own words, suggests these five tricks to help adults interact with their little ones:
- Keep an eye on your children, especially when they start using the Internet for the first time. They may hate it and think you are the worst person in the world, but keep an eye on them for their own safety. As they get older, consider loosening some limits or gradually giving them some freedom.
- Know what apps and games your kids are using and show them the websites they can use to find information.
- Make time to play games with your children, so you can see what they are doing and do an activity together. Indeed, be a kind of ‘role model’ for them.
- Don’t simply tell your kids that they can’t use social media: this can only encourage them to use the sites anyway and, worse, ‘sly’. Instead, try to understand why and how they use them and explain the risks to them.
- Set up accounts on the same social media they use. Just like the Kardashians everyone follows.
The bottom line is: “Try to be there, but also give some freedom. Don’t be mad at us: if you want us to understand something, you have to explain it”.
To elaborate on Xavier’s words (and in case we didn’t emphasize this aspect enough) – the most important thing is to build rapport and keep the lines of communication open with your children. Ensuring they use technology responsibly and stay safe online is a shared task. You may not be in control of their internet access and habits everywhere and 24/7, so it’s better to equip them with the right knowledge and build an environment where they can ask questions freely. Listen and advise, make sure they are also aware of at least the most common threats they face online. All of this will go a long way in helping them avoid it eventually cyberbullying† to polish† scam and other dangers lurking online.
I grew up at a time when the Internet was becoming a vital part of the modern world, and I recognize myself in many of Xavier’s words. However, the myriad services and distractions available within children’s reach make it a huge challenge for parents and legal guardians to protect their children from harm. Where until a few years ago the dangers lay in the streets, safety now also applies to the online and virtual environments: what they read, what they watch, who they talk to.
Ultimately, however, children grow up with greater skills and an understanding of their future possibilities far beyond what has entered the minds of today’s adult generations. It is up to us, the adults, to do our part and help them navigate these vast resources. But let’s not forget that in order to do that, we have to ’embed’ these technologies and services to understand how they work. And what could be more fun than learning together with our children?