Our ten year old is engaging inappropriately online… ughhh

No-one goes into parenting planning on turning into this… Image from https://gratisography.com

I knew this time would come. We have been so liberal with use of technology. All the early years apps were educational, they were great, but they also taught Ms10 how to read, write, and tech. The volume of YouTube consumed was massive, repetitive, annoying, but not nefarious.

We knew that this, unlike any other function as a parent, was going to be something where liberties would be reduced and not expanded with time. And that time has arrived. *Sigh*.

Ms10 is articulate, bright, a story teller. She has a way with words, is fiercely independent, and one day she will rule her (possibly the) world. She has all the hallmarks of becoming a dangerous woman, and as her parents we are charged with ensuring she reaches this potential fully.

But in an online world where anonymity and criticism and predators can chew you up and spit you out, I feel we are at the brink of losing our agency.

We thought it would be YouTube, I dreaded the day where I’d have to start actively watching hours of swill to make sure she wasn’t at risk. We steadfastly refuse to allow her to have a social media account until she reaches the minimum age set in the terms and conditions of each platform — think about this if you don’t.

But it’s worse than YouTube. She’s a reader. And a writer. Could there be a worse combination?

What sort of a philistine holds their children back from reading? Who censors books? Outrage at the censoring of books and the danger that the written word possesses and promises is how I myself became a dangerous woman. I read IT in year six, and I’m racking my brain trying to remember the age I read Forever by Judy Bloom. Our child shuns YouTube for reading and writing in this oversaturated technical and consumer culture? We should get a prize.

Then, we started getting alerts from Wattpad — an app where people write, share, critique and comment on each others writing. And we started looking closely at the interactions that were happening. Noticing the bias in the algorithm that was feeding the content.

Until now we were happy she was writing books and stories. She is always writing. And I have no idea what the terms and conditions are on this app because, “books”.

However, looking closely we see somehow she has managed to be caught in an algorithm loop of LGBTI romance — male/male in particular. What on earth is wrong with that I hear you say?

To give very clear context before anyone starts being outraged about the way we parent and what our child consumes. There is nothing nefarious. Yet. There is no inappropriate content. Yet.

It’s fanfic. And that’s mostly ok. Right? Except I don’t even really know what fanfic is, not culturally. I’m supposed to be heaps tech and yet I came into tech from a direction that bypassed so many subcultures. A friend read this article before I published and asked “because I’m nosey — is she reading pre-slash or shipper slash?”. Oh. Dear. I have no idea! Take away my internet privileges right now!

But I am tech enough to see where this goes. I can see the way the algorithm is suggesting content — it’s already gone a little bit kink, a little bit bondage, and a little bit dark. We can see the start of discussions that are happening between the community. We can see who is commenting on the books and where it’s going.

Restricting your child’s access to unfamiliar subcultures is not a new tension for parents, coz, generation gap. But with the internet kids can be launched into adulting very, very quickly. For an algorithm to be permitted to shape her, to be the gatekeeper to communities or culture that it deems she is ready for based on her search. That’s quite the parental responsibility we are at risk of handing over.

And it’s not even her search. She uses the same device her father uses. So it’s going to be intertwined with his search. As I type that sentence… I just… can’t… even… fathom.

The world through this app and its invisible algorithm is far too wide for her. This community is an ocean, it’s not a village, it’s not a safe space, it’s the Wild West, anything and anyone will come and go.

The conversation of restrictions started long ago. The affirming our place as parents, decision makers and controllers of the device and the Wi-Fi has been established, and cemented more firmly in recent weeks. We knew this would happen. The time was always going to come.

Our solutions at this point? A library card, an open bedroom door, and a charging station in a family room. The time has come. The internet may well be a Wild West, but this is still our town.


Lyndsey Jackson has been in the tech industry for nearly ten years as a manager and open source web builder. She is a digital native who bridges the gap between tech and non tech through activity and education. You can follow Lyndsey on twitter https://twitter.com/@ok_lyndsey.

Lyndsey is the Chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), a not for profit organisation focused on protecting digital rights. These opinons are her own. However, if you want to know more about algorithms and the world of online rights it is a marvellous organisation to join :) https://www.efa.org.au/