A 14-year-old shares his thoughts about technology and the potential privacy and security implications of the internet
Talking to children and teenagers is not always an easy task – we’ve all been teens before, huh? When I first approached Xavier, 14, to talk about how he engages with the online world, I was quite concerned that I would be seen as yet another adult trying to reduce his screen time. And, on top of that, I’d have to explain that his thoughts would be used in a blogpost marking the Global Day of Parents as well as Children’s Day (which is celebrated in some countries today), even though we all know that a 14-year-old is not a child anymore!
But none of that was an issue. Over a video call, I explained to Xavier that this interview is intended to be a sort of conversation starter for parents and their kids about internet use and safety, something like a starting point for discussions about a subject that often causes disagreements, if not heated arguments, between parents and their kids.
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 lives in France now. For this reason, while most kids his age have been to perhaps only two schools, Xavier has been through various education systems and even different languages of instruction. But, above all, he has met other kids in all these places, and has made a few friends everywhere he lived.
This is partly why, Xavier said, social media platforms are the only way for him to keep in touch with friends several thousand kilometers away, and sometimes also with his current schoolmates. “I use WhatsApp, direct messages on TikTok and Discord as well. I am really shy as a person. I’m not really a good texter and prefer video calls,” he says.
“So do you think online life is real life?” I wondered. “Yeah, it is part of my life. I act more like the person that I actually am”, he admitted. Offline, meanwhile, he says he’s sometimes scared of what others think of him. “I don’t know why I don’t act more like myself. But I’m kind of working on it.”
A place of (self-)discovery
When the pandemic-induced lockdowns began, everybody suddenly had to adjust to being physically separated from their friends and schoolmates. Indeed, home schooling changed the lives of all kids, not just because a laptop became a daily necessity (not accessible to all). For the lucky ones, however, time spent in front of the screens became a minor issue since classes, homework and entertainment were all limited to a few square meters. For parents, this was both a blessing and a nightmare.
For kids, mainly for those in their teens like Xavier, it may have even become a silent moment of self-discovery. “Because I would just stay home, I would spend some of my spare time playing video games, watching TV shows. And even though it seems really bad, it actually helped me. It made me learn a bit more about myself and my personality. While I was stuck to online ‘mode’, I got to experience and figure out new stuff”.
For instance, Xavier continued, “it helped me get into anime, comics, manga, books and video games that I didn’t know existed … Before, I liked the music I would listen to on the radio, but when I started searching for music by myself online, I discovered I like other kinds of music like Korean pop”.
For Xavier, this reality where all that content is online, where “even our idols are online” is something parents may not understand. They forget, he notes, they had “television and magazines, and now all that is on the internet”.
Kids of all generations, Xavier explains, “are just curious and want to find new things”, although he is mindful of the hazards the internet has for kids. “Unless it’s unsafe or inappropriate for their age, parents should consider letting their kids explore the online world with confidence and ‘discover themselves’, although not without some supervision. The parents might think some stuff is shocking, because it is something they may not have been used to, like ripped jeans or big boots! It’s freedom of expression. People should just be able to express themselves.”
Video games and apps
Two of Xavier’s favorite games
Most parents will have heard about 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 is different from many other platforms in that it’s an app that has different games inside, and the games were not created by Roblox, but by real teenagers”. Roblox is not just fun – it may also give teens some grounding in coding and 3D modeling, all while helping them teach the importance of teamwork.
Does that mean you play with other kids? “Yes”, Xavier answered. “There are also many other video games where you can play with friends. One of the games that I play, Genshin Impact, is mostly like your own world, and you’re actually exploring it, but sometimes, your friends can also join in”. But who exactly those “friends” are is, understandably, a parent’s main concern, I told him, hinting partly at ‘stranger danger’ online and the need to be cautious of people who the kids 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 that it doesn’t help them in their studies, but actually there is so much information that maybe not even your teachers are giving you enough,” claims Xavier. All devices became a source of almost unlimited knowledge, and they are accessible to almost anyone, so “even expensive professional calculators can be used on the internet for free”.
“The internet is not just 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 refuse to talk about. There are topics both parents and kids may be too shy to talk about and we can find many resources that make us more open-minded than our parents”. The internet, Xavier concludes, “gives us much more information than our parents ever had access to”.
How can parents help their kids stay safe online?
For Xavier, it’s clear that “it’s parents’ responsibility to prepare their kids for the online world and supervise them online”, emphasizing that he himself still needs parental consent to play and use apps. But things are not always smooth between the two sides of the dining table. To help solve this, Xavier suggests in his own words these five tricks to help adults dealing with their young ones:
- Keep an eye on your kid, especially when they first start using the internet. They may hate it and think you are the worst person in the world, but for the sake of their own safety, do keep an eye on them. Once they’re a little older, consider relaxing some limits or gradually giving them some freedom.
- Know the apps and games your kid is using and show them the websites they can use to find information.
- Make time to play games with your children, that way you can see what they do and you will be doing an activity together. Indeed, be some sort of ‘role model’ to them.
- Don’t simply tell your kids they can’t use social media: this may only push them to use the sites anyway and what’s worse, ‘on the 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 that everyone follows.
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 need to explain it”.
To elaborate on Xavier’s words (and in case we didn’t stress this aspect enough) – the key thing is establishing a good rapport and keeping lines of communication open with your children. Ensuring that they use technology responsibly and stay safe online is a collaborative task. You may not be able to control their internet access and habits everywhere and 24/7, so it’s better to equip them with the right knowledge and to build an environment where they can ask questions freely. Listen and provide advice to them, making sure they’re also aware of at least the most common threats facing them online. This all will go a long way towards ultimately helping them avoid cyberbullying, grooming, scams and other dangers lurking online.
Having grown up at a time when the internet started to become a vital part of the modern world, I recognize myself in many of Xavier’s words. The numerous services and distractions that are available at children’s fingertips, however, make it a huge challenge for parents and legal guardians to protect their children from harm. If, until a few years, ago the dangers were in the streets, being safe now also involves the online and virtual environments – what they read, what they watch, whom they talk to.
Ultimately, however, kids are growing with more skills and an understanding of their future possibilities far beyond whatever crossed the mind of today’s adult generations. It is up to us, the grown-ups, to do our part and help them navigate these immense resources. But let’s not forget that to do that, we need to ‘embed ourselves’ in these technologies and services in order to understand how they work. And what is better than learning together with our kids?