I have a love-hate relationship with social media. As a journalist who started out when there was no such thing as email, I can tell you the introduction of the internet in newsrooms in the 90s was beyond revolutionary. And years later, the use of social media – game changing.
I love its immediacy. I love the paths it takes you down. I love that real people – butchers, call centre workers, hair stylists and factory workers – and people of all ages, have just as much say as seasoned journalists do.
But I also despise it. It's addictive and it bothers me to no end that it’s got me in its grip. I sometimes long for a simpler time when I watched an entire TV show without checking my phone. Or when I could go to a gig or walk on a beach and enjoy the moment without feeling compelled to Instagram it. Dammit! It also bugs me that we get these glimpses into what appear to be the perfect lives of our Facebook friends when you know, no-one has a perfect life. But mostly I hate that it’s such a powerful platform for harassment and abuse on all levels.
I was compelled to write this because of an incident that arose on social media a few months ago, reaching boiling point this week with the publication of an online article. I won’t go into detail because I’m aware that it’s legally sensitive. But we all know how to use the internet, so you’ve probably already read about it – accusations made against Auckland DJ Andrew Tidball, who also runs the music website Cheese on Toast. He has denied the allegations and I am not going to talk about them or him.
I will, however, talk about the serious issue of online safety – that very fine line between friendship, seeking counsel and abuse of power that plays out online.
I’ve tried to imagine what I would’ve been like as a teenager with access to the internet. It’s really difficult because I grew up in a time when computers were things in sci-fi movies and texting friends wasn’t an option because mobile phones didn’t exist. Instead we relied on the landline to keep in touch. Then you had your parents barking at you if you were on the phone for longer than five minutes.
I’ve also tried to imagine what it might have felt like when I was 12 or 14, to have stumbled across an online community of people who all shared the same hobbies as me. Or how I might’ve felt if one person in that community singled me out, started chatting to me and giving me compliments. My automatic reaction is that I would’ve told that person to FUCK OFF.
But if I’m really honest with myself, I probably wouldn’t have. Well not immediately. Why? Because in those times in my teens when I did feel isolated, alone and misunderstood, I could’ve done with a bit of attention. I might’ve even engaged in chat with some creepy old guy. I just don’t know because the world was so different back then. But if that’s what my 14-year-old self would’ve done, it wouldn’t have been because I had any intention of “going there”. I would’ve just liked that someone was noticing.
It’s flattering when people tell you they like you or that you look nice. And it’s amazing when you find a community in which you feel safe. We all want to feel accepted. But when someone targets you and uses the internet to take advantage of you, it’s an atrocious abuse of power.
I have worked with a lot of children and young people over the years in various jobs and I have gathered a bit of helpful advice for anyone who finds themselves in a tricky situation along the way. But let me make it absolutely clear: the main message that needs to be emphasised is that abusive and predatory behaviour is not okay, and that the fault in any abusive interaction always rests solely with the abuser. In our modern world, however, there’s no point denying that there are people out there with questionable intentions.
It’s okay to look to older people for support, advice and acceptance. But be aware. Trustworthy adults don’t bombard you with personal messages. They don’t imply or tell you that you’re sexually attractive. They don't sit at home late at night and have covert conversations with children and teenagers, and if they are, alarm bells should be ringing.
They don't use their money, position in society, career or status to make you do things. They don't guilt trip you. They do not ask for photos online, unless of course you’re part of some team or organisation where they need them for a specific reason. They do not ask you to take your clothes off. They do not ask you to do things that make you feel uncomfortable. They don’t ask to meet in person. They don't tell you all about their personal lives and worries – that’s crossing the line.
They listen to you and they help you find a solution or better still, they help you to find someone who is better qualified to help. I know it’s difficult to know who you can and cannot trust and where you can go to for help. Maybe you can’t turn to a parent, a teacher, a youth worker, or an older sibling, but there are good starting points available online or over the phone. There’s Netsafe, or if you’d like to talk to someone, Youthline is there to help. You can call them on 0800 37 66 33 at any hour of the day or night, seven days a week, text them on 234 between the hours of 8am and midnight, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The bottom line is, you are smart. You have power. You get to determine who you talk to online and what you talk about, not some old creep on a keyboard who tells you you're hot. If ever you find yourself in some weird situation online with a person who you think might be a bit dodgy, ask yourself – is this right? Does it feel right? What are this person’s motives? And if you ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe, reach out. Don’t be ashamed, it’s not your fault, and it’s never too late to make it stop.