The story of Amanda Todd, the Canadian teenager who committed suicide in 2012, is a story of cyber bullying, victimization, and abuse. The YouTube video Amanda posted before her death has been viewed by almost ten million people. It brings the sobering picture home, that the Internet’s dark side poses a serious threat, especially to children and teenagers.
Unfortunately, young people like Amanda are victimized each and every day. We read about cyber bullying in the news, yet media attention is not enough to affect change. Education is needed for parents and teachers who are on the front line of prevention. One public figure who has taken up the cause of Internet reform is children’s singer/songwriter Raffi Cavoukian, known to most families simply as “Raffi.” His recent book, Lighweb Darkweb, was dedicated to Amanda Todd because her story touched his heart in very profound ways.
As a troubadour for children over his long career, he cares deeply about their development as human beings. So much so, he founded the Centre for Child Honouring, where he works to educate parents on Internet safety and positive youth development.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Raffi recently about two topics close to his heart. In this article, we talk about his perceptions of the Web and why parents must set strong boundaries and guidelines for children. In a second article, published at Roots of Action, we discuss what he has learned about child development as a musician and mentor to children over a period of many years.
The following interview with Raffi Cavoukian took place in August of 2014:
Marilyn: Thanks, Raffi, for agreeing to talk with me about your work! I noticed that your recent book, Lightweb Darkweb, was dedicated to Amada Todd. What was it about Amanda’s story that touched your heart and caused you to take action on behalf of all teens?
Raffi: Amanda’s death was preventable, and I was so upset when I saw the very pained video she circulated that I wanted to do something to help prevent such tragic occurrences. We began an Internet Safety program at The Centre for Child Honouring and I wrote the book you mention, arguing for social media reforms, especially for the safety of young users. No sexual predator should ever be able to blackmail a young social media user in the way Amanda was exploited. Major social media platforms must take steps to offer greater privacy protection to ensure their services are safe for all—this is a consumer protection issue. We also need new legislation to prevent anonymous bullying and abuse that is still too prevalent on the Internet.
Marilyn: Many people write about the value of the Internet and how it is transforming communication, innovation, and education. But not many speak of the dark side of the Web and its potential to harm children and society. Your book paints a strong and somewhat disturbing image of the dark Web, calling it a “vast sociological experiment.” Why do you feel that way and what is your greatest fear for children and their futures?
Raffi: What we should want from a tech revolution sweeping the world is that it’s safe, builds intelligence, and is sustainable. The ecology of InfoTech fails on all three counts. As a tech enthusiast, I too laud the many features of the Internet that we enjoy. Yet I shed light on various online perils and question the merits of the unprecedented social experiment now underway.
Before young children have experienced the slow rhythms of the real three dimensional world, they’re now subjected to the hyper-fast, flat, and shiny world of information technology. We have no evidence to suggest this is a good thing. We have much anecdotal reason for concern when you consider device dependence, addiction from a young age, sleep loss among teens, and even conversation aversion in our young. In ten short years, the use of what we call social media has produced a number of anti-social impacts. There’s never been a time when parents are raising kids in two different worlds, the real and the virtual. Who can say what the long term impacts of this will be? We pre-digital adults are custodians of a real world that kids may not know or remember.
Today’s newborns will not have known a world before information technology. To me, this is worrisome. We’ve seen photos of kids together at the park staring at their screens, and we’ve heard about parents picking up their kids after school not with a welcome smile, but with faces buried in smartphones. If the feeling of being human is rapidly becoming about the tech enhancement you have, something will have changed faster than our ability as a society to address it.
The current concern over kids with a nature-deficit may grow into a worry about kids with real-world-anxiety — kids who don’t feel right in the real world, away from tech. How will they be able to savor the moment, or enjoy solitude?
Marilyn: From your perspective, what is it that most parents don’t understand about the Internet but should?
Raffi: Increasingly, parents are aware of online pitfalls, such as data-theft, identity-theft, and privacy loss. Yet many don’t take such risks to heart, especially when it comes to their kids’ use of the Internet. Privacy is the number one concern: kids must be taught to disable all location features on devices, and not share online what is private. They need to be taught the difference between what is public and what is private.
Also, they should never click on a link from an unknown source; this might be from a predator who seeks to install ‘malware’ on a laptop or device—malicious software that gains access to your computing device and undermines your security.
Recent research among adults shows that heavy Internet use changes the brains of users. It can foster dependency and addiction, and a preference for the dazzling online world over the complexities of a slower real life. If this is true for adults, imagine how seductive information technology power is for kids. Consequently, they need guidance from parents who will set screen limits.
Marilyn: What message would you give to parents of elementary school-age children who want to guide their kids safely and productively in using the Internet?
Raffi: Don’t allow unsupervised time online. Make sure all computing privacy tools are engaged. Disable location settings. Teach that kids have to behave responsibly online, just like in the real world.
Don’t be tempted by the tech hype, don’t rush to give your kids smartphones. I know families, whose kids don’t have the latest tech devices, and these kids are thriving; their curiosity is fully engaged in other ways of learning and exploring the real world.
Information technology has a very different feel than real life. For younger school age kids it can feel “too much, too soon, too fast.” Don’t make the Internet the center of their lives. Encourage as much real world play as possible. They have the rest of their lives to explore technology; it surely will change every few years, so there’s no advantage for kids to be tech savvy at a young age.
Marilyn: What message would you give to parents of teenagers who, at some point, lose control over what their children do online?
Raffi: Parents who have lost control must regain it. You’re in charge, so take charge. You know better than your child what’s best, so it’s your responsibility to set limits, to have the needed conversations, and also to set a good example when it comes to using the Net and not let it get the better of you. Each family needs a clearly outlined social media and Information technology policy by which all agree to abide. This must include setting aside devices at mealtimes and having a device curfew at night to improve “social chi” in the home and promote better sleep.
Marilyn: I really appreciate your time, Raffi, on such an important topic. I invite parents, teachers, and students to respond to your thinking in the comment section, to add insights, concerns, ideas for reform, etc. As you said, we adults are “in charge.” How we guide our children is our responsibility.
[Read the second part of Raffi’s interview, “Raffi: Advocate for Children, Earth, and Music” at Roots of Action.]
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement. Subscribe to Updates at Roots of Action to receive email notices of Marilyn’s articles.
©2014 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.
Image: Andrey Kiselev