“We have only one option: to educate and talk”

Games, the Web, and Porn: A Parent’s Guide to the Jungle of Digital Childhood and Puberty is the name of a new book by UNYP instructor Michaela Slussareff. Dr. Slussareff teaches in the Communication and Media and Digital Media Arts major, and in the fall will be teaching the History & Theory of New Media class. We asked her a few questions about her new book, and if she lives by the rules she describes.

Since the information about your book is predominantly in Czech, can you give us an overview in your own words? What it is about, who it is for, why you chose to write it?

The book is called Games, the Web, Porn. Those three themes are of course a dominant part of it. I summarize the research in this area and explain its dangers as well the opportunities. The subtitle of the book is, “A parental guide in the jungle of digital childhood and puberty,” so it is also very practical material for parents of children of all ages struggling in today’s digital landscape. In the book I metaphorically call this landscape a “digital jungle”. It is very common that adults see mostly danger and children excitement that kills boredom. I believe that we can help children to function in this jungle safely, that we can give them a good compass telling them where to navigate and which places to avoid, to build the safe habits and knowledge of how to help themselves and others if some danger appears. 

How did you become interested in this area? At what point in your education did you decide to focus on children and digital media?

During my PhD. studies I researched the area of digital games for educational purposes, but when I became a mother, I realized the fear that arises when it comes to babies, toddlers and preschoolers. When I dove into research papers I found out that there is not much evidence about possible influence (either positive nor negative) of screens on very small children. And somewhere at that point I decided to work in this area to help find answers to questions that most parents have.

Which country do you think has the best media literacy approaches in schools?

Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Basically countries that are traditionally known for having very good educational systems. But we have to understand that media literacy does not mean having good ability to navigate in the digital jungle and to avoid all digital risks, addictions included.

Pornography and children is an area that has traditionally been understudied for obvious ethical reasons. What is the scientific approach to this problem today in the age of instant access?

Recent studies bring alarming numbers about the age of the first introduction to online pornography in children. It very much correlates with the average age in which children are given their first smartphone. These devices are basically a gate into the open world of the internet, and today kids complain that it is more difficult to avoid online pornography than to seek it. The research focuses on many aspects, from the possible influence of pornography on sexual behavior, desires, aggression, but as well as life satisfaction. At the same time, we need to understand how children process their first experience with online pornography and if we can somehow help to avert its negative influence.

Some of the worst communicators I know are academics in the communication field! We can be notorious for being well versed in the theory, but refusing the rules. You are a mother of small children. Do you ‘walk the walk’ at home with media technology? Is your house screen free, only paper books, magazines, newspapers?

Our household is definitely not screen free. And it is not something I would recommend. I love technologies, and once again, I came from the field of digital game-based learning, I admire the potential of new media, and do not want to give this up. The book presents a very open-minded approach, highlighting the negative but as well the positive side of it. We need to realize that our children will inevitably live in a very close relationship with their digital devices, and presenting good approaches is the only way how to prepare them in advance. At our home we have rules and the book describes them in the final part. At the same time, I emphasize the fact that each family and each child is different, and needs to find the way and rules that fit them best.

What do you say to the people who suggest that all children born today are ‘digital’, smartphones and computers are now really ‘extensions of man’ and thus it is time to stop worrying about it, it is an integral and inseparable part of human existence?

A human is a tool-using animal and we all know that the tools change the way how we see (and maybe manipulate) reality. The same tool changes us. The “extensions of man” in McLuhan’s point of view became the “amputations of man” since we use tools instead of our natural capabilities, and therefore we might be losing them in some way. In one interview McLuhan said that “we need to realize that media create a new environment and this environment is forced upon us. We need to become completely aware of it.” I do not believe that we can become one day completely aware of it, but we should never stop trying to understand its influence on us. And in case of developing children, it is even more important. 

How receptive do you find your students to the ‘dangers’ of technology? Do they nod their heads, or roll their eyes?

It is difficult to generalize. But in most cases I am positively surprised how important the theme is for them, and how much effort they invest into creating good digital habits. Therefore, I hold an optimistic view of our future.

Until your book is translated to English (hopefully soon!) not many of our audience will be able to read it. Thus, please allow us to ask you about the theme that no parent wants to think about, but has to: Hardcore pornography and pre-teen children. What do we do? Scan our kids’ internet histories? Try to prevent access with censoring applications? Give up worrying?

Unfortunately, in the present world of internet we will not be able to control and block everything. So, we have only one option, and it is to educate and talk. Today kids lack sexual education so it is no surprise that for many of them pornography becomes accessible sexual education. In the short term we need to answer their questions before they ask Google. We also need to prepare them for possible early encounters with online pornography, to explain strategies of how to deal with such moments, how to talk about the possible emotional trauma and what is the difference between pornography and real sex. Besides the education, I mentioned “talk”. We need to show children that they can trust us, that we will not punish them if they come across such content, and that they can talk about their intimate questions and maybe concerns.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to young people about their use of digital technology?

The first that comes in mind is “be mindful”, but it is not the most important one. Today’s applications, games and social media use many strong techniques to trap our minds and desires. We can be mindful of it some days, but other days when we are tired, sad or depressed, it becomes mission impossible. They are stronger than our will. We need to learn about the techniques the huge online companies use upon us. It will help in the struggle. Also, we need to realize that the emotion we bring with us there will only intensify. We cannot expect that social media will make us happy if we get depressed there. It is more likely that in such a case we will get into the trap of toxic comparison with the perfect lives of others. Switching off notifications, making rules about spending time online, and observing how you feel before and after using them, as well as thinking about other ways how to kill boredom. Dedicate your great mental capacities to other things as well.

Dr. Slussareff’s book was published by Jan Melvil Publishing, and can be ordered here.

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