When Andrew Fuller sat down last year to counsel a group of teenage boys who had taken a photo of a girl they knew, photoshopped her head onto the body of a naked porn star, and shared it around social media, they had no idea what damage they had done.
“They would say, ‘Look, we were just mucking around, we weren’t hurting anybody, what are you worried about?'” says Dr Fuller, a Melbourne-based psychologist.
The photograph, he adds, accumulated derogatory comments from viewers as it travelled, and the girl was so humiliated that she changed schools.
“Probably the most worrying thing for me is the degradation of humanity in their relationships,” he says of the boys he sees who vilify others on social media.
Equally of concern is who was partly responsible for fostering the boys’ attitudes.
“Some of their fathers are going, ‘Well boys have always shared photos from magazines. What’s the big deal here?’ These are not models,” says Dr Fuller.
He’s not alone in his frustration.
In the wake of a recent spate of cases of Australian boys debasing girls — and each other — via social media, experts are blaming “negligent” parents for failing to discuss issues of respect and appropriate digital behaviour with their sons.
“Taking the path of least resistance seems to be the parenting strategy that way too many parents are taking now,” says Melbourne child and adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg.
Instead of having discussions with their sons about porn and the boundaries of acceptable online behaviour, he says many parents are craving to be their child’s best friend — with the result that they are not getting the education they need.
Parents ‘duck-shoving’ the problem to schools
In the most recent incident, a 15-year-old boy from Rose Bay Secondary College was last month charged with producing child abuse material on his phone, after filming the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl and distributing it to at least 50 other teenagers.
“This is fair and square put in the too-hard basket [by parents],” says Dr Carr-Gregg about the often-difficult conversations that parents need to have with their children, but are not having.
Parents are neglecting to educate their sons about appropriate online behaviour, says Dr Carr-Gregg. (Supplied: Dr Michael Carr-Gregg.)
“There is a nationwide tendency to either ignore or duck-shove this off to the school, rather than taking responsibility for it.”
Yes, he says, schools must partly shoulder the blame.
However, because there is no government-mandated online safety education program, it is up to schools to decide whether to teach online safety or not.
And, says Dr Carr-Gregg, although many of them do, the quality of the programs varies greatly.
“Why would you film a friend of yours, committing a crime, and then put it on the internet?” says Dr Carr-Gregg, referring to the Rose Bay Secondary College student.
“We need proper cyber safety education in our schools, and we need to be doing it in primary school.
“Because if you don’t get in quickly, by the time they’re 14, 15, 16, they have absolutely no concept of the importance of managing their digital footprint … and this boy has clearly not understood that.”
Negligent parenting at ‘pandemic’ levels
Still, says Dr Carr-Gregg, negligent parenting is at “pandemic” levels across Australia, and is a significant contributing factor to the recent wave of cyber-bullying and harassment cases.
“We’re dealing with this Lindsay Lohan [style of] parenting,” he says.
“[Parents think] ‘I want to be my kid’s best friend, I don’t want to set limits and boundaries’. Everywhere I go, I hear this.”
Dr Carr-Gregg advises parents to begin teaching their children about online safety when they begin primary school. (Flickr: Denis Dervisevic)
In some cases, parents are going so far as to bully others to cover up a child’s online attacks.
One mother, whose daughter’s photograph was featured on a “Young Sluts of Instagram” account set up by several senior boys at Melbourne’s Brighton Grammar last year, told The Age she received a “threatening” phone call from an “old boys’ club” parent after she wrote a complaint about the Instagram account on Facebook.
The caller said the account “was a group of boys having fun”.
Other parents seem unwilling to accept the damage their child has done and hold them accountable.
Such was the case with 12-year-old Oliver*, a year seven student in Sydney, who was bullied last month by Gary*, a friend at another school who was pretending to be someone else in a group chat session.
“He [Gary] said horrible, sexual things about myself and my husband,” says Oliver’s mother, Carol*.
“He knew Oliver liked this girl, and she liked him, and he said, ‘I’m going to do this to her, do this to your mother’.”
Carol says that the response from Gary’s mother — with whom she spoke on the phone — was “very muted”.
“She said that Oliver kept going on about the school rivalry [over the chat],” she says, insinuating that this somehow mitigated Gary’s crime.
(It is against Australian law to use the Internet, social media, or telephone to menace, harass, or cause offence.)
Focusing on girls at the expense of boys
Part of the problem, says Dr Carr-Gregg, is that many parents do not “really understand that the harms from cyber bullying are exactly the same if not worse than from bullying itself”.
Evidence of this, he adds, is in how few parents are using apps like Our Pact, Cold Turkey and Self Control, which allow parents to manage their children’s access to the internet and block them from downloading certain apps.
“Parental controls have now reached a very high level of sophistication, but if they’re not activated by the parents, they’re a waste of time.”
And even though young boys are increasingly becoming the victims of predators via social media and online games like Clash of Clans and Roblox, many parents are still in denial about this danger, too.
“It’s a rising problem,” says Susan MacLean, a former Victorian police officer and online safety educator, who last year helped the Australian parents of two boys, in Year 10 and 12, who were groomed over Facebook and Instagram to send a predator nude photos of themselves.
It should be a wake up call for parents, teachers and the wider community, who have for many years focused far more on how social media is negatively affecting girls, says Dr Carr-Gregg, who wrote a book about raising adolescent girls, The Princess Bitchface Syndrome.
The focus, he says, “has been on body image, Snapchat, the digital coliseum and the battle of the selfies”.
Another major problem is that parents are too embarrassed to speak to their children about pornography, either at all, or early enough, given how young boys now see it for the first time.
It is important, experts say, because research has long shown that exposure to hardcore porn is linked to sexual assault.
(The average age for a boy in Australia is 11, but Ms MacLean has heard from boys as young as eight.)
“It’s awkward, you have to talk to them about porn before they’ve had their first kiss,” says one Sydney mother of two boys, who has yet to have the talk with her children.
So what are parents of boys to do?
Dr Carr-Gregg advises parents to begin teaching their children about online safety when they begin primary school, and begin talking to their sons about “explicit material” by years four or five.
And Elly Robinson, a manager at the Australian Institute of Family Studies at the University of Melbourne, says that before a child is active on any social media site, their parent should set up their own account on it to see how it works.
“It just means that you’re much better informed, and aware of what the risks are,” she says.
Before letting their kids use social media, parents should trial the sites themselves, says Elly Robinson. (Rawpixel.com)
There is also hope that some cultural change and support could soon be here to assist parents.
Gemma McKibbin, a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, last year released a policy briefing paper arguing that it should be compulsory for all primary school children in Australia to learn about pornography “in a supervised environment”.
And Dr Carr-Gregg is currently at work on a book about raising adolescent boys who are suffering as a result of “lax parenting”, among other challenges.
Until then, Dr Fuller says there is one message that can help our boys now to navigate some of the pitfalls of social media.
“You’re never too young to learn to be a good friend,” is what he tells the boys he counsels.
“That’s what it’s about, to treat friends well, treat people well.”
*Names have been changed to protect subjects’ privacy.