Editorial: In praise of Poppycock

Our children are wading fearlessly into a blizzard of truth and lies, empowerment and anguish, instant gratifications and lifelong consequences.

Otherwise known as social media.

They have a right to engage with the modern age in which they live; not only to use communication technology but to be supported in how to do it safely. For that matter, so do the rest of us. The question is how. It's not a small question.

In Southland, right here and right now, a significant part of the answer has taken the form of the Poppycock Trust, a local initiative (its title is a tilt at the tall poppy syndrome, in case you were wondering) that is on the cusp of launching a significant cybersafety programme in the region.

It's an ambitious project, but something we sorely need. Most of us understand that it's wrong, if it's even possible, to seek to purge young lives of these devilish contraptions - internet-capable smartphones, PlayStations, Xboxes, Wiis and iPod Touches. Such attempts would either drive young users to subterranean levels or, if they did obediently eschew such activity, would invite serious social isolation.

Yet we can't look to lawmakers to exercise all necessary control over the cyber world and its millions of denizens; or to geekdom to present us with the filters necessary to allow us to turn our backs on the activity, in the knowledge that it's all sorted.

The Poppycock scheme, which ropes in the expertise of internet health and safety consultant John Parsons, involves close work with schools, of course, but it's also there for the parents. And seniors. And non-governmental organisations. Even companies.

To this end it also brings health and social services and the police into the cause.

Both the trust and Mr Parsons have clearly impressed the handful of usual-suspect community funders, which have provided funding for about five months. Now they're fundraising more widely to extend the programme for a full year, with the longer-term aim of igniting a community ability to educate itself.

The problem here has as much to do with isolation as it does with newfound connectivity. A couple of years ago Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean vividly described a social climate in which interactions that once happened face-to-face were now happening via text or online, late at night and out of parents' sight. He spoke of social media confessionals revealing teenagers' secrets, anonymous Facebook pages set up to attack peers, nude pictures being slyly acquired and treacherously posted publicly, online comments encouraging kids to suicide.

Teenage brains, the judge said, struggled to deal with the effect of faceless communication, whether it was cyberbullying via social media or just a relationship ended by text. "It's just incredible, that flow of information going into young brains, particularly late at night when they are alone. They are unsupported and their parents are unaware of what's going on," the judge said.

Unsupported. That's the thing. Mr Parsons says parents can be overwhelmed by their visceral response to the perils of the cyber communications and a daunted awareness of their own limited technical knowledge. But he is adamant that with the right approach, the solutions are far less complicated than people might think.

He sees the benefits of communication technology every bit as vividly as the hazards. That's as it should be. We just need to be clear on how to use it safely.

The solution's in our own hands. This trust deserves solid backing - not out of fear but in the knowledge that what's attainable here really is empowering.

The Southland Times