Every time a heinous crime or an act of violence involving children is discovered, we seem to get rudely jolted from our slumber and ask every inconceivable question as a society from the experts and the not-so-experts. Raising children is often like a recipe now, an industry in itself—how to raise them, what to feed them, how to educate them. Yet, when an incident happens such as the one where a group of adolescents formed the ‘BoisLockerRoom’ chat room and its contents came to light, it tells us that somewhere we as a society are not going in the right direction. The children were from the best schools and so-called good homes of the elite, where they got the best care, attention and facilities. Why do such perfectly normal children whom you can’t imagine being law-breaking delinquents carry such violent fantasies? A few friends told me that when they discussed this with their children of the same age, they showed no surprise. The banality surprised them all. Their children said there were others in their class who used such language. “Violent fantasies, what are they?” one of them exclaimed. “We grow up with them. Some turn it into action.”
So, is it a problem of a generation getting lost to us or is it just an aberration—a group of young boys and parents whom we can call ‘the other’ and console ourselves that we are not like them, and that some factor like biology, upbringing and genetics can explain their behaviour? As a clinical psychologist who has worked alongside the police on many cases of heinous crimes by children and investigated them for counselling, I note with deep concern the radical and overwhelming change that has taken place in the way children think, feel and behave about issues of sexuality and sexual identity. What we see today is part of a continuum and less of a break or aberration—a sign and a warning that the world is changing faster than we know and creating a toxic masculinity in the minds of our children.
Many adolescents nowadays form groups to chat about issues that would shock the generation that was adolescent 30 years ago, when they grew up reading Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew. Their fantasies were about forming groups like Secret Seven who rid society of crime and saved people. They did not discuss gory details of the anatomy of a female classmate and what they would do if they got a chance to be with her alone. They were obedient and it was assumed that all of them would turn out to be law-abiding citizens and role models in the society, which would pass on to the next generation. In the school where I studied, talking about girl’s bodies in crude or derogatory language was seen as a disgusting act that the peer group wouldn’t approve of. Anyone doing so faced ostracism. Fantasies about girls revolved around emotions; they had a finesse, subtlety and tenderness. Girls’ bodies were not objects that could be hurt at will.
Today, the fantasies of children, including their sexual fantasies, have undergone a complete change. Adolescents read books like Paper Towns, with a hero like Margo, who is not only free-spirited, but also rebellious, breaking every rule without guilt—someone who doesn’t bother about parents’ feelings or social compulsions and charts his own course. Major characters in books and films run away without telling their parents, showing they care little about the opinion of their families. Everything in their eyes has turned relative, from values to definitions to relationships—no value remains absolute anymore, values that may prevent heinous crimes from taking shape. The thinking is that if it feels right, then it must be right. Everything from a crime to achieving a goal is admissible by breaking rules that were considered sacrosanct a generation ago. Those rules are now seen as being laid down by elders to prevent hedonism. The thrill no longer comes from being obedient, productive members of society, but from becoming rebels without a cause by flouting every rule. Explanations like life is a process or a journey that needs perseverance, hard work and long-term planning are seen as ridiculous and unnecessary. What makes one a hero now is the pursuit of instant gratification at minimal cost.
In the midst of all this, one question remains unanswered and it is perhaps the most basic of all. What are children for, in the eyes of parents and of society? The earlier generations had it defined and coped with issues that were equally complex like ours but more direct. They had the awareness that children are for the family’s and society’s survival. It boiled down to this principle alone. As a result, children felt needed and they understood it early enough. It gave them a sense of maturity and responsibility, and added depth. This may be much less today and will become virtually unknown to adolescents in the future. Not because they lack something, but because we—parents and society—are raising them differently.
Earlier, families had a great deal of work to finish every day. Everyone had to participate in it in a big or small way. For my generation, our day began with getting up in the morning and standing in the line for milk for an hour before getting ready for school and waiting at the bus stop for hours. We had to help our families in getting ration and do many chores. Today, many parents cringe at the thought of asking their children to do the same and are not sure if they are exploiting or abusing them. It is uncertainty that is ‘king’ now.
So, how do our kids grow up today? They live in a digital world—a fantasy place where everything is possible and nobody needs to wait for anything. It’s a world where everything is available without delay. Unrestrained violence indulged in by giants in a sports arena doesn’t tell them about the pain one feels on the body when hit; computer games in which the players shoot and destroy their enemies don’t tell you about empathy. ‘Quality time’ and ‘play dates’, the two most telling expressions today heard by counselors, have become the new mantra that have replaced the spontaneity that existed earlier.
For a million years, parents and children needed each other for survival. Families evolved over time as an institution that addressed social and physical needs that perhaps no longer exists in the materialistic cultures anymore. For a century now, family relationships have been based not on survival, but on emotions—and we all know that they can be as volatile and unpredictable as they can be, coming today from sources that are not real world and real people, but from a virtual world. Family cohesion as a glue—perhaps the biggest factor that led to the prevention of the development of criminal tendencies and personalities—no longer finds any takers.
In this changed world, what are children for and why don’t they feel needed? Living in the digital world, where everything is relative and comes from a virtual reality, and with parents equally confused on how to raise them, breaking rules and forming groups that flout social norms become the source of feeling wanted. The digital world, accessed through laptops and mobile phones, offers secrecy and a safe world that has become substitutes for those who are not taught anymore about boundaries, ethics and compassion. The empathy necessary for feeling the pain of others no longer comes naturally as part of growing up.
Therefore, parents in the digital era are doing something that their forefathers would find impossible to believe. They are going to experts and non-experts to understand how to raise their children; they are reading books on how to deal with children’s issues and make them succeed in life. Books on raising children are the new bestsellers and, in the advice columns of newspapers, counsellors regularly advice parents on how to stop violence and increase their mental performance.
Groups on the internet create a sense of anonymity and erase our individuality that earlier took years to build between parents and children and stayed as a cushion against adversities. Today, it levels out many feelings and raises those that become nightmares for the children and parents alike, even for society and law enforcement like the recent cases show. It gives a sense of identity and false self-esteem to the child, who believes it to be his true self. The chat with peers discussing forbidden topics gives a high that doesn’t come from human interactions or relationships. It erases shame and guilt in no time through the peer group by making it relative to other acts. In the digital world, the peer group does much more. The virtual identity formed in it, the violent fantasies, the bizarre thoughts, all assimilate to create a personality that suppresses the aimlessness and confusion of real life, among the real people for which the children have no answers.
The history of the past 50 years is teaching us that raising a family now and in the future will become more of a choice than the necessity it was for our ancestors. As the digital world takes over our lives and our children’s minds, an increasing number of our children will no longer feel needed by us and we will feel we don’t need them too. The children will not believe that they have a purpose, a meaning to live for. They will search for it in the virtual world by forming groups where unrestrained feelings and violent fantasies will swirl and shape them in a spiral, engulfing their sexual feelings and creating predatory thoughts that makes them feel in control and powerful. We as parents need to think and ask ourselves if we want our children to live in this world of the future.
(Views are personal)
Author and Professor of Psychology at Amity University