Let’s talk about…The need to educate children about harmful online content

Now more than ever, educating children on gender issues from a young age is vital

Last summer, after making headlines for his violent and misogynist comments, kickboxer-turned-influencer Andrew Tate found himself banned from all mainstream social media. This controversy of course didn’t stop him from getting an audience with Piers Morgan just last month, when he joined the presenter on his show, ‘Piers Morgan Uncensored’ (for the second time) to discuss his worldviews, online career, and opinions on various other social and political issues.

But the major news relating to Tate currently would come shortly after, on December 29th, when he and his brother were arrested in Romania on charges relating to human trafficking and rape. The news didn’t come as a total shock for anyone familiar with the former kickboxer; reports of his being investigated were already widely circulating months ago, at a time when Tate was at the peak of his notoriety as an influencer.

One would assume that his being arrested and the nature of the allegations against him would be the last nail in the coffin, finally establishing him as a person with undefendable worldviews. This prediction however, while perhaps accurate for the general public, has not come to full fruition. Despite the criticisms, and the fact that serious criminal charges have been levied against him, support for Tate has not disappeared. And while it would be easy to write off those who continue to defend, support, or excuse Tate – in the same way one writes off the overly-committed fans of any harmful influential figurehead – that would be to ignore one key detail shared by many of his lingering supporters: their age.

Tate does indeed have many fans in their late adolescence or young adulthood, for whom age cannot be used to totally excuse or explain away their blind support for the disgraced influencer. But what’s become obvious is just how many younger adolescents, and even children, are buying in to content like Tate’s.

It’s been known for a while that social media regularly exposes young users to this kind of content, with an Observer study in August revealing how TikTok aggressively promoted Tate’s videos to younger male viewers. And in recent weeks, Irish teachers and youth workers have spoken out about hearing Tate’s comments being repeated in classrooms and among peers – particularly with younger age groups.

This entire debacle is, of course, only symptomatic of a much wider issue, one which has been bubbling in the background for quite some time now – the undue influence harmful online content is having on young people’s worldviews.

Given how much time young people spend online, the material they’re exposed to is going to be hugely influential. And while older adolescents and young adults may well be old enough to have the critical thinking skills to recognise the blatant flaws in ideologies spread online by people like Tate, younger age groups don’t, and by comparison are hyper-susceptible to buying into harmful ideas; young boys who only know Tate as the ‘rich Bugatti guy from TikTok’ aren’t thinking critically about, or perhaps even noticing, the harmful nature of the ideas he spouts in between talking about his newest car and ‘shutting down’ his latest adversary.

Again, while Tate is a relevant example, he is only part of a larger phenomenon, more specifically the recent rise in manosphere ideology – manosphere referring to an online community that combines male-centred self-help advice with casual and sometimes violent misogyny. If Tate’s existence was wiped clean from the internet tomorrow, some other conduit for this kind of harmful ideology would just crop up in his place. It’s reflective of the times we’re in, and the rising tide of ‘anti-wokeness’ we’ve seen gaining traction more and more lately.

The problem lies in the fact that so many young people are being exposed to this kind of content en masse online without ever having been educated on these issues elsewhere. Content moderation on some of the most popular platforms for younger users, such as TikTok, so often takes a back seat to boosting engagement, and adolescents and children are only accessing these platforms younger and younger.

The amount of time we spend online and the age range of those spending time online is ever-increasing. There’s a lot to be said about the benefits and disadvantages of this, but to some degree it’s inevitable. Better content moderation and imposing restrictions to safeguard what children are exposed to online would go a long way, but this is difficult to regulate, and parents, though they can (and should) try to, aren’t able to fully control everything their child sees online. A more immediate solution needs to be found elsewhere.

Last week, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman suggested transgender issues should form part of the primary and secondary school curriculum. He commented that “the discourse, particularly on social media, has become incredibly vicious towards members of the trans community in recent years”, and that it was important to refine the school curriculum to ensure pupils “are getting an understanding of diversity”.

The aforementioned rise in ‘anti-wokeness’ that we’ve seen in recent years has led to countless examples of real world harm, fostering misogyny, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry, as well as leading to increases in violent attacks on members of these groups. This revived culture of intolerance exists and thrives online, and as we saw with Tate, hyper-susceptible younger children are being exposed to it every day without the educational tools to help them avoid being unduly influenced.

Gender issues – from gender identity to gender inequity – have become hotbeds of debate online, with too many spaces platforming and advocating harmful, extremist viewpoints, all of which young people are being exposed to, without caveat, on the daily. Since we can’t expect parents to control what their kids see online forever, and since we do not have appropriate moderation/restrictions in place at the moment, educating them at a young age on the importance of tolerance and acceptance, and to think critically about what they see online, is the best thing we can do.