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Anyone that knows me knows that I am very passionate about helping children learn and thrive. I was so passionate about this cause that in January 2013 when my son was diagnosed with dyslexia, I decided to start a Facebook page called Helping Children Learn and Thrive with the key purpose being to share my research and experiences on the topic of learning and children.

Children learn in a number of different ways. They learn at home, at school, through daily interactions with family, friends and people in general. Children are constantly learning and the vast number of attitudes, behaviours and influences they are exposed to daily shape the people that they will become in years to come as adults.

So, it was with this in mind that yesterday, on Melbourne’s prestigious AFL Grand Final day that a series of events unfolded which personally affected me and my son.  It further highlighted to me the importance of children and the influences that they are subjected to. For boys, this is especially true of the male influences in their lives as they are role models and boys model their behaviour on other males in their lives. As a mother who is a full time single parent, I am particularly conscious of this and always try to make sure my son has enough good male role modelling in his life.

So, when my son told me that he was invited for a sleepover by a male relative, I was happy for him. I do whatever I can to make sure he has a healthy and connected relationship with his father’s family. His father lives interstate, so my son does not get to see his father’s side of the family much. My son was very excited about the sleepover and looked forward to it all week. He loves this male relative very much and looks up to him. He jumped at the offer to go and spend the following day being AFL Grand Final day watching the Grand Final. He was super excited to say the least.

So it was with true bitter disappointment, that at 4.30pm yesterday, on the illustrious AFL Grand Final day that I witnessed my worst nightmare ever on social media! A photo of my 10 year old son, Mr 10***, holding a beer bottle close to his lips with the male relative sitting proudly next to him.   The photo was posted on Mr 10’s male relative’s Facebook page with the caption, “So bloody good little Mr 10 gets a beer” and he tagged me in the photo.

Suffice to say I was livid beyond words, but I maintained my calm and text messaged him immediately requesting him to delete the photo. It took him 1 hour and 2 minutes to delete the photo meanwhile I had to request 3 times that he delete the photo both via text message and via the comments in the photo. Other people on his Facebook page would have noted my rants requesting him to delete the photo, as it was visible for the countless of hundreds of people on his Facebook account to view and witness.

Upon picking my son up, I expressed my disappointment but was met with a barrage of anger, aggressiveness and verbal violence of justification of why it was “okay”, it was only a “joke”, no harm intended. There were other family members present that witnessed the whole scenario unfold. No-one said anything. No-one stood up and said, yes, it was an inappropriate photo that should never have been posted. It’s just a reflection of how these attitudes pervade families.

However, there was so much harm in that one single swift action of uploading such an inappropriate photo. Not only was the harm done to my son, but the countless hundreds and thousands of other children that fall victims to this sort of social media abuse every day.

Alcohol has a very long history in my family.  I was a child of the abuse that generally always originated with alcohol abuse.  Alcohol has always featured in a big way in my family, after all, I am Italian and it runs in our veins, or so I was brought up to understand.  I still have memories of my grandmother crushing grapes with her feet at the annual family winemaking event and us kids joining in.  The stories are many and varied when it comes to alcohol in my family.

Some stories I have chosen to forget, others are very vivid in my memory. My nonna Filomena often recounted stories of her husband, my grandfather, who was not around much, but when he was would sometimes drink way too much and then get physical and abusive towards her.  My grandmother would also recount stories of my great grandfather who loved his family very much, but was by all accounts an alcoholic and would bash my great grandmother and leave her lying in her own pool of blood on the floor. My grandmother recounted this story to me many times as have my uncles, but they would always add, “but he loved her very much!”. As a child this never made any sense to me, how can this be love I would question?

So it was with this background in mind, that just over two years ago, I decided to stop drinking alcohol. There were a couple of other reasons that impacted my decision, the key ones being that I was starting to have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol myself and that I did not want my son exposed to alcohol in the same way that I had been growing up. Alcohol had been the reason for so much of the domestic violence that I have been witness to all my life.

Some people will read this and think that I have overreacted to the uploading of my son’s photo. For those people, I offer the following statistics as taken from the Australian Medical Association:

  • Young Australians are starting to drink at an earlier age, and most drink in a way that puts their health and others’ at risk
  • The age at which Australians are having their first drink is continuing to decrease. Approximately 90 percent of people have tried alcohol by the age of 14, and most Australians have consumed a full serve of alcohol before the age of 16.
  • In 2004, people in their 20s were more than twice as likely to have consumed alcohol by the age of 14 than were people in their 40s and 50s.
  • There are indications that early initiation to alcohol use is related to more frequent use, higher consumption levels and the development of alcohol-related harms in adulthood, including mental health and social problems.
  • The rate of binge drinking among teenagers (14-19 years of age) was high in 2007 at 39.2%
  • 80 percent of alcohol consumed by people aged 14 – 24 is consumed in ways that put the drinker’s (and others’) health at risk.
  • By the age of 18, about half of both males and females are drinking at risky levels, but the majority of these drinkers classify themselves as ‘social drinkers’ and do not perceive their consumption patterns to be a problem.

So you see, it is a big deal! It’s no laughing matter, and it definitely is not a joke. It’s serious stuff!

I am far from perfect and I don’t pretend to be. However, I recognise attitudes and behaviours in relation to alcohol, and the way in which adolescents are introduced to alcohol, influence children’s future drinking patterns. It was for this very reason that when I saw my son holding a beer bottle in the trusted company of this male relative, an introduction at the age of 10 years that I did not give consent to, that I was furious. In my mind, it did not matter that it was a joke and that he didn’t actually drink from the bottle, it was the connotation and everything that went with it.  Alcohol and children should NEVER mix!

I have since counselled my son and set the rules and explained the various harms associated with alcohol use and this sort of behaviour. I had to tell him that in no circumstance, no matter who the family member or friend is, is it acceptable for a child to be holding a beer bottle with the intent of consuming alcohol.  This is irrespective of whether alcohol has been consumed or not!  I have also explained the dangers of social media and being mindful of someone taking a photo of him in a compromising position and uploading it on social media.  He is a good kid, and he gets it.

My other concern was the impact that this could have on other children seeing a photo of a minor holding a beer bottle. What sort of messages is this sending out to other children?  There is compelling emerging evidence linking alcohol marketing and alcohol consumption, particularly among young people.  Children, adolescents and teenagers are likely to be more susceptible to this marketing and promotion. There is an urgent and unmet need to tackle this problem with more robust and rigorous policy and regulation to supplement parental oversight and responsibility.

My message to anyone considering uploading a photo of a child on social media is this.  Before uploading a photo of a child, please consider the nature of the photo and its potential impact.  Too often these days we have people uploading photos of children in fun, where the repercussions are many and varied often to the detriment of a whole population of children.  Do not ever attempt to take and post a photo of my child on social media in a way that results in negative influences being imparted to my child or any other children for that matter. I will not stand for it.  If the photo is of a minor and involves alcohol, this constitutes social media abuse of a child and it is illegal. Think twice before you use someone else’s child to be the brunt of your joke. I will not stand by and witness my child or any other child be the brunt of a joke, and be exposed to social media abuse or indecency in any way, shape or form.

I believe everything happens for a reason and something positive always comes of something negative. The positive in this story is that if my courage to speak out allows another parent reading this, to stop and consider the actions, behaviours and influences that their child may be potentially exposed to around alcohol, then it’s been worth it. This is particularly true for Australia where culturally we have a very toxic and irresponsible relationship with alcohol. Alcohol must stop being such an intrinsic part of Australian life if people are to become present to life itself and cease the wave of alcohol-fuelled violence.

***The child’s name has been changed to Mr 10 to protect the identify of a minor