School teachers returning to the classroom after Summer break can expect to teach pupils who now openly identify as ‘furries’ and view themselves as being ‘less than 100% human’.
The trend now emerging in Northern Ireland is based around the global Furry Fandom culture where members have a dedicated interest in anthropomorphic animals such as cartoon characters, reports Belfast Live.
A number of pupils are now taking the step from fandom to active self-identification, creating their own personas by choosing animals and traits they best identify with – known in their peer groups as ‘fursonas’.
The furries fandom culture delves into fictional anthropomorphic animal characters who have human personalities and characteristics and meet online and at conventions. They typically include dragons, domestic cats, lions, tigers, domestic dogs, wolves and foxes and others create mixed species, such as a ‘folf’ – a fox and wolf – or a ‘cabbit’ which is said to be a mix between a cat and a rabbit.
It’s understood at least four schools in Northern Ireland have pupils who openly identify as furries and all schools have been subject to advice and support from the Department of Education as a matter of ’emotional health and well-being’.
But he says children dressing up and creating make-believe personas is not the issue. The problem lies, he says, if the interest develops into a fixation or when it invariably moves online where anonymous contact is made with others claiming to be furries offering mutual interest and trust.
Mr Gamble said: “Children have always been involved in make-believe and dressing up as part of growing up. It’s harmless, it changes and passes and we shouldn’t get stressed about it.
“But the dangers come when an interest forms into an unhealthy obsession, fixation or escape, or when the activity may potentially expose the young person to risk- and then we do need to worry.
“And also then, when children or young people are engaging with strangers online in an understanding of mutual interest. That’s when we have a very real issue
“The Furry community claims to be founded on building confidence and respecting the creative choices and expressions of its members and that’s all well and good. But parents and teachers need to remember that this group is spread globally across multiple forums and platforms with little to no moderation and so it carries risks for vulnerable children and young people.
“If a young person feels dissatisfied or upset with life, it might be easier for them to disappear into an alternate reality or world they are able to control, especially if they don’t feel they have a supportive community around them. Fixation at this level may cause dissociation, anxiety, depression and irritability.
“And as with any group, there is always the potential for someone with a sexual interest in children to exploit the ability to hide their true identity and motivation in order to engage with a child.
“The idea of the ‘fursona’ can blur the line between real life and created reality. This may present an opportunity to engage without fear of judgement about who they are and how they are perceived, but it could also encourage a vulnerable young person to engage in risk-taking activity they wouldn’t normally consider and become so all-consumed in an alternative reality that they disengage from their everyday life.
“Part of taking on a fursona is adopting a subjective age. This means that someone can project themselves to be a younger or older age than they are in real life. This magnifies the very real danger of interacting with strangers over the internet, as people may not be entirely honest about their true age or identity.
“Even if interactions are on a moderated online forum, the conversations could be encouraged to move to more ‘personal’ platforms with encryption features such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or in-person events, such as, Furry Conventions.
“And this makes it more difficult to ensure children and young people engaging in this platform are not being exploited or pressured by other members of the community, especially if they have a vulnerability.
“The ability to mask and hide your personal identity as a Furry may be misused by someone with a harmful sexual interest in children. We know that mutual interest can create a sense of rapport which sometimes feels like friendship. But as with other environments occupied by people with similar interests, this rapport can be used to exploit and potentially harm a child.
“If a child or young person shows interest and/or decides to become a Furry, they may be subjected to bullying from their peers and others, both online and offline. So it is important to build a safe environment for children in your care based on trust, where they feel comfortable expressing themselves to you as their parent or carer.
“To help you do this, our online safety experts have rounded up some top tips.”
- Approach the interest with no judgement. Ask open-ended questions about the content your child or young person finds most engaging. It is important to remain understanding, even if you cannot fathom why something has caught your child’s interest.
- Do your homework. Familiarise yourself with the different forums and terms used by the Furry community to ensure you know what you’re discussing and have the ability to recognise and place in context what your child is saying.
- Engage in conversation about what they think it means to be a Furry and what they see as the benefits. Outline what sort of behaviour is appropriate and respectful, online or offline.
- Discuss online safety with children and young people. Remind them that anyone they interact with online may not be telling the truth about who they are and highlight the important difference between a fursona and a real person.
- Go over online safety habits to ensure they are comfortable acting on them, such as not sharing any personal information or reporting something that makes them feel worried, scared or uncomfortable.
- Ensure your child knows who their team of trusted adults are and the risks of talking to people they don’t know in the offline world. It’s important they know who to talk to and what to do in the event that someone they don’t know makes contact with them.
- If your child has joined a group or you think they may have, consider joining a parent’s group and check out the range of resources online, choosing the ones that meet your needs or concerns.
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