Son inspires father's business venture

When Tony Laulu began seeking help to curb a social media addiction, he did not think what he was doing would would land him a contract with the Pacific Rugby Players’ Association (P.R.P.A.) to help athletes manage their online presence as sports celebrities.

It’s one of the many opportunities that have sprung up for his Digital Discipline venture since Laulu’s four-year-old son called him out on his social media addiction in 2016.

Since then, he has visited countless schools to speak on Digital Discipline – the skill of using social media as a tool minus the incessant time-consuming dependency.

Laulu has been to schools across South Auckland, numerous organizations, a hospital and Auckland University (A.U.T.). 

Currently, he is building a digital module for the P.R.P.A.

“I have a contract with the Pacific Rugby Players Association, doing some work with them to help with their rugby players address their social media issues. The association looks after all the islanders who are playing overseas really so at the moment, I am building their social media module,” Laulu told the Samoa Observer from New Zealand.

“They do a lot of their pastoral care through online programmes so they are getting me to build their social media one because they’ve just had issues with a lot of their boys getting into trouble on social media or they get bullied online.”

This is a topic no one really talks about but Laulu said a lot of Pacific island rugby players are struggling with self-esteem and other issues due to their newfound fame as rugby celebrities. Many of the Pacific players come from humble beginnings, he added.

“A lot of the boys are struggling...they’re not used to all the fame and so within a year or two you can amass more than 50,000 followers," he said. 

"You have a family and now you’ve got women messaging you...then you can have two or three really bad games and then you’ll have hundreds of people coming at you like ‘go back to Samoa’ or ‘go back to Fiji’ and ‘you shouldn’t be playing here’.

“Not all of our boys have the online maturity or online resilience to be able to cope with the glitz and come from a small little village and now you’re a superstar in a French village. It’s quite tough for some of our younger boys.”

His venture started from a concern voiced by his son.

“To make a long story short I was just addicted to social media really for seven or eight years. There are probably people who you know who are just camping on their phones the whole day, every day and that was me really....throughout my son’s whole childhood, I was just on my phone when I should have been spending time with him,” Laulu said.

“It wasn’t until he was almost five that there was a massive turning point for me...he said something along the lines of ‘What’s on your phone? What are you looking at on your phone?’ And that’s when I started I came to this realization of what I was spending my time on. I was looking at my phone and to be honest, probably 95 percent of the time I was on my phone – it was nothing. It was useless information or I was just being nosey or entertaining myself. It was just a waste of time.”

In the weeks and months that followed, Laulu realised he had a huge problem on his hands. He was clocking up to eight hours a day on social media.

“It was really taking over a lot of parts of my life. I just wasn’t present. I was using it while I was driving, while I was with my kids and my wife. It was in a really bad state just being on my phone a lot,” said Laulu.

“After I had this realization, I wanted to get some help so when I went looking for help but there wasn’t any help. There is help for people who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, smoking and gambling but there wasn’t anything for someone like me who is addicted to social media.”

It took him a year to research the issues surrounding internet addiction and social media attachment. When he started to share the information on social media, people took interest.

“After that I came up with my own sort of solution...ironically, I started to share this stuff on social media just to help so people can understand the depth of this addiction and when I started to share a few community groups and church groups saw my stuff and they recognized they have existing problems with social media within their church or within their school,” said Laulu.

“People started to reach out and ask if I’ve done workshops and if I could talk to the kids about it and that is how it evolved. I said no I don’t do any workshops but I can try to come and help. It became a week after week thing where people asked if I could come and run some workshops.”

He has also spoken to people on pornography addiction and said back in his day, one had to go and get a magazine. But that is not so in 2020.

“You just need a smart phone and you can be up in your room just searching whatever you feel like searching,” Laulu said.

In the digital age, even parents have real issues with device addiction and social media attachment, he said. Laulu’s 60-year-old mother, who discovered Facebook two years ago is always on the site.

“Funnily enough, it starts with the parents...I think some of the parents have real major’s more about modelling. If you are trying to say kids shouldn’t be on it all the time and all they see are our parents on their phones it’s contradictory to what we are saying,” he explained.

“The one thing I usually tell families or parents...for example I got a workshop with about 50 kids, 25 in each class and only one kid out all those 50 put his hand up to say that he has a social media plan or there is a rule in hjs house about device usage. For him, it’s Monday through Friday and on Saturday he can play three hours of Fortnight. Every other child in that room, their parents don’t know they are on social media or their parents let them do whatever they feel like doing or they say they are on their homework but they are doing all sorts of other stuff online.”

Parents are oblivious to the real dangers of social media. TikTok, he said is rife with paedophiles where predators continually groom young people.

“Parent’s don’t know and they aren’t really informed and they just think it’s harmless but there is real serious education that is missing here on the internet and what it’s I see in Samoa...I follow the Observer quite a bit and I think in the last two years, there have been two or three articles written about kids who have taken their lives because of something that has been said on social media. It’s that bad,” said Laulu.

He mother is from Moata'a and his father is from Fa'aala, Savai’i.

Laulu’s professional background is in coordinating trade apprenticeships for Pacific islanders. He makes his home in Takanini, South Auckland with his wife and two children. The online module for the rugby association will be launched in October and Laulu hopes to visit Samoa soon and spread his message of digital discipline.

“There was no intention for it to be a business...I was doing a lot of these workshops for free last year and it wasn’t until one of the schools said ‘look, we can’t have you until you are a registered business or you’re a charity,” he told the Observer.

“I went up and set up a business and then from there, I started to realize the value of it and that people were willing to pay for it so I just sort of set up a business and ran with it. Honestly, GOD’s been crazy good.”

Laulu has also done some work with churches. 

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