Almost every day there’s a different story in the news about the dangers of the internet. Some of these are terrifying, and every parent’s worst nightmare. Take for example the story of Breck Bednar who was groomed and murdered in 2014 at age 14 through an online gaming site. Or the story of Thomas Pryce who pretended to be a girl, encouraging boys to send him indecent images.
You also may have picked up on stories about cyberbullying where children are picked on and harassed through social media sites, games and group chat. Cyberbullying is basically bullying behaviour but through electronic means. Quite often it is someone known to the child, for example their schoolmates, and bullying can move from school to online and vice versa. The horrible thing about it is that it can be 24/7, has potential to involve a lot of people and can feel very public leading to feelings of shame and embarrassment.
Children can also be exposed to harmful attitudes online – sometimes directed at them or a group they identify with. For example language and images that are sexist, racist, targetting faith and culture, homophobic and disablist. There are also other areas of risk such as exposure to extremist ideologies, self-harm and pro-anorexia sites.
A report from EU Kids online of children from around Europe found that pornography and violent and gory content are what tends to bother children most. Boys tended to be more concerned about violence, girls about contact risks (e.g grooming). Younger children are more concerned about what they see, older children by conduct (e.g. cyberbullying) and contact risks.
The most important message to get across is that as a Dad you should prepare your child to go into the online world just as much as the offline world. You wouldn’t send your 5 year old alone into a forest (well you might if you’re Bear Grylls) and even he would say that preparation is key. So here are some basic tips to keep in mind:
The online world is here to stay. There are more opportunities and positive things about it than risks and negatives but you have just as much parental responsibility for your child online as when they are offline. It’s not a case of ‘well they’re at home on their ipad so they’re safe.’
Keep in mind ‘content’ and ‘conduct.’ Content refers to what they might see. Conduct refers to what they or others might get up to.
Very young children. They might like to get their hands on your phone and tablets and it won’t be long before they’re happily swiping away. Make sure you have the right security settings and you supervise their use. This comes from experience as a Mum whose child tweeted out ‘Masha and the bear’ clips (which were weirdly liked although they made no sense) in the blink of an eye.
As they grow up. Once your child has their own device or regular access to a family device you need to make sure you have set up appropriate parental controls. There’s lots of advice out there of how to do this – for example check out the UK Safer Internet Centre. With all the best will in the world there may be times when your child comes across something that upsets or scares them. Make sure they know they can can come and talk to you at any time.
Entering the danger/fun zone. This will vary from child to child, but typically around upper primary/lower secondary you need to be on the ball over conduct issues. Children are signing up for social networking sites younger and younger and with social networks comes a whole new world of opportunity to meet the great and the bad and for things to get messy.
Learn about privacy settings. If you want to know more about what the social networks, games and apps your child is using check out NSPCC Netware. Talk to them about the importance of privacy. Go through the privacy settings together (and make sure yours aren’t also wide open at the same time). Help them think about why you might not want to share certain information (e.g. personal details, private thoughts and feelings). Talk about what it means to have friends and followers online and share the message that positive relationships make you like yourself more not less – whether face to face or online.
Encourage your child to question everything. There is a lot of emphasis on how you look and what you have online and this can make anyone feel like crap. Remind them that people only share what they want you to see. What’s the saying – don’t judge your inside on someone else’s outside.
Model good citizenship to your child both online and offline. That means choosing your words carefully and knowing when to say nothing/share nothing. A lot of people are angry a lot of the time on social networks and it’s emotionally draining. Encourage your child to see the positive where possible and spread the light.
Let them make mistakes. There will be times when your child falls over and scrapes their knee, when they scratch your car, and when they do something they regret online. Make sure they know that whatever it is you will sort it out together.
We all need to sleep. The earlier you can set boundaries in place around the amount of time your children spend online the better. Children are going to school exhausted because they’re switched on all night. But it’s much easier to enforce this if you are not a parent who falls asleep watching Youtube. It’s radical but keep devices out of the bedroom and you might find you sleep better and go to bed with happy thoughts rather than images of the latest war zone or wondering why so and so posted x, y, z.
You’re reading this blog so you probably enjoy spending time online yourself. An increasingly important lesson you can teach your child is how to enjoy time offline. That means putting down your phone/tablet/whatever it is and spending time in each other’s company. There’s something really depressing about looking round a restaurant and seeing couples and families staring at their phones not one another. You can’t listen to someone if you’re staring at a screen. Make an effort when they come home from school or when you get in from work to connect with each other without any distractions. That way they won’t ignore you when they’re teenagers and you want the attention!
None of this is easy. If you’re a parent whose child is experiencing cyberbullying and you need advice check out the Kidscape Parent Advice Line. The Kidscape site also has lots more information and guidance for parents and children. In a world that is changing so quickly your relationship with your child still means everything so have faith in your power to guide, protect and love – wherever they may roam.
Written by Lauren Seager-Smith, CEO Kidscape