It feels as though the Internet has been around for ever doesn’t it, and yet it’s only 25 years old. Sometimes it feels like another universe, one I call Cyberia. Most children and young people have the technical skills, confidence and curiosity to navigate this ‘place’ and for parents they often feel overwhelmed by the implications for their parenting.
In that time how it’s used and the age at which children are accessing the Internet has become a challenge especially for parents trying to manage the media diet in their family. Frequently asked questions by parents include:
What do I need to know about what it means to grow up digital for me and my child?
What do I need to do?
Where can I find evidence informed advice and support to help me?
Should I believe everything I read and hear in the media about the negative impact of the Internet and digital devices on children and young people?
It’s important to understand how the Internet enables children and young people to connect, communicate and be creative in many positive ways using a range of devices.
Our kids are undoubtedly tech savvy – at an ever-younger age – and are increasingly independent as a result. Devices such as iPad, tablets and smartphones have enhanced this independence by providing mobility and 24/7 connectivity and this makes it much harder for parents to ‘keep an eye’ on what their children are doing, when and how their online experiences are impacting on their social and emotional well-being.
The Office of the eSafety Commissioner undertook a national survey in June 2016 into young people’s use of social media and their attitudes towards it.
It had two parts: a parent survey and a child survey.
The total sample comprised 1,367 kids (8-13 years), 912 teens (14-17 years) and 2,360 parents.
The internet plays a major role in young people’s lives. 85% of kids and teens see the internet as important in their lives.
80% of kids and teens use more than one device to go online. Most popular devices…
Teens: Mobile phones – 78%, Laptops – 76%.
Kids: Tablets – 71%.
Teens spend 74% more time online than kids per week outside of school.
Kids – 19 hours.
Teens – 33 hours.
In the 12 months to June 2016 children and young people were…
Cyberbullied – 8% of kids and 19% of teens.
Exposed to inappropriate content – 9% of kids and 17% of teens.
Contacted by strangers – 5% of kids and 9% of teens.
So, from younger ages children are connected in the home, at school and on the go, and once they hit eight years old they’re immersed in the world of social media. This is despite them not being legally allowed to set up accounts. It’s unusual for a child, and many adults for that matter to read the Terms and Services of the provider. You can be as old or as young as you like online and lying about their ages to sign up for social media accounts increases their risk factors as the age verification mechanisms are often ineffective.
In this environment, how do parents keep up? How do they protect their children from risk? And how do they even know if that risk exists and is currently impacting the lives of their children? It’s also normal for parents to be concerned about who their children are communicating with and what they are sharing or posting, as well as wanting to minimse or remove all risk.
Building mutual trust, having open communication and dealing with problems together as a family are the most successful strategies to support children in all aspects of their lives, online and offline.
Every day parents must walk the tightrope between parental control and simply letting their children act like children. For some parents surveillance equates to good parenting when in fact the tools that allow parents to control and monitor their child’s online experiences may not assist them to develop the ‘internal tools’ for online and offline life such as resilience, empathy and developing a strong moral compass.
Having open communication, mutual trust and the confidence to deal with problems together as a family is far more effective in safeguarding children.
Never does this high-wire act get more precarious than when parents and their children are dealing with the age-old issue of bullying.
In the online world, anyone with a phone can throw their non-existent weight around, 24/7.
Thanks to the smartphone and social media, bullying has extended its reach from the schoolyard into the home of the victim. For some children the bullying or harms they are experiencing at school follow them home via the Internet. Home for some is no longer the sanctuary it was in previous generations.
Of course, when our children are threatened, instinct takes over.
Our gut reaction is to remove the threat or remove them from danger. If staying safe online is what we want for our children we have to realise that the skills, knowledge and attitudes they develop over time will protect them whether parents are with them in person at home…or not.
So let’s all block the cyberbullies and trolls. Let’s ban our children from social media “for their own good”. This is the answer, right?
The former, which can work in some cases, won’t stop determined cyberbullies from creating new user profiles and calling in reinforcements to troll a victim en masse.
The latter is almost impossible to police given that technology permeates every aspect of your life, and your child’s.
As we’ve already established, children and young people are tech-savvy and will try to find their way around any blocks and restrictions.
The answer is knowledge, communication, the setting of realistic boundaries and employing sophisticated technology to help you, the parent.
In February 2013 the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre published their report: Enhancing parents’ knowledge and practice of online safety.
This research shows that young people today generally understand the range of risks they might face online, and they take active steps to protect themselves. Their online safety strategies draw upon school-based cybersafety and digital citizenship education, as well as the information and skills they gain through peer networks, sibling relationships, and conversations with the adults in their lives….This underlines the importance of parents continuing to have open and ongoing conversations with young people about their online activities that reiterate their family’s values.’
  Locke.K, Spry. D, Third. A 2013 ‘Enhancing parents’ knowledge and practice of online safety.’ Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, Melbourne.
Firstly to the basics – how appropriate is a social media platform for your child given their ages?
Talk to your child about who they should and shouldn’t connect with online, and the permanency of what they post on the internet.
Also guide them on interpretation – how could others react to what your child is posting? One of the issues children face on social media is that what they are posting or commenting on is often misinterpreted. This can lead to the ‘dramas’ of friendship being played out online, with a large audience or when they meet face to face at school.
A level of supervision is also going to be needed, which is easier to maintain when dealing with younger children, by limiting the use of devices in the home.
You’ll know best the dynamic of your household and what approach is most likely to work with your child.
But as those children get older, the challenge becomes harder.
A solution can be the use of non-intrusive monitoring which provides parents with information about online behaviour from a distance.
The majority of Parental Control Software solutions are based on saying “NO” via blocking and prohibition, which doesn’t solve the problem. Children, especially teenagers, will find a way around it.
Wangle Family Insites is a new mobile based tool, operating via a secure virtual private network (VPN) to help parents by providing real-time monitoring of online activity and assessment of potential risks.
It works by alerting you to your child’s online behaviours that may indicate a threat and what the severity of that threat is.
It then connects you to a parent portal to provide you with detailed information, advice and follow-up resources, arming you with the knowledge you need to discuss the issue with your child and work together to solve the issue.
You can find out more about Wangle Family Insites here: http://wanglefamilyinsites.com/about/
Taking a considered approach to online activity and arming yourself with knowledge will build confidence over time – yours and your child’s – and help to minimise and mitigate any of the risks.
Using leading-edge technology to help you do this, will ensure you’re in control and better positioned to deal with issues before they have a significant impact on your children. This will build on the mutual trust, confidence and communication between parents and their child as they navigate digital life with the skills required for safety today and in the future.
Henry Jenkins, a media professor, and parent offers some wise advice:
‘We need to watch their backs not look over their shoulders.’