Building Resilience In Children | Surviving In A Digital World

Australian children are among the youngest first-time technology users in the world [2] and many young people – the demographic whose lives are most enmeshed in the digital world – access the Internet daily [1]. As children gradually expand their consumption of online content, they may encounter a range of adverse situations that can inflict social, physical, psychological or emotional harm [1], including cyberbullying, sexting, child grooming, exposure to violent or sexual content, and privacy breaches [2]. While it is impossible to protect them from all negative online experiences [7], many experts highlight an urgent need for education that strengthens their digital resilience [5] and gives them the skills to make positive choices about their life online [10, 11].

Digital resilience is a core skill that bolsters a child’s ability to manage, learn from and recover from negative online experiences [1, 5] while keeping themselves emotionally and physically safe [9]. This digital resilience can be cultivated through judicious exposure to negative online experiences [9, 7] and the ongoing development of digital literacy and digital citizenship skills to help them contextualise their online experiences [2]. This article will explore why building digital resilience is important, the roles digital literacy and citizenship play in strengthening resilience, and practical steps parents can take to help their child develop this crucial skill for navigating the modern world.

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Why is digital resilience important?

In our 24/7 digital world, children are exposed to an endless stream of competing messages, images and discussions [4], some of which may harm their psychological well-being if they are not equipped with positive self-worth, a strong moral framework and the ability to make good value judgments [2]. Youth who do not develop digital resilience are much less likely to understand how to deal with negative or threatening online situations [14] or cultivate strategies to protect themselves from the potentially negative emotional impacts of digital technology [6]. For example, a growing body of evidence demonstrates a link between excessive social media use and depression in young people [12, 13]. Research by the UK Royal Society for Public Health discovered that the superficial focus of image-based social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat can heighten feelings of social isolation, depression, anxiety and inadequacy among youth [12]. Another study, which examined young people’s ability to recover from negative social media incidents, found that more than half experienced emotional distress about the social media incident for one day, while one in ten felt distress for a month or longer [1]. These studies highlight the importance of developing digital resilience in young people to support their emotional well-being.

Traditionally, cyber safety experts have given priority to strategies that limit a child’s online activities, such as parental monitoring and control technologies, creating a protective bubble to insulate them from harm [2]. However, when used in isolation, this parenting approach fails to equip young people with essential skills that allow them to recognise and handle unsafe online situations and unexpected challenges [3]. In contrast, children who are empowered to develop digital resilience are more likely to enjoy the benefits of the Internet and less likely to experience psychological or physical harm [14].

Digital resilience focuses on helping a young person develop intrinsic protections to navigate online environments safely, empowering them to draw on their knowledge and internal resources to think critically and solve problems [7]. Children with greater levels of digital literacy and resilience are better equipped to respond to online challenges [3] and recover from difficult online encounters with their emotional well-being intact [1]. Digital resilience can be bolstered through the development of digital media literacy and digital citizenship skills.

What is digital media literacy and why is it important for resilience?

Digital media literacy encompasses a variety of technical and intellectual skills needed to navigate and understand information in an online environment [2]. This literacy underpins digital resilience because it guides a child’s decision-making and interpretation of online images, videos, information and social media interactions [3]. Digital media literacy can encourage healthy cognitive development through critical thinking about the author’s intention, the content’s purpose, tone and biases, and whether it reflects reality or mirrors values that they and their family accept [7].

Not all young people have the same levels of digital literacy [2]. However, fostering this skill can greatly improve their online resilience [8]. Since digital literacy plays a fundamental role in how a child approaches and interprets the online world and its threats [3], educators and parents should embed digital media literacy guidance into their learning from an early age. As a child grows and increases their consumption of digital media, this digital media literacy should ideally foster deeper critical thinking about a broader range of content.

What is digital citizenship and why is it important for resilience?

Digital citizenship comprises the skills, knowledge and values that support safe, responsible behaviour in a social online community [2]. Developing digital citizenship contributes to a healthy digital resilience by reinforcing the growth of problem-solving and conflict management skills [7] and teaching the behavioural norms that dictate accepted behaviour within a digital community [2]. Digital citizenship encourages young people to build resilience through understanding their rights, responsibilities and practical strategies to manage online safety risks [7].

Steps to help children build resilience in the digital world

To help young people develop digital resilience, parents should encourage them to embrace a continuous, lifelong learning approach to online participation [2, 7]. Here are four steps you can take to help your child foster digital resilience.

#1 Empower independent problem-solving through thoughtful discussion

To strengthen a child’s online self-reliance, parents and caregivers need to encourage open, honest discussions about online safety best practice [2]. Discuss the potentially dangerous or uncomfortable situations they may encounter online, including practical strategies they can use to handle these situations [5]. During these conversations, it is important to empower them and avoid fostering ‘learned helplessness’ by taking an over-protective approach [5]. Instead, encourage their development of knowledge about cyber safety and independent problem-solving skills.

It may be helpful to run through example scenarios that help your child understand and practice managing these negative experiences [9]. For example, you might like to discuss how to:

  • Manage and emotionally process an abusive experience with a cyberbully
  • Respectfully say no to a request for sexting
  • Recognise patterns that may signal grooming and when to seek help
  • Emotionally make sense of inappropriate, sexual or violent content
  • Protect privacy through limiting personal information shared online
  • Manage the amount of time they spend online [6]

Finally, reinforce that they are welcome to seek help from an adult if they feel unsure and make it clear that you are available to provide emotional support without judgment [10]. Understanding how to manage possibly uncomfortable or upsetting experiences will help your child feel more in control and emotionally prepared when an inevitable negative experience occurs.

#2 Avoid the urge to over-monitor 

Remain active and aware of your child’s digital life, what technologies and apps they are using, and maintain an open door policy [6]. However, unless they are young and require supervision, do not constantly hover over their online activities. Over-monitoring can make young people feel distrusted and compromise their willingness to seek adult support when they encounter online difficulties [2].

#3 Nurture digital literacy and critical thinking

Encourage your child to think critically about the information, images and videos they discover online. This includes judging whether the content is trustworthy or may be an exaggeration or misrepresentation [2]. For example, they may feel afraid that the email chain mail they receive from a school friend will ‘curse’ them if they do not pass it on. Help them develop the capacity to make judgments about the quality and reliability of online information they encounter [2], show them what secure websites look like, and encourage them to think carefully about the consequences of what they say or post on social media [9]. Over time, your child will build a knowledge bank of observations and practical strategies to help them make safe and thoughtful choices regarding technology use.

#4 Advocate for digital resilience education in schools

Learning about digital resilience through a formal learning curriculum is a powerful way to reinforce the informal education a child receives at home [2, 7]. Ask your local school and teachers how they embed digital media literacy and citizenship into the curriculum [4]. If the school already includes these topics in classroom learning, consider how you can reinforce what your children learn at school at home. Empowering children with the right information to make positive decisions online. [11].

Final thoughts

To help them feel safe, responsible and in control when navigating the digital world, it is crucial that parents and caregivers support the development of a young person’s digital resilience [1, 7]. Fully protecting a child from adverse online situations is impossible. Instead, nurturing their digital resilience, media literacy and citizenship is the best way to help them cope with negative online experiences so they can enjoy a healthy childhood and become empowered digital citizens [7].

Cyber Safety: The Essential Guide To Protect Your Children Online



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