Cyber safety and digital parenting often evokes feelings of fear, confusion and overwhelm.
There is no doubt that the digital world our children are immersed in can fill us with dread, can leave us feeling out of control, afraid for our children, and thankful we ourselves didn’t have to grow up in the glaring spotlight of social media.
There is also no doubt that many children are finding themselves in trouble online. They are making contact with people who are undesirable to say the least. They are being bullied. They are having photos taken and shared without consent. They are ruining their reputations and missing out on opportunities because of online transgressions.
There are however, many who are doing just fine online. They are making the right choices, engaging in positive interactions and making the most of the many benefits of a connected world.
So our role as parents is to help them do more of the latter. That is the sole purpose of my talks to parents and what forms the basis of my workshops with students.
In those talks with parents I get lots of questions, so I am sharing with you my top 3 frequently asked questions on cyber safety and parenting in a digital world:
My kids know so much I could never keep up. How do we do this when the technology seems to change so quickly?
Certainly our kids do appear to know so much. They know a lot of the technical stuff. They can upload, download and fix grandmas phone every time she locks herself out or forgets her password. It appears they were born with an innate ability to figure out the technical workings of a device before they could walk or talk.
But what they are not born with is the ability to understand the all encompassing world they will very soon be immersed in. A world that is so connected and public and magnified. A world that requires understanding of human relationships and behaviours, of consequences and repercussions and the challenges generated by a very public journey through adolescence. Their developing brains and bodies and their quest for independence and identity can be a cauldron of trouble when it all happens in a big internet melting pot.
So they need us to help them with those behaviours. They can teach us about the technology and how things work, but as parents we must make an effort to keep up with the sorts of things kids are doing and how they are using the technology so we can help them in the most relevant ways.we don’t have to know every site or app they visit, but we do need to know the sorts of things the technology is capable of and the ways that kids are using it. We can then teach them the skills they will need to be safe and smart wherever they find themselves online.
How do I ensure they don’t see pornography and inappropriate material?
The short answer is, it is really, really difficult. We certainly need to do all we can to ensure our homes and devices are protected with filters, software, settings and apps that prevent the material getting through. We can look at individual devices separately and set them up safely, we can invest in wifi modems that protect all devices connected to it and we can set up search engines and popular sites with the appropriate settings to block the bad stuff. BUT. We cannot rely on these things. They are imperative when our kids are young and we need to protect them for as long as we can, but we cannot assume that we are going to maintain control throughout adolescents. We cannot guarantee their friends will have the same protective set ups in place when they go over for a play date. We cannot assume that they won’t log in to free and unprotected wifi at the local cafe or McDonalds. Or look over the shoulder of a mate on a bus.
What we can do is remain alert and aware of the possibility that there may well be things online that our kids see that make us sick to our stomach. But the awkward, embarrassing conversations about what they may see or may have seen, still need to happen. We need them to know that what they may see does not have to be their normal. It is not how they need to view sexuality and relationships. I have delved in to this further in previous posts ‘Has your child seen porn online’ and ‘What to do if your child sees porn’.
How much time should I allow them on the screens or with their device?
This is a question I get asked all the time and again there is no straight forward response. Even the World Health Organisation keeps changing it’s mind and is finding it increasingly difficult to come up with guidelines. Most guidelines we do read about tend to be outdated and not very relevant. The more important questions parents need to be asking are:
How is my child coping with the time on the screens?
And how are they spending that time on the screens?
If they are still managing to maintain all the other elements of their lives, keeping up with homework, chores, friends, mealtimes and sleep times then they are probably doing ok. If you are not having major tantrums to get them to the dinner table or get them to put the device away before bed, then they are probably doing ok. If you are having major tantrums and other aspects of their life are being significantly neglected then you need to make some changes.
But also importantly, we need to look at what they are using the screens for. There is certainly more value in creative uses rather than just consuming content. The benefits of some video games can outweigh that of others. The experiences they are having and the interactions with others can be largely positive or overwhelmingly negative. We need therefore to look at the types of screentime our kids are having, rather than simply focus on the amount of time. I have worked with families who were so desperate to get their kids off Minecraft (which of course we know has many many positive elements to it) only to watch them go and lie on the couch watching The Simpsons and Big Brother on TV. That makes little sense to me.
What we ultimately want for our kids is time spent that is worthwhile (and yes sometimes that can be chatting to their mates or playing games), but we need to ensure that it is a positive experience and that it is balanced with the many other activities they need to learn, play, socialise and interact.
Ultimately there are many grey areas when it comes to teaching cyber safety and digital parenting. It is largely unchartered waters and the implications for each child are individual and diverse.
Being informed of what is out there, having regular talks about these things with your kids, and continuing to focus on your child and your connection with them, goes a long way to ensuring you are making the right decisions to keep them safe and smart online.