Why Prevention Is The Key To Online Safety For Our Children
Making sure our children are safe on the internet is among the biggest concerns facing parents today; there’s no denying that. Children are naturally drawn to technology, and why shouldn’t they? They play fun games, look at videos and movies on YouTube and talk to their friends, and send funny pictures and messages. Of course, as the majority of parents know, it’s not all fun and games.
When I meet with kids in primary schools where children are between 5-12 years old, I ask them if they think using technology is a game. All of them put their hands up. But the moment I asked high school students the same question, I get an entirely different response.
The truth is, at the point they’re in the age of teens, they’ve encountered some extremely savage content online. They are under immense pressure to stay on top of the constant stream of messages. Many are depressed when they compare their lives to the lives they see of their peers on Instagram. Most have seen porn by then, and a majority have experienced instances of cyberbullying, which can be particularly troubling, whether it’s targeted at their friends or even them. It’s not difficult to see that what appears to be fun and games initially can be a nightmare for a lot of students.
How Parents Feel About Technology
When I speak with other parents and read their views, they vary dramatically across the board. Some parents think it’s great that their children use so much technology, and don’t want them falling behind given technology will have a large role to play in their future. Some parents wish their children would spend less time in front of screens and more time being active outdoors. Many parents are fearful of what their children may see (inappropriate content) or do online.
However there’s one trait the vast majority of parents have in common: they hope their children will use technology responsibly, and wait until disaster strikes before taking real action to help their kids stay safe.
This is completely understandable. We live in difficult times – it’s stressful for most of us trying as best we can to make ends meet and finding the right work/life balance. The pressures these days on parents are immense, and most of us simply don’t get to spend as much time as we’d like with our children.
What Can Go Wrong?
Most parents are not fully aware of what can go wrong when their children are online, or have not fully considered the consequences and how much an online incident can affect their child’s life. Here are just a few of the unfortunate circumstances many children find themselves in as a result of their online activity:
- They’ve been cyber-bullied to the point that they’re now depressed, and possibly even having suicidal thoughts.
- They’re humiliated after sharing an indecent image of themselves with a boyfriend they trusted implicitly, and that image is now circulating the school and beyond, completely out of their control.
- They’ve been blackmailed into sending more indecent images of themselves or of committing indecent acts in front of a screen.
- They have become a gamer and have stopped participating in the activities they used to love, instead choosing to stay up all night playing games.
- They’ve developed a relationship with someone online who it turns out is not who they said they were, and who has groomed your child with the intent of meeting them in real life and sexually abusing them.
- They’ve become obsessed with watching graphic pornographic content online, and now believe that’s an acceptable and even normal way to treat someone of the opposite sex or to be treated.
- They’ve shared enough information about themselves online (possibly with some help from their parents) that their identity has been stolen – and they may not know it for years to come (after their credit rating and ability to borrow money has been ruined).
It needs to be stated that these experiences are very real and can happen to ANY child – regardless of their appearance, how many friends they have, how intelligent they are, how sporty they are etc. Sitting back and believing that “It won’t happen to me” leaves your child in a particularly vulnerable position.
The Problem With Being Reactive
If you’re in a situation where you’re reacting to any one of the above situations, the damage has already been done. You’re on the back foot, usually caught unaware, and your child’s life has already been negatively affected.
The fact is, whilst you might be able to seek psychological or professional help in some instances, you can’t undo what has happened. Your child can’t un-see what they’ve seen. Many an adult who has become addicted to porn online has recognised how it’s ruined their lives and wished they’d never seen it in the first place. The fact is that you simply can’t turn back time.
7 Key Steps Parents Can Take
There are some experiences children need to experience and learn from for themselves. To an extent, we don’t want or need to be helicopter parents, wrapping up our children in cotton wool and not helping them prepare for the real world. However there are some experiences your child does not and should not ever have to go through, and these are the ones that need to be prevented.
When I talk with parents at schools I mention that prevention is better than a cure, but I don’t go into this much detail as to why that’s the case. I feel that as a parent you really need to understand WHY it’s so important to take whatever action you can to PREVENT your child from going through a horrific experience that can potentially affect them for the rest of their lives.
Here are seven key steps you can take as a parent to keep your children safe and help them prevent becoming another victim of their own online activity:
1. Get Involved
Take the time to ask your children what they’re actually doing when they’re online. What they’re doing there is usually more relevant than how long they’ve been there for. If possible, get them to show you the games they’re playing and the chat sites they’re using. The more aware you are of how they interact with technology the better.
Talk to your child about what content is allowed online and what is not. A thirteen-year-old is not aware of everything that can happen if your child posts his or her address publicly on Facebook. Therefore, make the abstract idea of privacy comprehensible to your child with very concrete examples.
2. Consider Parental Controls
Parents are not always present when children are surfing. These can include installing appropriate protection software and filters in the computer to protect children from inappropriate content on the net. There are many free parental controls you can use aside from paid products. If you want any parental controls to be effective it’s important to implement them correctly – that means being open and honest with your children about what you’re using and why. There are some fantastic parental controls that alert you to potential issues whilst allowing you to respect your children’s privacy to an extent.
3. Set The Rules In Advance
All children need and appreciate boundaries, whether they show it or not! It’s important to agree on rules up-front as to how your children may use technology – what times of day they’re allowed to use it, any sites they’re not permitted to visit, who they’re allowed to chat with, what information they can share, and so much more. Explain that they should never accept an invitation from someone they don’t know, even if that person claims to be a friend of a friend.
4. Teach Kids to ask for Help
A lot of children and teenagers who have suffered bullying through the Internet are not aware until much later because of the fear of embarrassment, fear of shame, or fear of being retaliated against. It’s the responsibility of the parents and teachers to educate them on the warning signs of danger and establish a trusting environment to enable them to reach out for assistance from the moment they feel threatened.
5. Check apps
Check what permissions an app requires before your child installs it. Make sure your kids can’t install and random games or apps on their own. To ensure this, password-protect the app store with a password that only you know.
6. Have Frequent Conversations
There are so many conversations that need to be had on a regular basis with your children. Talking with your child is by far the most important parental control you have and should not be under-estimated. Shorter conversations at regular intervals are far more effective than long-winded lectures where your child will tune out before you’ve got to the good stuff!
7. Educate Yourself
One thing I’ve learned in the last few years of researching online safety is that there’s more to it than most parents think – much more. Parents can only intervene in the right place if they know what their children’s media consumption is actually like. If you really want to learn what you need to know so as not to get blind-sided by the negative affects of technology, and to prevent your child experiencing unnecessary trauma in their life.