The many devices necessary for work and family life are often hard to put down. In fact, a study from the UK found that the average adult spends roughly 4.8 hours a day on their mobile phones. Despite the many good things about technology, the online world has not only displaced face-to-face interaction, but it has added a new challenge for parents – finding the balance between allowing your children time on their devices whilst keeping them safe.
Online dangers such as exposure to sexually explicit material, grooming, unwanted approaches from strangers, cyberbullying, internet addiction, privacy issues and sexting are particularly harmful to young children and adolescents.
Despite the critical role parents play in keeping their children safe online, they often aren’t proactive and are unsure how to tackle the issue.
Parents and technology – be willing to learn
As parents, it is imperative we learn about technology – better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t. We need to know how our children spend their time online, the sites they frequent, YouTubers they watch and games they play.
Make sense of what motivates, stimulates and engages your child online. They may gain a sense of mastery, independence, community, and even understanding and acceptance from the groups they connect with.
Many parents feel they are ‘snooping’, but understanding your child’s technology use is the first step to keeping them safe. It’s fair to set limits and expect honest conversations about their internet usage, and reasonable to follow and interact with your child on any social media platforms.
Do your own research, but also ask your child to help you learn about the sites and apps they use. Don’t just monitor them, keep them company online occasionally so you can understand and be a part of what they are doing.
Teenagers and tech
Technology use and online relationships now form a typical aspect of teenage development and can support them in positive ways. But they are also at a stage in their neurological development that can make them vulnerable to the addictive effects of technology.
Just as in the real world, keep an eye on how your teen behaves online. Make sure they understand that it’s never private, and shared images, thoughts and behaviours can become a lasting digital footprint – particularly if you know that nude photos and sexting are commonly sent and received by their peers. Backing up your claims with news stories, anecdotes and research will help show them your concerns are real and you aren’t just being a risk-adverse parent.
Tread carefully if you see something on their device you don’t like. If you take away their phone, they may be less inclined to be honest in the future. Use these moments as an opportunity to educate by explaining concerns and exploring solutions together. Keep lines of communication open, stay close and let your teen know you are there for them.
Teenagers are going through a naturally explorative age, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with using technology to learn more about their identity and sexuality, but there are some things for parents of teens to be mindful of:
Sexting and nudes
Sexting is the sending and receiving of pictures, videos or texts of a sexual nature over text messages or online platforms. Some parents may be surprised and unsettled to learn that sexting is a common practice amongst children and teenagers. Research suggests that 10% of children aged 10-19 have sent sexts, and 16% of children in the same age bracket received them.
It’s vital for your children to understand that their actions can have lifelong consequences. If the person in the photos or videos is under 18, it is viewed as distributing child pornography, which is a criminal offence. At the very least, sending nudes and other unwanted sexual content could be considered bullying or harassment and lead to repercussions at school. It’s also important for them to realise that once they press send, they are no longer in control over the material and who sees it.
When broaching the dangers of sexting, it may be wise to have a series of ongoing conversations with teens rather than one “big talk”, which can be uncomfortable and overwhelming. Outline how they can make smart decisions, discuss their right to say no when pressured and reinforce their self-worth.
Be prepared for the reality that, despite the best filters and parental controls, at some point, your teen will stumble across online porn. What is most important is to have conversations about sex and relationships, what is being “learnt” through pornography and how it relates – or not – to real life, as well as what it reinforces about gendered inequity and abuse in relationships.
Cyberbullying is deliberate and repeated harm inflicted through the use of electronic devices, which can be devastating. The most common forms include mean or hurtful comments or untrue rumours posted online.
How do we teach our children to be prepared for the reality that people can behave in nasty and hurtful ways, to not take these behaviours personally, and to move away and play elsewhere? Be proactive and enlist your child to help you research effective and self-protective strategies on how to deal with cyberbullying. Tackling cyber bullying together will be easier if you have laid the foundations of a strong, trustworthy collaborative relationship.
Younger children and screen time
The first three years of a child’s life is a critical time for brain development. When it comes to language, learning and speech development, nothing can take the place of face-to-face verbal and non-verbal interaction with parents.
It is recommended that children under two have no screen time and two to five-year-olds have one hour a day of high-quality content. Co-viewing allows what has been learned onscreen to be retaught later in the real world.
Schedule in ‘unplugged time’
Research is increasingly pointing towards how spending time in nature can improve our mental health and cognitive capacity.
Take breaks from digital devices and allow for uninterrupted moments to talk and communicate with each other. Turn off televisions that are not being watched, keep children’s bedrooms tech-free, limit screen time in the hours before sleep, and make time for face-to-face screen-free family time and outings.
Trustworthy, respectful and engaged relationships where open conversations can occur is always the best context to set any rules and boundaries about online activity. Where communication has gone astray, or you feel negative patterns are established and hard to change, then seeking professional help could be important moving forward.