Tips for navigating parenting
in an online world

Our many devices, necessary for work and family life, are often hard to put down. While the online world has opened up valuable and essential ways for us to communicate and learn, it has also displaced the importance of face-to-face interaction, family time, time outdoors, exercise, unplugged downtime and the all-essential, sleep.

Social media can feel like the Wild West, here’s how you can ensure your children are safe.


For many parents, the online world seems like a different country we have no idea how to get to, let alone speak the language. Despite having a key role in keeping children safe online, surveys show we are often not proactive and lack confidence when it comes to seeking information about online safety and how to deal with our children’s negative experiences. Perils include exposure to sexually explicit material, grooming and unwanted approaches from strangers, cyberbullying, internet addiction, privacy issues and sexting, to name a few. Media can also influence the emotional and social development of our children – how they feel, learn, think and behave. And as parents, we can also struggle ourselves with balance, being both captivated and compelled to over-use our own devices.

Navigating the online experiences of our children requires effort and diligence. In the offline world it is not unusual for us to tell our children to “do this” and “don’t do that”, but a different approach is needed for us to encourage them in the right direction online.

Be willing to learn

As parents, we cannot escape the imperative to learn about technology. We need to know what interests our children and how they spend their time online. Many parents feel they are “snooping”, but parenting guidelines from the real world apply equally to online. It’s fair to set limits and expect honest conversations about who their friends are, what platforms and apps they use and what sites they visit. It’s reasonable to express our desire to protect our children and that may involve following them on platforms such as Facebook (and chatrooms), Snapchat, Instagram, Tik Tok and YouTube.

This needs to be balanced with a need for privacy, especially as they get older. It’s not unlike the respect you need to show to an adolescent’s shut bedroom door. It’s in the navigation of the discussion that you get to balance safety and privacy artfully. Many adults and teens happily discuss the sites they are both signed up to; for others it could be seen as bowling in without knocking. It mirrors the overall relationship you have established, and how you handle your involvement. Do you launch in with “gotcha”, or something else?

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 at times so you can understand and be a part of what they are doing. If they have an interest or need to keep in the group for their social needs, then you turning up as critic won’t be helpful. Curious conversations will be more useful.

 

Build a strong, collaborative and trustworthy relationship

The quality of relationship with our children will determine how well we can guide them online. Managing a teenager’s interface with the digital world demands different knowledge and skills from managing an eight-year old child. Older children, by necessity, demand a more open parenting style, while a more restrictive style is appropriate for younger children.

Rules and limits will only work in a relationship of mutual respect, especially with teenagers. Build a strong relationship by giving your full attention to your child when they are speaking, accept them for who they are, encourage their strengths and help them be aware of their weaknesses. Show leadership by admitting where you are still learning and can also get things wrong.

Discussions about technology use need to take place when you are both relaxed and free of interruptions. When you give your child a device, be clear about what rules apply and explain how they protect them. Don’t give the device and then constantly threaten to remove it or lament their overuse when limits haven’t been made clear.

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.

Teenagers

When a child becomes a teen, issues of independence, choice and responsibility arise. 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.

Collaborative discussions about how they engage with the online world may be more productive than the rebellion you may invite if you dictate terms and rules. Explain your concerns and listen to your teen’s perspective. “If you don’t agree with me, what would you suggest?” “Tell me more. How would that idea work?” Ask your teen to research ideas for how parents and teens can resolve these issues. Agreements need ongoing discussion and review. If something doesn’t work, move to something new, but stay present.

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. Showing news stories that demonstrate this and discussing them, as opposed to an overuse of warnings that can seem to them too risk averse and “hysterical”, might help. Cyberbullying is never acceptable and it is wrong to share content that belongs to someone else. Emphasise the dangers of sex offenders or other unwanted strangers who use the online world to contact and exploit children, often under the guise of being a child or teen themselves.

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 ideas together on how to deal with the situation. Keep lines of communication open, stay close and let your teen know you are there for them. Hold your own course regardless of what other parents are doing.

Younger children

The first three years of a child’s life is a critical time for brain development. Nothing can take the place of face-to-face verbal and non-verbal interaction with loving and present parents when it comes to learning, speech and language development for children. Essential interactions and non-verbal cues can be lost when parents are on a smartphone. 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 on screen to be retaught later in the real world.

Unplugged time

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, play in the park, take a trip to the zoo or have a day at the beach. Limit screen time in the hours before sleep. This goes for everyone!

Live by the same rules

If you ask your child to not bring their device to the dining table, or not respond to their device while you are talking to them, make sure you do the same. Do you tell your child they need unplugged time but you are incessantly plugged in? Do you model kindness and good manners online?

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is deliberate and repeated harm inflicted through the use of electronic devices and can be devastating for children who are unprepared. As many as seven out of 10 kids have been affected by cyberbullying – 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.

Finally, pornography

Be prepared for the reality that, despite the best filters and parental controls, at some time your teen will stumble across, or be introduced to, online porn. The website for the Office of the eSafety Commissioner has great resources. What is most important is to have the 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.

Online life and work are here to stay, and we are still catching up on its ramifications for ourselves, let alone how we can assist the next generation. Navigating this successfully rests on the quality of the relationship we have with our children overall. Developing trustworthy, respectful and engaged relationships where open conversations can occur, is always the best context to set any ground rules required. Where this has gone astray, or you feel negative patterns are established and hard to change, then seeking professional assistance could be important to set some new rules of engagement.

Need further support? There’s professional help available. Relationships Australia offers a range of family counselling services. We also offer a range of group programs that can help your family or your relationship with your child get back on track after a breakup. Find out more about our group-based Relationship Education Programs here

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