Our children are called ‘the digital generation’ for a reason – they are the first generation of young people living their lives in the digital era, the lives fundamentally different from the experience of previous generations. The recent advance of the Internet has been so rapid, the adoption of online digital media so major, that a substantial part of our children’s social life is now played out online. Because the phenomenon is so new, it caught the governments, internet platforms and parents unawares, and reduced them to providing damage limitations rather than a thought-through, consistent programme of action which would ensure online safety of the young generation.
In 2008, the NSPCC conducted a review “Safer Children in a Digital World” and made a series of recommendations to the Government in order to keep youngsters safe on the internet. A decade later, the charity reveals that less than half of its recommendations have been implemented and nearly a third have been ignored. It accused the Government of “dragging its feet” on the issue. In its turn, the government is urging social media companies to take more responsibility for harmful online content.
But Internet safety is not just the government’s responsibility. As Internet users, we all need to understand its potential benefits and harms, and explore how benefits can be harnessed and harms minimised. The whole generation of our children are grappling with mental health problems, and Internet is often blamed for it. A few years ago, at least 2 teenagers in Russia and one in the USA killed themselves after taking part in an internet online suicide game called the ‘Blue Whale Challenge”, a reference to the way some blue whales purposefully beach themselves and die. More recently, a 14-year old girl took her own life after seeing distressing material about depression and suicide on Instagram. The girl’s family believe that by allowing the kind of material, Instagram is partly responsible for her death. While Instagram claims it does not allow and will remove any content that promotes or glorifies self-harm or suicide. One can understand both sides. The inconceivable pain of the parents, the almost impossible task of the immediate removal of damaging content by Instagram.
Numerous studies about the dangers of internet for young people have concluded that although there is significant potential for harm from online behaviour (normalisation, triggering, competition, contagion), there’s also the potential to exploit its benefits (crisis support, reduction of social isolation, delivery of therapy, outreach). Young people appear to be increasingly using social media to communicate distress, particularly to peers. The focus should now be on how specific mediums – social media, video or image sharing – might be used in therapy and recovery. Clinicians working with young people who self-harm or have mental health issues, should engage in discussion about Internet use.
And so should the parents. We could blame Instagram, Facebook and other internet platforms for not doing enough, and the government for being too slow with legislation. But there is a lot we as parents can do ourselves to ensure our children’s online safety.
Our children are so much quicker and more savvy than us with the new technologies, that often we use them as free tech support when we need to configure our modems or smart TVs, and leave them to take care of their own online security. But that would be a big mistake, which can cause a lot of damage. While our children are experts in technology, they are not experts at evaluating risks. While they know about numerous aps, and where to find templates, videos and music, they do not know about online privacy, phishing, malware, inappropriate content and cyber-crime. As in the real world, we as parents need to provide guidance, set boundaries and, depending on the child’s age and maturity, put safeguards in place.
Here are some basic steps any parent should take to ensure Internet Safety for children:
- To educate your children, you first need to learn more about Internet yourself, in order to be aware exactly where the threats are coming from.
- Once you understand the issues, talk to your children about the dangers and risks
- teach them not to respond to messages from strangers
- educate them of the risks of ‘sexting’
- warn them about file sharing
- talk to them about cyber-bullying
- make some rules about their online activities, set limits on how much time they can spend online. Tell them not to use real information, such as photos, name and address in personal profiles
- Use anti-virus and parental controls to ensure your child’s online safety. Children are as vulnerable as the rest of us, if not more so, to clicking on bad links and downloading malicious software. Anti-virus software will protect them and their devices. There is good software available for the purpose, including free products from trustworthy brands.
- Secure your gaming systems. Your gaming console is also an Internet device. Children can download games and make in-game purchases, as well as surf the net. But it has features which will allow you to restrict damaging content, limit their purchases and restrict or turn off their Web browsing.
- Minimize the risk as much as possible by using child-safe browsers, search-engines and lock-on apps for the younger children
- Make sure your children are only using safe chat rooms
Some child-friendly platforms offer chat rooms where children can talk to other children. Check the sites first to make sure that someone monitors the chat rooms.
- Watch for danger signs, which indicate that your teenager can be at risk:
- Spending lots of time online, especially at night
- Reluctant to leave the room where computer is
- Seems isolated from friends and family
- If you find improper links on your child’s computer
- If you notice that your child receives emails from strangers
- If your child turns the computer monitor quickly when you come into the room
- Any signs of online bullying. Online bullying is illegal, if it happens, you should take copies of evidence and report it
These 7 steps are designed to help parents to be more aware about how to raise children in the digital age. By outlining them for our parents, we at Gabbitas want to ensure that our clients have as much information as possible to keep their children safe.