This is something that keeps parents awake at nights and often comes up in conversation when parents get together. There is not an option to avoid technology and the connectedness that the internet provides. Instead we must find ways to teach our children to enjoy all the advantages that technology can bring us in a safe way. The big but is of course, but how do we let our children/young people access all this whilst keeping themselves safe.
In last week’s blog I discussed some of my thinking around how education is being impacted by technology. This week I’d like to focus much more on the question of safety. I recently read a fantastic book written by John Parsons, Keeping Your Children Safe Online: A guide for New Zealand parents, published by Potton and Burton. I would recommend this as a great read to anyone parenting children and young people of any age. John has a very sensible and practical approach.
One of the key themes that runs through the book is that parents treat the online world as an actual physical space just the same as they treat any other space their child might find themselves in and then think about applying some of the same guidelines. When our children are little, we would not dream of allowing them to walk to the park alone. When we take them to the park, we take time to demonstrate and guide them in the safe use of playground equipment and show them the areas that are safe to run or kick a ball. As they get older and we as parents feel that they are ready to walk to school or the park on their own we would ensure they knew a safe route and what to do if something went wrong. When our child arrived home after an independent outing, we would most likely check in to see how things had gone and offer some support and advice if something didn’t go as planned. John urges parents to think about the online world in the same way.
He cautions parents not to allow their children to set up Facebook or other social media accounts when they are too young to do so. In the same way that we wouldn’t send our 2-year-old to play at the park on their own the online location of social media sites isn’t set up to provide a safe place for children younger than the stated age. He also offers the chilling idea that if your child has signed up when they are younger by lying about their age everyone will see their age as several years older than it is. This can too easily lead to inappropriate relationships based on a misunderstanding about the age of the person who opened the social media account. A further point he makes is that if your child asks to set up the account when they are too young this is a great moment to discuss being respectful of the companies who have set the social media up and how you expect your child to behave as they interact with the world.
John covers a wide range of concerns common to parents in terms of keeping children safe online including those that we may find difficult to discuss such as sexting or sharing inappropriate images and avoiding sexual predators online. His advice is sensible and down to earth. He has several principles which parents can apply to many of the situations encountered online. He provides reassuring advice about what to do when things have already gone wrong. There is a comprehensive list at the back of the book with contact information about the various services that can help. I have often heard adults saying that once an inappropriate image or piece of information is online it’s there forever. John corrected this by clarifying that as further information is put online about an individual the older information slips away. Perhaps an expert could find the old information, but general searches won’t turn up the unfortunate photo or post. This must be very comforting to anyone who has made a mistake online.
Of relevance to parents is that John cautions us to keep what he terms the ‘Cyber Tooth Tiger’ under control. This is part of our evolutionary history and stems from the way that people have evolved from the times when the proper reaction to a sabre-toothed tiger was a strong one in order to survive. When we or our children is under threat we can react very strongly and at times becoming angry with the child for putting him or herself or our family in harms way. The problem with this reaction is that it tends to put children off telling us what is going on. If we don’t know what’s happening, we can’t help.
Overall John is letting us know that what we do effectively to keep our children not just safe but thriving in the physical world are the same things we should do to keep our children safe in the online world. There is no need for us to be technological wizards in order to help our children. We just need to be engaged and interested parents.
As a further note, John lists Netsafe at the back of his book among many other agencies. I thought it was worthwhile to repeat the address here, https://www.netsafe.org.nz/. Netsafe should be a go to place for anyone using the internet. There are sections of relevance for education and parents.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.