Understanding your child's online world
Being a parent today is very different to being a parent 20 years ago, and I don’t mean the feeling that every generation of parents has that they will bring their children up differently from the way they were brought up! If you consider the social network you had when you were a child, assuming you were a child more than 15 years ago, it would have been almost exclusively local and based on direct contact. A few people may have had distant pen-pals but communication with them would have been very sporadic.
Today a child’s social network can stretch around the world and the time spent on social interaction has increased to encompass most of their waking hours (in some form or another). To many, it is clear that a new set of parenting skills are required to cope with this change, and these skills are related to monitoring the exposure children have to electronic environments and keeping them safe online. Children of today engage differently with peers and form relationships in many different ways than when you were a child yourself.
Social media stress
But with this consuming online presence come new areas of concern that could potentially feed your child’s worries. On a daily basis in ‘real’ life, there is a lot of pressure from peers to appear in a certain way. This is potentially made more stressful if your child spends a lot of time online comparing themselves with others on social media.
Many young people report to me that they actually feel more pressure from social media than the stress they experience when they have an exam coming up! This is linked to the fact that most young people now have access to social media 24 hours every single day simply by clicking a button. Friendship issues that, in the past, were left at the school gate are now continued because of their constant virtual presence. A young person is no longer able to leave a ‘problem’ unsolved until the next day, there is no ‘I will sleep on it’ and it will look better tomorrow.
This online pressure arises from young people wanting to be popular, their need to constantly look amazing, their feelings of ‘I must have the latest gadgets’ and a strong desire to keep up with their ‘friends’ on social media. With such a continual online presence, young people feel daily pressure when their so-called online friends are able to scrutinise their every move, look, comment and feeling.
To help your child have a more balanced relationship with this, remember to lead by example. Don’t be addicted to social media yourself, and avoid talking about how it makes you feel upset that this person did not invite you to a party, for example, as well as commenting on every single thing that takes place online.
Also, to reduce your child’s need to continuously check their social media, turn off notifications. Everyone has a strong urge to check every single beep and this will distract your child from daily life and in the end cause them unnecessary stress. Agree on when they can scroll through their messages and news, and compromise on how long they are allowed on a particular site.
Discussing you child’s online life
Stay interested and involved in your child’s online engagements just like you would show an interest in their ‘real’ life interactions. As a parent, it is crucial to accept that today’s young people use the internet to socialise, make new acquaintances, flirt and generally undertake a large proportion of their learning from online material.
When speaking to your child, ensure you acknowledge their desire to remain online while also guiding them through any potential worries they may have. If your child feels that you understand their world, they are more likely to ask for help and support from you. If needed, together you can decide whether it is necessary to take a break from the online world. This is particularly important if you both find that it has started to encourage an anxious response in your child. It is important to get the balance right between real social interaction and online interaction.
Another step is to make sure that you, yourself, actually understand this online and technical world. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about new technology, spend some time reading the manual or indeed go online and research ‘how to’, there are many great guidelines on platforms like YouTube. If you don’t quite understand something, nothing stops you from asking your child for help! Again, this will show that you are interested and they will appreciate that they can help you for a change. So be keen to learn, stay inquisitive and interested in new gadgets and sites that your child is using.
Setting Boundaries in the Digital Age
Children need boundaries when they use online services and technology just like they need boundaries in ‘real’ life. You need to set parameters for what is acceptable in respect to time spent online, what activities can they be involved in, learning not to spend money online, what can be shared and similar points of importance.
Resist becoming a dictator, instead, make a list together and have a discussion on these parameters making sure that you reach an agreement. When children are involved in the decision-making process, they are more likely to stick to the agreed rules. Remember to revisit these rules on a regular basis as your child is maturing and evolving alongside the new and more sophisticated gadgets and programmes which are brought into the online world.
Strengthen your own knowledge and identify risk
It is time to focus on your own knowledge around how your child is actually connecting to the electronic world. One of the first steps to take is to explore which gadgets and electronic devices your child has access to, including items at friends’ homes, school, youth club and similar environments. You will be amazed at how many items nowadays connect to the internet, even items you may not have considered in the first place, ask your child for a quick ‘lesson’ if you are unsure.
Make a list of all your electronic equipment, and then find out how those are linked externally. Remember items like phones, televisions, games consoles, music devices and handheld game gadgets. Once you have ensured you have a complete list, consider how your child is connecting to the internet, are they using your own Wi-Fi, are they able to connect to a neighbour’s or a friend’s Wi-Fi, restaurants, cafés, libraries and similar public places. It is worth remembering that you have limited control of security settings in areas outside your own home.
Protecting your child online - setting up parental and security controls
Work your way through the list you made earlier, and identify what level of security you wish to put on each device, you may want to put a note against each one. The reason for this is to remember what you did, but also to remind yourself to re-visit these settings on a regular basis as your child matures and is allowed an increased level of access.
You could consider using the existing parental control on the various devices but you may also wish to download free security controls from websites or apps. Look at the configuration of your internet router as it often allows you to cut off the internet at a selected time (on specified devices) which is handy for ensuring your child does not continue being online while they should be sleeping. In order to carry out all of these actions, you may have to look at the relevant manuals, or alternatively, you can search for instructions online.
Most importantly, remember these settings are not to be used as a punishment but as a tool for keeping your child safe while they are learning how to interact appropriately online. They provide a means for you to instil some necessary boundaries while your child is growing and learning. Remember to communicate with your child, stay flexible and adapt these boundaries as your child develops and grows in maturity.
Teach your child about ‘stranger danger’
Now that you have spent time setting up the practical security and parental controls on your child’s electronic gadgets to monitor their interaction with the online world, you need to focus on ‘teaching’ your child how to keep themselves safe in virtual social circles.
When a child is younger, most parents will spend time speaking to their child about the danger of talking to strangers! However, as your child is growing up, this conversation needs to include the dangers of online communication. Therefore, consider teaching and guiding your child about who it is safe to chat to, which danger clues they should look out for, and what information they can share.
When you speak to your child, include practical examples highlighting that they do not know if the person at the other end of the line is an adult or a child. Teach your child not to divulge any personal information online (either in writing or via conversation). Most importantly, at all cost, your child needs to understand the dangers of meeting up with a person they have only communicated with online. Emphasise that not everyone is who they say they are.
Cyber bullying and what to do about it
Lastly, we will look at how to deal with cyber bullying, what to do when something needs reporting as well as the importance of communicating with your child.
Teach your child that no form of bullying is acceptable whether it takes place face to face or via online bullying. Explain that it is very easy for a bully to hide behind a screen, which makes your child a potential, easy target. Unfortunately, it is easy for online bullies or trolls to hide their identity therefore making it simple for a bully to target your child.
As a parent, familiarise yourself with the proper channels to use if you have any concerns of online bullying or indeed if your child is being targeted for potential sexual innuendos. You will find details of such reporting facilities under each individual program provider.
However, in order to identify whether your child is at risk, you need to know whether they would actually tell you about such situations. Remind your child that you are there to support them with any online worries or issues they come across, just like you would be available for ‘normal’ everyday concerns.
Keep that communication open
If you keep an open communication with your child, they are more likely to tell you about their online interactions. You should remain accessible and flexible to hear about their good, bad, funny and sad stories. If you need to advise, ensure you do so without judging and they will appreciate your sensible approach, and ultimately respect your advice (in most cases anyway). Remember, they are finding their own feet, developing their social skills although in a different world to when you were a child.
Learn all you can about your child’s online world, interact and communicate without a hidden agenda. You may just be pleasantly surprised at their willingness to invite you in, and share their fascinating and different life with you.