Over the past few years, I have interviewed some of the most eminent researchers, criminologists and experts on digital risks and vulnerabilities and asked them what parents need to do to keep their children safe online. Here are 10 tips that I have derived from this work, which schools should emphasise in their communication today about ‘Internet Safety’.
1. The thing that keeps children safe online (more than anything else) is a close relationship with an authoritative parent. In those primary and prep school years, parents should aim to work on their general relationship with their child and gently model a careful approach to using the internet.
2. Visual metaphors can usefully convey some of the risks associated with internet use. Children understand the concept of ‘masks’ that can conceal someone’s true identity, they just need to know that such deception can happen online too. We should convey positivity about the digital world, but at the same time, convey that the internet is like a giant dustbin! You would never, ever put your hand in a dustbin and search around. We should aim to welcome their curiosity, whilst teaching them to be discerning when conducting searches online.
3. We should always aim to ‘parent’ rather than ‘police’ our children’s online behaviour. We should aim to reach a point where children will share, discuss or talk openly about their digital life and relationships without fear of parental anger or disappointment. Being “in it together” is an important message within family life. Monitoring what they are doing online, who they are talking to and how they are feeling about their digital life, should be a core parental priority, conducted in as positive a way as possible.
4. Parents should never rely on parental controls. Like ‘stair gates’, children can eventually navigate their way around most controls. A more fruitful approach is working to ensure that your digital values are clear, and the consequences for breaching family rules around internet or phone use are agreed together and understood.
5. ‘Lean in’ and be positive about your child’s digital life and activities. What games do they love and enjoy? Sit down and inhabit their digital space. Learn what makes them tick. Enjoy listening to what they feel they can celebrate online. Perhaps they have made it to the third level of a really difficult game? Perhaps they have created an astonishing swimming pool on Minecraft? Take an interest and show them that you value their digital skills and expertise. Ask them to teach you something.
6. Teach them to be discerning when buying or downloading new apps. Researching new applications together and checking online reviews and age-appropriateness, models the fact that there is a process to go through before purchasing something online. Common Sense Media is a terrific site that should become a ‘go to’ space for families considering new purchases.
7. Parents need to keep their heads firmly out of the sand and stay vigilant. Sexual exploitation has risen as a result of the pandemic and children’s understandable, but often excessive, use of digital technology. Perpetrators are attempting to approach children within games, via chatrooms, and such grooming can take place over a period of time. Perpetrators will attempt to move children out of the gaming space onto social media apps, for example. It is important for educators to remember in particular that children who are generally more vulnerable offline tend to be more vulnerable online and disproportionately targeted by those that seek to do them harm.
8. ‘What If?’ questions can be an incredibly effective way of bolstering children’s digital resilience, critical thinking and minimising risk exposure. Ask hypothetical questions such as: What if someone offered you the biggest loot box in the game? What would you say? What if they said they wanted to talk to you about it over Facetime? What if someone said you were really pretty and wanted to know your email address? What if someone asked you to send them a picture of your bedroom? Would that be weird or would it be ok? Be patient and give them time to think these questions through. Be prepared for them to tell you that something like that happened to one of their friends. Praise them for having great ideas and having a mature approach. Keep things positive, friendly and supportive.
9. Never give children access to social media without first considering how they are feeling about themselves, their physical bodies and their lives in general. Research evidence is beginning to demonstrate that access to social media apps (particularly for those who are feeling down, vulnerable or unhappy) can be aggravating and sometimes even compromising for young people’s mental health. Social media apps, whilst fun to use, are populated with harmful content (porn, pro-suicide, pro-anorexia sites, for example), so it is essential that we research particular social media apps alongside our children, resist giving them entry to the world of social media before the age of maturity or before any sense of self is established offline. Model how to use social media in a positive way before giving your child access to it. If things don’t feel right, if a site makes you feel unhappy or upset, model unsubscribing, unfollowing and putting your wellbeing first.
10. Raise a great digital citizen. When we think about our children’s futures, we tend to think about their education, careers and future partnerships. Parents should also consider the concept of digital citizenship: how can we encourage our children to engage with the digital world positively, to affect change, enhance their career prospects? How can we encourage them to begin to leave a digital footprint that sparkles with potential? Explore how other children and teens talk about themselves online or what they post publicly, and the implications for that long-term. Discuss how we can all be better digital citizens and potentially use the power of the internet to influence or transform the world around us. Teach children that the digital world is bursting with opportunity but entry to it and safe navigation within it takes time. Reassure them that you are there to help guide them throughout this time of early exploration.
Remember, if your school subscribes to Tooled Up Education, parents and staff are invited along to a webinar this evening with clinical psychologist, Elly Hanson on ‘Porn Consumption and Its Impact on Children’, a webinar tomorrow evening on ‘Raising a Child in the Digital Age’ and can access a pre-recorded webinar, later today, on ‘Digital Risk and Vulnerabilities’ with forensic psychologist, Dr Aiman El Asam. All webinars are advertised on the front page of Tooled Up. The library also features templates for conversations between parents and children that schools can easily signpost to parents. Enjoy! See: www.tooledupeducation.com