Pros and cons of the Internet
Smartphones in classrooms? We can weigh the advantages and disadvantages. However, what must not be overlooked is the significance of our children being connected. Digital literacy as well as digital citizenship are two key components in their future development in a digital society. To deny them access to the opportunities for learning would be negligent. To blithely ignore online risks is equally irresponsible. The internet is a formidable force that was not designed with children in mind. Out there in cyberspace our children can connect, learn and grow; they can also be exposed to unwanted predators, become addicted, abuse or be abused as well as commit crimes or have their reputations damaged.
Your child as a digital citizen
In her 2018 pioneering work on Safeguarding Children and Young People Online, Claudia Megele culminates seven years of research outlining how to best ensure the online safety of our children. She takes a refreshing digression from instilling fear, panic and restriction among readers and strives to offer a comprehensive look at how our children’s development and the internet are inextricably linked. The book suggests that digital citizenship should include behaviours and attitudes as well as the individual rights and responsibilities of users through the appropriate use of technology and safe, responsible and respectful choices online. She advocates for digital citizenship to be taught to school children ages four to fourteen, alongside courses for parents.
A question of risk
Adolescence and risk go hand in hand. The internet further amplifies the expression of this risk-seeking behaviour. It is unbridled and deliciously enticing for young people. Especially when appearance (fleek pics), the need for social acceptance, social symbols (clothes, tech gadgets, smartphones), popularity (likes, followers) and peer pressure all conveniently converge on social media. As parents, we need to prepare them for the risks and not be too restrictive in their online usage. Restrictions, according to Megele, will only mean access without adult supervision, thus exposing them to added risks and eliminating the chance for more positive online engagement. Placing restrictions on use will only make for poorer digital literacy and increased exposure to online risks.
Reducing online risk
The digital landscape is unpredictable and fast evolving. It is therefore difficult to prepare our children for all the risks they might face online. What is more critical to their digital citizenship is the concept of digital resilience where we provide adequate support through supervision and dialogue. With good parenting we can enhance our child’s natural ability to be adaptable, resourceful and bounce back from online risks with positive outcomes.
The online risk model
The 2016 UK government guidance on child safety online has assessed and classified three types/categories of risk children face online. These are content risk, conduct risk and contact risk. These categories help us examine the extent to which our children are interfacing with the digital media (whether in one or all three categories of risk) and gives insight into their level of risk-exposure.
For example, a child may face content risk by having access to mass-distributed content such as on YouTube. This risk involves exposure to age-inappropriate material such as pornography, extreme violence, hate speech or radicalization.
Your child’s online risk might be a conduct risk, e.g. on Whatsapp where they are participating in interactive situations that may include bullying, sexting, harassing, being aggressive or stalking; or promoting harmful behaviour such as self-harm, suicide, use of illegal drugs or imitating dangerous behaviour. A child’s conduct online can also set them up for being bullied or harassed through over sharing of personal information.
The third type of risk is contact risk (e.g. Instagram) where your child may be a victim of interactive situations. Here, they may be bullied, harassed, stalked, receive threats to privacy, identity and reputation (embarrassing photos) and violence.
Identity, freedom, anonymity
The internet has allowed us to occupy a liminal space. We can play at having a fluid offline and online identity. We can present many different sides of ourselves and the truth. Freedom and fluidity are intrinsic to a digital childhood. Online anonymity lures us to disclose, perform, overdramatize and generally become larger than life. This can create the idea that we can disassociate and not be responsible for our online actions. So that sometimes instead of chats being a place for openness and objective discussion, they conversely present us with experiences of closed-mindedness and abuse. Algorithms further limit our exposure to divergent views, people and experiences.
The future cybersociety
Our children need to be digitally savvy. It is an inseparable part of what it means to grow up in a digital world. To limit their access to this powerful tool is to squarely and solemnly put them at a disadvantage and decrease their ability to succeed in a cybersociety. If we rest, we rust. As parents we must continue to upgrade our knowledge of what it means to parent in these times against an ever-changing digital landscape.
Tips for parents
If we are to move toward better online safety for our children, we can begin to follow these tips:
Create screen-free zones in the home:
Having areas of the home that are screen-free is important for maintaining a balance between online and offline activities. Specific areas of the home, like kitchens or bedrooms, should remain screen-free.
Agree on screen-free time:
As part of a daily routine, agree on making devices such as TVs, phones, computer games and other electronic devices off limits at specific times e.g. dinner time and before bed time. Also, establish extended breaks from technology throughout the day, especially for families with very young children.
Agree on family time:
This offers opportunities for family bonding and providing time and space when youth can discuss their experiences, emotions, daily activities or any other conversations.
Device rules and curfews:
Where computers are located, access to mobile devices and levels of conversations between children and parents regarding their usage is important. Discussing when all devices are turned off and other digital devices will charge overnight in parents’ rooms is a way of limiting overnight access. It also ensures that all get undisturbed and uninterrupted sleep.
Diversify children’s media use and games:
Completely blocking young peoples’ media usage should be a last resort. It can be ineffective and result in covert online access through friends’ phones. Redirecting interest and media use in ways that promote learning, interaction, connection and creativity is better.
Co-view and co-play:
Parents should invest time for co-viewing shows online or TV or co-playing games with children. This enhances bonding while allowing for guidance in programs that are age appropriate. This also helps parents better understand and support their children’s experiences, thinking and challenges.
Lead by example:
Showing better balance between offline and online engagement is important by establishing and following simple rules. Not bringing the phone to the table at meals, not looking at the phone or texting while speaking with others, apologizing if it’s necessary or urgent to respond to a message or call.
Being a good digital citizen:
Discuss privacy and online challenges, while promoting and guiding children’s curiosity in an age appropriate way.
Separating the young person from the source of the problem:
When there is a risk of harm or abuse (cyberbullying), agree on specific measures with children and young people to separate them from the source of harm.
(Cherith Pedersen is a clinical mental health counsellor and expressive arts therapist)