Keeping children safe online

In recent weeks, the debate around child safety online has taken centre stage with the world-renowned cyber psychologist Dr Mary Aiken calling for children under the age of 14 to be prevented from owning smartphones. Reports of cyberbullying are becoming more common, and many parents are unsure about just what are reasonable measures to take in order to protect their children. Teenagers too complain about the amount of time their parents spend distracted by the addictive power of the same technology.

It seems we have all weaved our way to some degree into the fabric of the iGeneration. Last week cyber expert Brendan Smith delivered a workshop for teachers and parents in Clarin College. He reiterated the fact that the internet is not something to be feared when basic safety measures are put in place. His main guidelines included the following:

Communicate

Have conversations with your child from an early age about what he/she is doing online, and with whom. “Co-use” is the safest approach if parents can take the time to learn/understand the apps their children are using. If a child wants to download a new app or game, do your own research first. Talk about online bullying with your child. One of a child’s biggest fears is that if he/she disclose negative information, he/she will be banned from using a phone. Up to a certain age, make clear that you as a parent are entitled to full access and passwords, but foster mutual trust by sitting down together to check in on your child's online activity.

Ground rules

Set clear ground rules with your children around using the internet, and be consistent. Set limits around use so they are not online for hours at a time. Model this routine yourself. Modelling is the most powerful way you can influence your child’s behaviour.

Restrict the use of computers/devices in the bedroom

Cyberbullying can take place at any hour of the day, and bullies are quite aware that young teenagers are most vulnerable and most likely to be alone late in the evening/night. For me the most compelling piece of advice is banning technology from the bedroom completely, at least up to a certain age — even when they play games, they can be bullied.

Buy an alarm clock for your child’s bedroom.

This is one way to begin the digital detox, and Brendan Smith advocates one evening a week where you do a family activity together, such as a movie night or games night, where possible.

Online bullying

Emphasise the importance of not replying to any unwanted or abusive messages. A reaction is the desired effect by the bully. Take a screen shot, save the evidence. Stop, block, and report. Disengage immediately. Advise them not to retaliate. Encourage your child if this happens to show the evidence to you, or to teachers.

Friends' list

It is a good idea to check friends’ lists. Many impressionable teenagers believe that the more friends you have online, the better. Talk to them about the dangers of this and also the idea that if they do not have a friendship with someone, why befriend them. Review this list with them regularly to see that they share information only with people they trust.

Useful resources

Very useful resources parents can tap into to access the latest information include www.webwise.ie, www.CyberSafeIreland.org, and www.childnet.com

What students have taught me

One of the most common ways young people are hurt online is when someone makes a mean, funny, or sarcastic remark about them and that same remark gets a lot of likes by others. This may not be intentional or may not come under the category of bullying, but it devastates the recipient. The web is a wonderful tool which largely enhances their lives and connects them to like-minded people; removing them from this is like dislocating their arm. They are more than capable of being reasonable or meeting agreements.

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