Rules for dealing with social media, games and more

YOU wanted your child to learn to swim or ride a bike, but you didn’t just say, “Let’s go.”

They put in place a process and were very present for the first few years as they learned this new skill. They had talks about water safety, road safety. They taught the Safe Cross Code and emphasized the importance of wearing a bracelet.

You knew there were risks, so you put infrastructure around your child to make sure they are as safe as possible. So why not do the same for them in the online world?

Earlier this month, Irish online safety organization CyberSafeKids partnered with the National Parents Council (NCP) to launch their Same Rules Apply campaign, which highlights the need to approach our children’s parenting online as we do offline do.

Alex Cooney, CEO of CyberSafeKids

Alex Cooney, CEO of CyberSafeKids, cautions that we don’t let young children wander offline alone in unfamiliar places, watch over 18 movies, or invite strangers into their bedrooms.

“But when we give kids unrestricted access online, we’re effectively doing the things we wouldn’t do offline. Remember, if you allow your child unsupervised access to the online world, that means you also allow your child unsupervised access to the online world.”

According to Cooney, the pandemic and lockdowns have accelerated children’s positive use of technology.

“Technology has greatly facilitated children’s lives and their ability to learn, be creative, socialize and have fun.”

But there was another, darker side, with an increase in online reports of child sexual abuse and outreach to children with intent to cause harm. All of this makes it more urgent that we now get serious about how to keep our children safe online.

CyberSafeKids’ latest survey (September 2022-January 2023) of more than 1,600 eight- to 12-year-olds found that 30% “can go online whenever they want”, 22% have seen online content that they “like don’t want their parents to know” and only 18% said they “weren’t allowed any devices in their bedroom”.

Child Psychotherapist Dr. Colman Noctor. Image Dylan Vaughan

Open trusting relationships

Technology is so woven into our lives that parents can feel helpless when faced with keeping children safe online. “The internet as a tool is so unwieldy and unregulated that we can think ‘what’s the point,'” says child and adolescent psychotherapist Dr. Colman Noctor.

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However, Noctor emphasizes that the best mechanism for keeping your child safe online is one that you can control — establishing an open, trusting relationship with the child. And parents need to invest as much in creating that relationship as they do in any digital safe cross code.

“The greatest protective factor is the relationship children have with the ‘good enough’ adult in their life. It’s about trust, about creating an open, approachable relationship where your child can come to you when they’re struggling and say, ‘I’ve encountered this, I’m not sure – what do you think?’ ‘ says Noctor.

This trusting, open and communicative approach must come naturally when a parent decides to give their child a smart device/phone, says Áine Lynch, CEO of NPC.

“We have become very used to seeing a phone as a smartphone with all its possibilities. We need to sit down before the device is bought and work out and agree on what it will be used for.”

Áine Lynch, CEO of the National Parent Council

The NPC has a guide for developing such an agreement, but if you work out an agreement with your child, Lynch says parents need to get the scene right.

“Don’t apply the conversation to your child – it puts them in an unequal position. Both the child and the parent need to be aware that this conversation will take place and both need to be aware of what is being discussed. If you do this right, your child will know you mean what you say.”

Lynch recommends starting with a positive conversation about your child’s online activities.

“When there is negativity or stress, children tend to hide what they are doing. Ask what they like to do online, what they dislike doing online, what they do online with friends, anything they haven’t done that they would like to do.”

Thoroughly exploring what activities your child enjoys doing or wants to do online will help tremendously in deciding what type of device/phone they will have and what type of accessibility they will have.

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The conversation also needs to explore the concerns your child has about being online.

“Adults tend to think about risks like foster care, who the child might meet. But there are everyday things that give kids trouble online — hurtful comments, being kicked out of WhatsApp groups, not understanding the things their friends are doing,” Lynch says, adding that kids need to be told it’s a parent’s responsibility is to protect your child online.

Balanced ‘nutrition’ of the online time

Noctor says it’s important parents focus on “time well spent” on technology, not “time spent.” He finds a nutritional analogy helpful.

“There is good food and not so good. We judge children’s nutrition by the balance of food they eat, not by how long it takes them to eat.”

Kids, he says, can do really creative things online that aren’t mindless scrolling.

“Or they may perform meaningless activities that make them feel flat less well than when they started. We need to teach them to distinguish between what is good use of technology and what is not good.”

Noctor says we need to build technology into children’s lives – lives that are already very busy, between school, homework, after-school activities, family time, mealtimes and bedtime.

“All of that has to be a priority. The recreational stuff, games, YouTube – they still can – but we have to put the technology where it should be, so we create the ability in children to see what is important and what isn’t.”

Parents have to set an example.

“When parents email over dinner, they send a double message. Your beliefs only have value if you follow through on them,” says Noctor.

Getting a smartphone for your child is a bit like getting a puppy – only then does the work begin.

“It’s hard for the parents. You have to keep an eye on it, keep checking back to see how it’s going. And children need to know that a smartphone is not a human right. It’s a responsibility – they earn the right by showing the responsibility.”

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Once a child has a device/active online, Cooney advises focusing on:

Regular parent-child conversations about what the child sees/does online. Clear basic rules for use and access, e.g. B. Keeping devices in family rooms so parents can be more alert instead of in bedrooms with closed doors, which shuts parents out of what’s going on. Use parental controls – at device level, app level and/or network level. Keep an eye on what they do/who they talk to online. This can mean picking up the device and examining it – openly and transparently. Search for apps/games to download so parents can be satisfied that they are suitable for their child.

Once a child is active online (don’t forget friends’ devices for playdates), we should realize that they are likely to encounter inappropriate content.

“The key is to do whatever it takes to prevent kids from accessing inappropriate content through the use of filters, and then regularly review what they’re seeing and doing online,” says Cooney.

Conversations about consent, boundaries, distorted representations of reality – and eventually pornography – need to be had with children.

“We don’t want them to see this type of content without context or understanding. The other key message is to encourage children to come to a trusted parent/adult when they encounter content that upsets/scares them or makes them feel uncomfortable.”

Children are online in large numbers – UNICEF estimates that they make up a third of the world’s users. The online world was designed by adults for adults. Society needs to fix this imbalance, says Cooney. And the tech industry must do its part to ensure that the responsibility doesn’t rest solely on parents’ shoulders.

“Industry has a huge responsibility to ensure platforms are built with the safety of their more vulnerable users – children – in mind.”

Recent years have seen some positive changes, for example the UK’s Age Appropriate Design Code in 2021, which included additional protections for child accounts.

“But we still have a long way to go before we have ‘safety by design’ as a central design principle,” says Cooney.

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