Parenting in cyberspace - online advice for non web-savvy mums and dads

12 Mar 2014

By Susan Breen, Consultant

Following on from Chandni Rani's recent article 'Children and the Internet - Keeping them Safe'.

Parenting in the cyber world is a daunting prospect. Some of us have come late and somewhat reluctantly to social media, and cyber bullying, trolling and the like are another unanticipated worry of modern parenthood. Schools are ahead of parents in providing 'e-safety' education for children as young as seven. However, as pointed out by my daughter's headmistress, whilst we think we know 90% of what children are viewing online, the reality is 90% of teenagers say their parents have no idea what they are up to. Non web savvy parents are the weak link. We expect schools and the government to protect our children and then protest loudly when things go wrong.

One of the aims of the Online Safety Bill introduced into the House of Lords in May 2013 is to educate parents about online safety. Educating parents to keep their children safe is the most effective safeguarding measure. We must understand and enter their world. A few years ago we might have been advised to restrict children's use of telephones and computers, but that is no longer an option. It is not effective, and more importantly it is not teaching our children how to be safe online.

February 11th 2014 saw 'Safer Internet Day' with the slogan, 'Let's create a better Internet together'. The day was set up worldwide to encourage the safe and positive use of the internet and digital technologies. I welcome the positive and discursive approach of the media, and what seems to be a move towards a more responsive and embracing view of the internet by parents.

Children see life online as normal, so as our own knowledge increases, we can be more actively involved in their cyber life. After instigating sensible discourse with my 8 and 13 year old, they will feel safer and I hope to find my own life enriched. I wonder whether parental ignorance is feeding irrational fears, leading to misinformed and unhelpful dialogue between them and their children?

My initial conversations with my eldest resulted in the following tips for staying safe and enjoying what the internet has to offer.

- Take an interest: speak to your children about what they are doing. At breakfast time this morning I learnt what 'fraping'* was, and at his school you can be expelled for it.

- Parental controls: these are controversial. I do not agree with them because I assume that teenagers will circumvent any control you set on any device. Parental controls are a way of allowing parents to feel safe and this misplaced perception is dangerous. They are useful for restricting younger children's access but we need to remain a step ahead and not become complacent.

- Gaming: in our house 15 and 18 certificate games are not allowed. This is unpopular at times but effective and straightforward. I don't police what my son does at his friends' houses but, 'my house, my rules'. Also, it's probably wise not to play online games if you are ill and off school because all of your friends will know.

- Apps: the games business is booming. Forecasters expect the sale of apps to top 63 billion euros in the next 5 years. There have been recent instances of children running up massive bills on their parents' mobile bills. Make it clear that children have to ask before they buy anything. Do not ignore the 69p and 99p's that flow through your account, check what is being bought and remind them of the cost. Make them pay you back.

- Use an app to regulate access: calculate how much time your children spend online and encourage them to self-regulate. Do not let WhatsApp or other messaging applications disturb them at night.

- Social media sites: recent research has revealed that one in four children aged between six and twelve have shared personal information with people they do not know. There are age restrictions on many sites but most of my son's year 8 class are on Facebook. What about other more popular sites such as Tumblr, Ask.FM? Facebook is increasingly not the forum of choice for teenagers because parents can see what children are doing. Inappropriate behaviour online is also a parental issue. Don't we teach our children how to interact socially? We should reinforce the idea that online behaviour is no different to how they should act in the playground.

- Privacy: my children tend not to use computers in their bedrooms, preferring to annoy us in the kitchen with their friends' YouTube and Facebook posts. However, what about mobile messaging? I pay for his phone and feel that I should have access it. My husband sees this as an affront to our son's privacy. This is a conversation to be had in every household with children.

- Boundaries: talk to your children and discuss what that means to them. What happens in cyber space is just a 21st century mirroring of what we all did at school, but the embarrassment is captured forever. Although most teenagers are aware of the workings of their online world, impulsive and uncontrolled behaviour may have lasting consequences beyond their imagining.

The negative aspects of cyberspace are the stuff of parental nightmares but it seems even child-parent communications can be fraught. There is fear everywhere. Fear that if they report abuse, their devices will be taken away. Fear of peer pressure. Fear that they will be socially ostracised if they limit themselves online. The more open and understanding the conversations at breakfast time, the more trust you will build.

Most children know when things are going wrong. Most know the obvious practical remedies; not to respond to online bullying; to speak to a parent or other trusted adult; speak to someone at school, or some other organisation. As parents we have a duty to create an atmosphere where they know what is right and wrong. 'Benign neglect' is no longer a good parenting style. The internet is a life tool and a way for children to manage their lives and parents have a duty to get involved and help them manage it.

Although I welcome the Online Safety Bill and other legislative protection for our children, there needs to be a change in parental attitudes. We need to be involved, to see how it works for us as users, see both the attraction and pitfalls, and only then can we put into place effective boundaries and parameters. The online world is incredible and is part of our everyday landscape. We must learn to embrace it, enjoy it, and as the children say, get with the programme.

*A shortened version of 'Facebook raping' - to access someone's profile without their knowledge or permission.

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