Create, Connect and Share Respect, the theme for this year's Safer Internet Day, serves as an important reminder for parents. It reminds us of the need to create space to connect with our children on an ongoing basis in relation to how life online is impacting them and making them feel. As part of this connecting, we must support them to show respect online to both themselves and others.
And we need to consider their safety, just as we consider it in other situations too. No parent would let their son or daughter drive a car without necessary training and preparation. It would be considered highly dangerous to both the child and others to just let them out on the road, without any support. And while the internet and social media is absolutely every bit as useful as a car can be, the same safety concerns should ring true. It is unsafe to allow children unlimited or unsupervised access to the internet and social media. And as children grow and develop, they continue to need guidance and support around keeping safe.
Sometimes parents fall into the trap of believing that because they are unfamiliar with the terrain that young people inhabit online, life online is therefore a no-go area for conversation. It does not have to be this way.
Here are some simple steps to keep your child safe online.
1) While parental controls and internet filters can only go so far, it is still an important component of online safety. Children can accidentally access inappropriate content that is highly explicit. They watch something innocent online, this ends and some other suggested videos come up on their screen. What sometimes happens is the child views explicit content accidently and can then feel too embarrassed to tell their parent about it. Parental controls and filters matter. Some, such as K9 Web Protection, are not only effective but free.
2) From the very beginning, be clear that there is a difference between "internet use" and "social media use". There are all sorts of safe ways that children can engage with the internet, from CoderDojo to fun games they use in school. If your child wishes to engage with technology and you feel they are ready, social media is not the best place for them to start. Be clear on the alternatives to social media from the beginning, don't believe that you have to say yes to social media when there are good alternatives available for young children.
3) If your child asks you if they can join a social media site, and you feel under pressure to say yes, give yourself the option of saying that you will think about it. Then spend some time on the app they want use before you make your decision as it will inform you about the "place" your child wants to go and "hang out". Become familiar with Instagram if your child wants an Instagram account. Be clear why they want to go there and ask who they wish to follow, what they wish to post and why? Take time making the decision, enquire a lot. Sometimes children want to be on a social media site just because everyone else seems to be on it, so the issue of peer pressure needs to be checked out.
4) Be cognisant of age restrictions for social media sites (most ask that users are at least 13 years). If you allow your child to lie about their age online, consider the possible implications of this further down the line. For example, if at age 15 they hear about a social media site for "adults only" (and they most likely will hear about these sites in school), will they feel entitled or be more likely to again lie about their age if they have been allowed to in the past?
5) As children move into adolescence, they are beginning to deal in their unconscious mind with the questions "Who Am I?/What is my identity?", and so they really tune into what their peers think of them, in order to work this question out. Telling young people about this question in their unconscious mind can help them understand why they might be so sensitive to or eager for feedback online. It makes the unconscious conscious. Information about how their mind is working can lead to young people having more power over how they feel.
6) When it comes to online safety, secure attachment between a young person and a parent/carer matters a lot. If the quality of the bond is good and solid (secure), it means that the young person is sure that their parent "has their back". Hostility undermines secure attachment in relationships so even if annoyed (as all parents are sometimes), it is important to try to communicate without hostility. Young people with secure attachments are less likely to keep secrets from parents or have secret social media accounts; they are less likely to compare themselves unfavourably to others online. Therefore making the effort to steer clear of hostile communication is well worth the effort.
7) Both the internet and more specifically, social media, offers parents the opportunity to keep informed and up to date regarding many aspects of online safety. As a parent, you can begin to follow organisations or people on social media who specialise in online safety. For example, you can go onto Twitter and follow Webwise_Ireland or @waynedenner. Both post regular content in relation to keeping young people safe online. The information shared is about the latest apps to watch out for on your son's or daughter's phone, how to work parental controls and why we need to, etc, is simple to understand and succinct. Parents cannot be expected to be technology experts and unlike our children, we are not digital natives.
But we can be smart when it comes to keeping our children safe online, simply by connecting with them and by staying informed. Our young people deserve nothing less.
Anne McCormack is a Psychotherapist registered with FTAI and ICP, and author of Keeping Your Child Safe on Social Media: Five Easy Steps, published by Orpen Press