Is your child’s first mobile phone, tablet, laptop or gaming device going to be under the tree this Christmas? If so, have you thought beyond the glee when that gift is unwrapped?
You might reckon negotiating a rate with Santa was the hardest part, but a little forethought about its use can go a long way to prevent it from being a gift that keeps on costing – be it financially, emotionally or in its impact on family life.
"It can't be a question of just handing over the device and not wanting to know because 'it's young person's stuff'," says Simon Grehan, manager of the Webwise internet safety awareness programme. "They are very powerful devices and you have a responsibility to get involved with conversations around it."
Amanda Chambers, esafety consultant, agrees: “Take it out of the box before Christmas Day and have a look at it.” Depending on the age of the child, set up appropriate parental controls and always put your own pin code into the store section, she advises.
As both she and Grehan point out, there can be nasty financial surprises for parents when the first bills hit at the end of January if they haven’t established appropriate safeguards, whether those are against a toddler inadvertently making “in-app” purchases on a tablet or a teenager exceeding data limits on a smartphone package.
That’s quite apart from the dangers of unfettered access to the internet that these devices offer children.
"They are playing in a world where they are, or can be, vulnerable and they don't see the risks; they are still children," says forensic psychologist Maureen Griffin. She knows the dangers well, having specialised in dealing with internet sex offenders and the grooming of children online.
But her career took a different turn five years ago after a secondary-school principal, who was worried about the way pupils were using social media and had heard of Griffin’s work, asked her to “come in and put the fear of God into them”. She was reluctant at first, having taught only at third level, but she loved the experience and realised there would be great value in such prevention work.
Since then, as director of MGMS Training she has visited more than 450 schools, aiming to raise greater awareness of safe behaviour online among young people. In November she collaborated with Laya Healthcare on a series of informative videos for parents that relate to online safety. There are also very clear, written tips to accompany the videos (see layahealthcare.ie).
It is apparent to her from visiting schools that there are cohorts of children whose parents have set rules around internet use “and they tell me they feel safer”, she says. “Kids need rules. They need rules in real life and they need them online too.”
It is a parent’s responsibility to protect younger children but also to prepare them to navigate the online world. You don’t have to be paranoid; simply prudent.
Parents are inclined to think the an- swer to minimising risk lies in more technology but, as is often pointed out, “The best software filter is be - tween the ears.”
“The solutions to internet safety are not technical,” agrees Jared Huet, founder of the Internet College of Ireland. “It’s building resilience in your kid and it’s un- derstanding the technology and using it with your kid.”
He has started to offer int- ernet safety courses to parents who want “somebody to break technology information down into layman’s terms and be advised on how to talk to their kids about it”. Besides the internet, there are few resources out there. While there are plenty of positives about giving an older child a gift that will transport them into the online world, with all its social, educational and entertainment possibilities, there are some points to ponder, such as:
Too much too young
Early Childhood Ireland is warning parents this Christmas that screen overuse by young children is bad for their health, wellbeing and learning. It recommends little or no screen time at all for children under three, when the brain is at its most rapid development stage, and no more than one or two hours a day (including TV) for children aged three to six.
If you didn’t investigate what parental controls are available on the device before you bought it, you need to do it now before you hand it over. They vary between makes, models and operating systems, but you should find specific information on manufacturers’ websites and more general advice on internet safety websites, such as webwise.ie. To what extent you want to use the parental controls will depend on your child’s age and maturity, your relationship with the child and your parenting style – and these should be the determining factors, not lack of awareness.
You can register with some mobile phone companies for dual access when giving a pay-as-you-go phone to a child under 18. This will allow you to view account records, such as numbers called and when, the account balance and the services being accessed by that phone. It will also empower you to deal with the company if problems arise.
If you’re the guarantor for a child’s bill pay phone and the one forking out, obviously you should have online access to the monthly account records.
Couch, pause, engage . . .
There’s usually plenty of sitting around once Christmas dinner is over, so that night, or the next day, engage with your child about how they are going to use their new phone, tablet or gaming console.
“Don’t just give them the device; help them to learn how to use it,” says Grehan. “Do things together and get them to show you what they are doing with it.”
As Chambers points out: “You are giving them an expensive bit of technology and with that comes responsibility.” She recommends setting up a contract around its use (see panel).
Talk to them about empathy and respect online and “explain what is at stake; they are starting a digital footprint,” she adds.
Griffin recommends talking children through scenarios they might face, such as receiving nasty messages or opening a link to something inappropriate, and so on. Suggest they talk to you about it, or show them how to block a sender.
“We prep kids for so many situations that they could be faced with in real life, for example: ‘If there is a fire in school, this is the door through which you have to leave.’” The odds are greater that they will encounter online risks to be side-stepped.”
Social media sites
Visiting social networking sites is the second most popular online activity (after listening to music and watching online videos for entertainment), according to the Net Children Go Mobile: Initial Findings from Ireland report by Brian O'Neill and Thuy Dinh, published earlier this year. Some 90 per cent of 15- to 16-year-olds in Ireland have a profile on a social networking site, as do 40 per cent of 11- to 12-year-olds, even though most sites are restricted to 13-plus.
That age limit has nothing to do with safety, but more to do with data-protection legislation, explains Grehan. It's up to parents to decide if they want to allow their younger children to go on, say, Facebook, and lie about their age.
You need to be familiar with privacy settings on social media sites and make sure your child is using them correctly. Griffin is finding that an increasing number of youngsters, particularly girls, want to keep their profiles public because “they want more followers and they want more likes. They are leaving themselves so vulnerable.”
When she says to them that they would never walk up to strangers in the street and start handing out pictures of themselves, they agree. “But that’s exactly what they’re doing online.”
With younger children playing games on tablets, the thing to look out for is “in-app” purchases, says Grehan. Many games designed for young children are free but depend on “pester power” for the purchase of additional features. It can be quite easy, with a couple of clicks, for the child to spend money, so parents need to make sure they have switched off the in-app purchases.
It’s a good idea if no app can be downloaded without a parent having to input a pin code, says Griffin. Sometimes parents just ask “Is it free?” rather than checking what the app is about. For instance, the free texting app Kik Messenger has an age 17-plus rating.
“There is a lot of explicit content on it and people can use it to share rude images,” says Huet, so it’s one for younger teenagers to avoid. Some devices can be adjusted to allow only apps with certain age ratings.
He is also concerned about a new one, Cloakd, which is an anonymous chat app that hooks up with your Facebook profile. It enables you to “give people ‘some honest feedback’ such as to a co-worker”. But, as we know from other apps, the ability to comment anonymously is ripe for abuse.
The sheer amount of time children spend on devices may worry parents more than what they are doing with them. It can eat into hours that might be better spent on study, exercise, real-life socialisation and sleep.
You can set limits, but be aware that they can be hard to monitor and enforce. Technological help is at hand with devices that can be programmed to operate for only a set amount of time, or during fixed hours. Switching off the house wi-fi is another answer, but it means adults have to stay offline too. Huet points out that while the Xbox 360 allows you to set a daily or weekly time limit, the newer Xbox One doesn’t.
A rule of no phones or internet-enabled devices in the bedroom at night is highly recommended and needs to be imposed from the start. Griffin believes that certainly no child in primary school or the junior cycle of secondary should have a phone in their bedroom at night.
“I get that they want to use technology in the evening, but not when they’re going to sleep.”
Research across the globe has shown having technology in the bedroom leads to sleep disturbances, she points out.
“It may not be your child who is texting but somebody may be texting them. Some of the more serious bullying cases in Ireland, if you look at the printouts and the time stamps on when things were sent, it’s 12 o’clock at night, 1am, 2am, when you think they are sleeping.”
Grehan suggests setting up a plugboard downstairs as a charging centre, where all phones can be left.
No parent wants to think they are handing their child a tool with which they can bully or be bullied, but with 22 per cent of children having experienced bullying – online or off – it’s a concern that needs to be addressed.
"Parents should take the precaution of talking to children about cyberbullying and not wait until it happens," writes Mona O'Moore in her latest book Understanding Cyberbullying: A Guide for Parents and Teachers (Veritas). It's important, she says, to let children know that if they are subjected to cyberbullying, no one will think less of them if they confide, and their phone or online access won't be taken away, but they will get help to resolve the situation.
Her tips for children in the event of cyberbullying include: Don’t feel ashamed. It’s not about you. The shame lies with the perpetrator.
Don’t reply to abusive or hurtful messages, but do save them for evidence.
Block the sender.
Don’t just ignore the bullying; tell someone you trust.
Chambers believes cyberbullying can be reduced by peers objecting, rather than being bystanders who effectively become complicit in what they are witnessing. Parents should encourage their children to be “upstanders”, she suggests, and told, “if it’s mean, intervene”. If they can’t face the bully themselves, they should at least report what they’ve seen. They also need to be aware of not “liking” or sharing cruel comments or inappropriate photos.
Need to be streetwise
Youngsters with smartphones are easy targets for muggers, so they should be cautious using them out on the street. Grehan says some parents tell their children to step inside a shop when making a call.
Phone watch: Terms and conditions which should apply to your child Putting “terms and conditions” in with your Christmas gift might seem a little harsh, but bear in mind that trying to establish ground rules about its use in hindsight is much more difficult. For instance, unlimited access to devices might not be an issue in the holidays, but what about when school starts again?
Discussing with children and teenagers what is reasonable and why will probably ensure more co-operation than a completely dictatorial approach. However, if you have a few non-negotiable rules, a “contract of use” could be drawn up with those inserted at the top and space left for more to be added after consultation in the days after Christmas.
Parents have to sign up to what’s agreed to, maybe adding pledges of their own, such as no covert snooping if upfront spot checks have been agreed. The most widely recommended rules, for all ages, include: No devices in the bedroom after bedtime.
No phones at the dinner table.
Calls on mobile phones from either parent always to be answered.
Other T&Cs to consider, depending on the age and maturity of your child, include:
Parent has the right to password on the phone.
Child will give nobody, other than parents, the password.
Parent can do spot checks on phone.
Child will not give out personal information such as full name, address, telephone number online without checking with parent first.
Child will never agree to meet in real life somebody they have first got to know online without checking with parent.
No app can be downloaded without parent inputting pin code.
A time limit on gaming.
Every family is different but safekids.com is one of many websites that have sample “pledges” for young children, teenagers and parents, and is worth looking at before drawing up your own T&Cs.
Dangerous games: Should you let your child’s XBox become R-rated box? Parents seem to be much less concerned about age ratings on video games than on DVDs.
When forensic psychologist Maureen Griffin visits primary schools, she focuses much more on gaming because she finds so many children under 12 are playing 18-plus rated games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty (the new one is rated 18, the last one 16). She tries to explain to them why there are age restrictions and why they should be observed.
“But what if Santa brought the game for you?” she has been asked more than once by innocent little boys.
These games are totally inappropriate, she stresses, but parents are buying them for children because, they say, “everybody else is”.
As one mother remarked to Griffin recently: “It’s not the kids who are suffering from the peer pressure, it’s the parents.”
The Pan European Game Information website (pegi.info) is an excellent resource, where parents can check the rating and content of games and make up their own mind on whether or not they want it in their home.
Stocking-filler for parents Anybody currently raising a child through adolescence and young adulthood will find helpful advice in Flagging the Screenager by Dr Harry Barry and Enda Murphy, published this year by Liberties Press. It looks at the challenges young people face and what you can do to help stabilise their mental health.