The last 50 years have seen an unprecedented technological revolution. From the heavy clunky early computers to slimline mobile devices, smart fridges, voice-activated software, and more, the changes have been swift and remarkable. Now, near-universal connectivity means a global population increasingly plugged into the internet.
For our youngest generations, there was no internet-free era in their lifetime. If you have a 9-year-old child, for example, a phone to them has always looked like a smartphone. Show kids a picture of a rotary phone and most will struggle to tell you what it’s for.
Navigating the online world as an adult can be hard enough; deciding which data to share with which companies, finding reliable information, and identifying misinformation or biased sources, are just a few examples. Children, who aren’t yet equipped with the same reasoning skills as adults, face these difficulties and others.
Let’s take a look at some of the key issues kids face online and some strategies to help them connect safely.
Bullying was once the preserve of the school playground or the lunchroom, but now children can be harassed via social media, group text messages, or online games like Minecraft. It may sound benign, but cyberbullying can have devastating effects on a child’s self-esteem and mental health.
In some cases, ongoing cyberbullying leads to suicide. In fact, an oft-cited 2018 study in Journal of School Violence showed that kids who experienced buying online are nearly twice as likely to attempt suicide.
Unfortunately, many kids won’t tell their parents about online bullying, instead, they will wait for it to get worse before they speak up, if they speak up at all.
A proactive approach is helpful here. Discuss cyberbullying with your child before they are allowed unsupervised web/social media access. Explain how dangerous it can be, why it’s not okay, and outline what they should do if they face bullying. In extreme cases, help your child remove themselves from the online world for a bit while you discuss the issues with the child’s school.
There’s a famous New Yorker cartoon captioned “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” and while the advent of social media has lessened the truth of that statement somewhat, there is still plenty of scope for predators to disguise their true selves and intentions and target unsuspecting children.
Predators will spend months grooming a child, manipulating them, and making them believe that they can fulfill a need, be it emotional or otherwise. “Mirroring” is used to break down emotional the stranger-danger barrier and get closer to the child.
As children get older, they will want more autonomy and trust placed in them. Parents face a fine balancing act here between allowing independence and monitoring online activity.
Talk to your child about online predators, explain the risks, explain how they should never divulge personal information of even the most seemingly innocuous type, such as a favorite restaurant or the town they live in. Consider asking kids to use the internet in your view rather than in private, although this will probably only work with younger kids.
In terms of software, you can download a VPN for their devices to hide their location online. Use parental controls to block certain websites and install these same controls on kids’ personal devices, not just the shared family computer.
Older generations will remember pornography being confined to magazines and adult movies on VCR, but these days, most pornography is found online and anyone can view it, including children. The rise of sites such as Pornhub means children have access to material that goes far beyond soft porn. Most sites don’t even ask the user if they are 18 or older anymore.
One issue with the wealth of pornography online is that it portrays an unrealistic portrait of intimate relationships, it can also contribute to body confidence issues, especially in girls.
Firstly, explain to older children that pornography is unrealistic. It does not exist in a vacuum, rather, within a much broader sociocultural context that panders to stereotypes about gender, sexism, and sexual objectification.
Secondly, use strict parental controls to block children from accessing X-rated content. You can do this by blocking keywords, sites. You can also consider turning off the internet at home after a certain time at night, although this step may limit rather more studious internet use.