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How do you protect your child from the dangers of an online world, particularly online bullying and blackmail? This must be one of the most pertinent questions being asked by 21st-century parents, because the dangers of the cyber world reach into all of our lives, no matter what our socio-economic standing. Quite simply, if your child has internet access then he or she has the potential to be drawn into dangerous situations. The appropriate parental response to this new social landscape is not fear and reactionary behaviour but rather knowledge and engagement. Below we discuss some basic handles for parents wanting to know how best to protect their children.
1. Understand the dangers
Many parents aren’t fully aware of the dangers the internet poses to their children. This is not to point the finger at anyone – older generations generally don’t understand the virtual world inhabited by children because it’s a different space from the world they lived in at that same age.
While you can put certain search engine safety guards in place to help keep your child from stumbling across porn, for example, most of the problems arise in legitimate places, like social media, mobile messaging, apps and online gaming. There are two primary sets of people parents need to concern themselves with: cyber bullies and online predators.
Cyber bullies are usually peers. Often they are already known to the child in the real world, like a classmate. Bullying of any sort can be incredibly damaging, as children are highly influenced and affected by the opinions and actions of their peers. If a peer posts cruel messages or embarrassing photos on a child’s Facebook page, for example, this can have a devastating effect on that child’s self-esteem, social life, and overall well-being. Certain online games foster highly antagonistic environments and can also lead to bullying.
Cyber bullying is frequently an extension of real-life bullying – the bullying that happens at school or after school follows the child home to what should be their ‘safe place’. Cyber bullying knows no limits of time or place, which is what makes it so pernicious.
Predators is a strong word, but it is apt because we’re talking about individuals and syndicates that actively pursue ways of contacting youths and drawing them in for ‘the kill’. In this category are online stalkers, paedophiles and blackmailers. Teenagers are regularly duped into sharing private information and/or provocative photos of themselves, thinking they’re interacting with a potential romantic partner their own age, which are then used to blackmail them.
Children are particularly vulnerable to scams because of their inexperience and immaturity, as well as their youthful rashness. It is these same traits that keep them from quickly and sensibly extricating themselves from threatening situations. Children often feel extreme shame when things go wrong (sometimes through a confused sense of self-blame) and so many don’t go to an adult for help when things become dire. Suicides are a very real occurrence when kids feel overwhelmed by the awfulness and seeming hopelessness of their predicament.
2. Ask your child about their online activities
It goes without saying that the more actively you engage in your child’s life in general – through quality time and open dialogue — the more confident you can be that they will turn to you if something bad crops up in their world (online or ‘offline’). That said, the cyber world has some unique attributes and it’s important that parents take a front-footed approach when it comes to kids’ cyber activities.
For starters, ask your child about their online activities. Sit with them at their computer and let them show you their world. Be sure not to judge or criticise – you want them to trust you with a part of their lives that they’re likely more inclined to keep private.
Also ask them leading questions, for example, “I wonder what you would do if someone were to start posting mean things about you on the net?” Use such questions to paint a picture for yourself of your child’s thought processes and level of awareness and maturity. This will help you develop your strategy of how best to monitor and control their online activities, since there’s no one formula to fit every family.
3. Listen to what is being said (and what is not being said)
Children sometimes don’t share with their parents because they’re worried their internet privileges will be taken away, and with that a huge part of their social lives. As a parent you therefore need to read between the lines; listen to the stories your kids tell you of mean kids at school, and keep an eye out for signs, such as unusual jumpiness, loss of appetite, moroseness, caginess, breakdowns in relationships, extreme behaviour, and so on. Sudden changes in character or behaviour could be signs that there’s a problem.
4. Give your child guidelines
Here are some guidelines you could give your child when it comes to the internet:
- Don’t talk to strangers and don’t accept phone calls, text or instant messages from anyone you don’t know.
- Never meet with someone you met online without me.
- If someone is horrible to you or scary, tell me or another adult straight away.
- Understand that everything you put online will be there forever, so really think things through carefully.
- Make sure your personal information is not available to just anybody.
- If you’re hacked, change your password and we will then check your hard drive.
- If in doubt about something, don’t wait – come talk to me. You won’t be blamed or punished.
5. Improve your own tech skills
It’ll be harder for your kid to pull the wool over your eyes if you’re clued up about their virtual world. Learn their shorthand (did you know, for example, that 143 = I love you, 8 = oral sex, and KPC = Keeping Parents Clueless?). Create your own accounts with their favourite social media sites and play around with apps they use, as most of us only really understand what these things are all about once we’ve navigated and explored them for ourselves. And continue to read up on the issue and so educate yourself. New technologies are cropping up all the time, so you’ll need more than just a once-off crash course to remain informed.
There are many resources on the net that can help alert you to the dangers of the cyber world as well as suggest strategies for keeping your child safe. Don’t neglect to invest time in this issue – the internet is not going anywhere and your child’s online engagement will doubtless only increase with time.
Mike Saunders recently released a resource on Parenting in a Digital Age. Download it here.