• Kayte Thomas

Internet safety and your kids

Technology has such an interesting role during this pandemic. It is allowing us to work from home, our children to attend school virtually, maintains a sense of connection with friends and loved ones, and provides access to entertainment and a way to learn new skills or hobbies. Computers and smart phones are enabling us to experience the world beyond our homes in many ways, for the most part that’s a good thing right now (in non-pandemic times I am definitely an advocate of genuine travelling and experiential learning but that’s not an option at the moment). But this connection can have dangerous consequences as well, especially for children and teenagers.

Increasingly, I’m hearing from parents who are concerned about their child’s risky use of technology during this time. As children are gaining connection with others primarily through technology at the moment, they are exploring more of the internet and playing online games with greater frequency as well – and with that comes greater risk. Parents are surprised to find that their young children stumbled across porn (accidentally or otherwise), shocked that kids are approached by adults in unsafe ways in various forums, and stunned that teens are exchanging nude photos. Some have sadly discovered that their children were seriously victimized by an online predator – in fact just today I counseled a parent whose story was so distressing that it took me a few moments to collect myself afterwards, which is what prompted today’s blog post topic. And like the majority of parents I speak regarding these issues, the devices had been predator-proofed. My hope is that it today's post creates more discussions amongst those reading this, which ultimately keep children safe.

Sometimes kids can get around controls through clever use of settings such as incognito mode (I still do not understand how tech folks can create these options without a way for parents to easily restrict access. C’mon Silicon Valley, get with it!), figuring workarounds like using Pinterest for private chats, or disabling monitoring devices in myriad other ways. Just when parents think they have a handle on the newest tricks, even newer ones appear. It’s challenging to stay on top of all the tech stuff today! There are countless safety apps to choose from and it is always wise to have these installed on any devices to prevent access to dangerous content or people, but the fact remains that these are not a complete guarantee. I strongly urge folks to research their options with regards to tech safety and their children.

Now, technology is not my forte but mental health is. So let’s talk a bit about the impact of this today. It’s important to note that it is developmentally appropriate for children at various ages and levels to push boundaries, to be overconfident in their abilities, to underestimate safety risks, and to outright defy parental authority. This is particularly normative with teens because they are at a stage in their development where they are figuring out their place in the world and learning how to assert their individuality while practicing autonomous decision making and hopefully having the cushion of safety at home to fall back on for guidance when mistakes are inevitably made. The prefrontal cortex – the part of our brains responsible for things like planning, decision making, estimating risk, anticipating consequences, and impulse control – is not fully developed until around age 25. Add to that the hormonal changes of teen years and you have a biologically normative time in which children think they know everything while feeling rather invincible. So they naturally make poor decisions somewhat frequently. However, internet safety is not the place we want them to make mistakes. How then do we help kids navigate the ever-changing land of technology when we know they are going to try things they shouldn’t be doing anyway?

Of course, we install monitoring and blocking devices. Some would argue that this is too authoritarian or doesn’t build genuine trust or may invade their privacy but to that I say – nonsense. It is potentially life-saving. Install the monitors and block unsafe content. Beyond that though, talk to them. Talk to your children even if you don’t feel comfortable with the topic, talk to them even if you don’t have the answers, talk to them even if you’re worried it might be too late. Start talking to them at a young age in age-appropriate ways, and keep talking until the conversation is as routine as asking about what happened at school each day. And if you haven’t had these conversations yet and your child is older, don’t worry, because you can start the conversation today. Children of all ages genuinely want guidance from their parents, even if they laugh or roll their eyes too. And if they aren’t getting information from you – they will get it from their peers, which is rarely the most accurate or well-informed perspective. Lack of adequate information can put children on a path which unintentionally leads towards a predator.

Kids may not always make the connection that what happens online is just as real as what happens in person. Some may believe that people are “safe” because they aren’t physically present and may provide more information online to someone they don’t know than they would to someone who was trying to talk to them at the park, for example. They may also not realize that actions or images are permanent and may be unprepared for backlash or teasing and pressure to make unsafe choices from peers. Talking about all of these issues and more helps to prepare children for potential concerns they may experience online.

When talking to kids about internet safety, it’s helpful to use a combination of information giving, role play, and inquisitiveness. Give them education on risks and concerns, rules for who they can connect with online (only people they – and you - know in person; never ever give information such as home or school locations), red flags for people who are unsafe (are they asking personal questions? Does something “feel” funny about the way they’re talking to you? Are they saying things that scare you or asking for private pictures?), and provide them with tools to navigate any uncomfortable encounters safely. Provide scenarios and allow your children to role play ways that they might respond. Role playing is important because what is regularly practiced becomes what is recalled automatically under stress. So, if you have practiced safe strategies with your children enough times, their brain will remember these even when stress or anxiety causes a momentary panic and they might ordinarily forget what to do. Same concept as muscle memory in athletics, just with cognitive processes.

Open up more discussion by asking questions though, so they have a chance to direct the conversation. What are they most worried about? What kinds of messages are they getting from peers? From tv, pop culture, or other media? Have they ever been in a situation they weren’t sure how to handle? What are the benefits of having an online presence? How do they feel when they get a positive comment or a “like” on their posts, and what are their thoughts about themselves when someone says something unpleasant? As children grow, they become more susceptible to peer pressure and wanting to be “liked” by others. This is also a normative developmental step and in many ways is protective – at a basic or primal level, survival depends on being accepted by the group you live amongst. Helping children to navigate the way they feel about their peer responses, their reasons for behaving in certain ways, and their goals/desires/fears can be a beneficial way to support them in making decisions that are right (and safe) for themselves. Teach them to pause to think about potential risks and benefits of online actions.

Another tip to consider is creating a contract for your child to sign whether it’s for cell phones, video games, internet use, or all of the above. Include acceptable behaviour, anything that is off-limits, privileges obtained by following rules and consequences for breaking them, safe people to contact if they need guidance, and a review of warning signs and exit strategies if they find themselves in dangerous situations. Include your child and ask them for input when creating it. Keep it somewhere central such as on the fridge, and revisit it periodically to see if it needs updating. Contracts are effective because they clearly outline rules and expectations, demonstrate trust between you and your child, and gives them a sense of responsibility for their actions. It’s a demonstrated technique that works for many.

Additionally, help your child to cultivate self esteem opportunities which don’t involve the use of technology. Having a positive outlet from something they enjoy is an excellent way to create a sense of self-worth which is not dependent on social media or internet use whether it is music or sports or arts or writing or…you get the idea. Encourage ways to connect with others outside of technology use and disconnect from technology for periods of time as well. During the pandemic, this may look like socially distanced hikes or other safe outdoor activities, as well as phone and computer-free times throughout the week. Be sure to model safe choices with your own use as well.

Keeping children safe online is an ongoing task which requires both vigilance and open communication. Through regular discussion and education, parents can mitigate some risks and reduce the likelihood of dangerous encounters. Regular safety talks can prevent dangerous situations but also holds potential to improve self esteem, reduce chances of depression and anxiety created by dependence on internet feedback, strengthen parent-child bonds, and protect against traumatic experiences. Take a moment today to start a conversation about internet safety with your children and make it a regular topic in your home. It just might save a life.

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