Sunday 30 April 2017

Cliona Curley: The lessons everyone can learn from school WhatsApp groups

Cliona Curley, Programme Director of CyberSafeIreland
Cliona Curley, Programme Director of CyberSafeIreland

Cliona Curley

A friend of mine watched in horror recently as a 12-year-old child walked across a busy road to her school, with much younger siblings in tow, all the while gazing intently at her smartphone. She barely noticed the car that missed her by inches, or the bike that was forced to stop suddenly.

Kids are not the only ones addicted to their devices; too often I see adults do the same thing. If I'm honest, I'm frequently guilty of being a slave to my phone myself. That message, or comment, or email simply cannot wait. How often have I tapped a reply to a work message, or got distracted by something on my Twitter feed while my poor kids get frustrated that I am not listening to their latest joke or what happened in the yard at school that day?

As parents, we have such an important role to play in influencing how our children behave online. Modelling good behaviour is far more persuasive than simply expecting it from them and not adhering to the same guidelines ourselves. For example, a great rule for online use that we would recommend to parents is that connected devices stay downstairs at night.

In any event, there's a lot of research that suggests that use of tablets and phones late at night impacts on the quality of your sleep.

This is something we tell the kids about when we go into schools, but it applies to adults just as much. If you want to persuade your children to leave their devices downstairs at night, make it a rule for the whole household to do so. We could probably all do with better sleep.

How often do we see the phones come out at the family dinner table or even in restaurants?

Is it so hard to be really 'present' and have a conversation instead of half listening with our minds on our Facebook feed? I wonder if our kids will wreak their revenge in years to come when they take us out for that special Sunday lunch and spend half of the meal ignoring us.

We encourage children to value their information, use privacy settings, and not share things online with people that they don't know in real life.

But how many parents have social media accounts with no safety or privacy settings applied? Or a friends' list that contains hundreds of random people who went to the same school 30 years ago - or they once met at a conference?

How many share photos or videos of their children with people they barely know, or even complete strangers? And how can we expect our children to protect their own data, when no one actually reads the terms and conditions to which we sign up when installing new apps?

A school principal recently asked us if we had any guidance on appropriate WhatsApp usage that they could pass on to parents.

Those handy chat groups between parents of children in a particular class are invaluable for arranging activities outside school or when Seán has forgotten his notebook and doesn't know what he should be doing for homework.

But they can occasionally become a minefield of dangerous and completely inappropriate behaviour. We have heard many stories of parents criticising teachers within these chat groups, or worse still, discussing the behaviour of certain children in the class.

Sometimes it is your first instinct as a parent to turn to one of these groups for advice or comfort if your child comes home upset about something.

But once you put it out there, and others say their piece, you cannot take it back. If we want our children to think before they post something online, or even comment on what others have to say, we need to do the same.

I can't emphasise enough the critical role that parents can play in keeping their children safe online; but that influence will be far greater if they model good behaviour themselves.

Maybe we should all take a step back and find a healthy balance, forming good habits that become the norm for our children too. We are then much better placed to have those incredibly important conversations about how to be stronger, smarter and safer online.

Cliona Curley is Programme Director of CyberSafeIreland, a not-for-profit organisation that delivers online safety education to primary school children and their parents. CybersafeIreland has just launched a short scribe animation video with simple steps that parents can take. For more information, visit cybersafeireland.org, @CyberSafeIE or facebook.com/cybersafeireland

Irish Independent

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