Wising up to the web
OFFERING instant access to vast amounts of information and entertainment and enabling quick and easy communications, the internet and mobile phones have obvious appeal for increasingly tech-savvy kids. Despite the benefits, however, many parents have understandable concerns about the risks these technologies present in terms of bringing their children into contact with inappropriate material and people, and making them more open to the threat of cyberbullying.
Áine Lynch, CEO of the National Parents Council Primary and a member of the Internet Safety Advisory Council, which advises Ireland's Office of Internet Safety (OIS), recommends that parents communicate their concerns, engage with what their children are doing on the internet, negotiate ground rules and establish levels of trust around internet use. "It's about letting your child explain to you what they do on the internet," she continues. " That can be the start of the communication. But then you need to set down some ground rules that are negotiated with your child: how long they can they spend on the internet each day; where the computer is in the house; what the child is allowed and not allowed to do on the internet; and access levels the child feels is appropriate to what they are doing on the internet. Children are entitled to privacy – just like they used to write diaries, they now write things on the internet that they may want their friends to see but not their parents. That's okay – you wouldn't read a child's diary unless you had a real concern that would make you do that. Likewise, if they have the diary on the internet, you wouldn't either. But there has to be some discussion around those issues beforehand."
Opening up dialogue with your kids
Children need to know that parents are not going to overreact if there is a problem, she says, adding that a lot of children will say ( in research) they have come across something inappropriate but didn't tell a parent because they felt that they wouldn't be allowed on the internet again. " Whether that's real or perceived, it means that there hasn't been a conversation about it," says Lynch.
"Sometimes children will be very upset by what they've come across yet feel if they talk to their parents about it, the first thing that'll happen is that they're not allowed on the internet."
Discussions therefore need to include what happens if one of the rules is broken – either intentionally or unintentionally – she says. " The underlying statement has to be; whatever happens, you can talk to me about it and we will together work a way through it."
Around mobile phones, Lynch says it's important at the outset to consider why the child should have one.
"Is it because the child wants one or is it because you feel they need one? Then you have to think about what functions the phone needs to have. Often they just need a phone that receives and takes calls – you don't need a phone that has internet access, takes pictures and all of the other things that phones can do.
" The issue that parents often have is that, technically, their children can often be better on these phones. At the end of the day, however, children don't have the skills and the knowledge to keep themselves
safe from predators."
The threat of cyberbullying through social-media sites and mobile-phone texting is also a new concern for parents. " The difficulty with cyberbullying – and it's not to say any one type of bullying is worse than another – is that you don't necessarily know who your bully is," says Lynch. "And that's really tough for kids, because if you know it's Joe Bloggs down the road, then you know that if you're in his company that you're probably going to be bullied. If you don't know who it is, all of a sudden everybody becomes suspicious. That's difficult because then you don't know who to trust and who not to trust.
"Also, if you're being bullied at school, you know when you're home that the bullying is going to stop so you have period where you know you're safe. With cyberbullying, it can happen any time of the day or night so it means that the anxiety is spread over a longer period of time."
Many of the warning signs a child may be experiencing cyberbullying are the normal things that would indicate anxiety in a child: stress-related illnesses; frequent illnesses; not eating properly; and not sleeping properly. Signs that it may specifically be cyber bullying can include the child insisting on taking their mobile phone to bed with them, being anxious about being on the internet at a certain time or a reaction to a text-message beep.
There are a number of ways of dealing with cyber bullying. If it's happening through a social networking site, it's worth checking out the safety policy – the sites generally build in good mechanisms to report abuse. All of the mobile-phone network providers, meanwhile, have protection policies and ways of blocking numbers and trying to access numbers.
"Ultimately you can always change your SIM card and then be very careful and keep a note of who you give the new number to," says Lynch.
" The other advice, particularly if you're getting mobile-phone messages, is to keep a record of abusive messages and involve the Gardaí – this is a criminal offence," she continues. " You should never respond either through social networking or through texting. Neither the child nor the parent should text or email a response to either. It's about logging the information and reporting it either to the service provider or the Gardaí."
The parent may be tempted to remove the child's internet access or mobile phone as a way of preventing any bullying but Lynch advises against this. "If the repercussion of a child telling is to remove something from them, they feel they're getting punished for somebody else's behaviour. You have to be very careful of the messages you send to a child by the repercussions that happen. Also, mobile phones and internet have huge benefits and you have to decide whether it's fair to remove them."
Parents often feel disempowered in this area because they think their child knows more than them in terms of the technology, she concludes. "Quite often that's true, but the children don't know more than them about parenting. Parents need to apply their parenting techniques to this – you don't need to be an expert on things to parent your child through them."
Mother & Babies