Saturday 25 November 2017

Don't let scare stories put you off

Many parents are still terrified of their children using the internet, for fear that they may be contaminated by its content. But maybe we don't have to worry so much. . .

Parental guidance: Ciaran Rigney (left), with dad Joe, found help from his parents beneficial
Parental guidance: Ciaran Rigney (left), with dad Joe, found help from his parents beneficial

Sex texting, cyber-bullying, porn and encountering paedophiles is every responsible parent's nightmare when it comes to children and computers.

While parents are right to worry do they need to be paranoid about the internet? A new study suggests that kids -- shock horror! -- actually only use the internet the same way as everyone else, for normal reasons like keeping in contact with friends, information gathering and doing homework.

Experts now argue the internet is just an extension of ordinary life and our aim should be to make them good digital citizens instead.

While there have been plenty of shocking headlines about internet perils there have been no definitive studies on children's usage of the net until now. A major Europe-wide report has been completed called 'EU Kids Online', the result of interviewing 25,000 children aged between nine and 16, and their parents in 25 countries, including Ireland.

It reveals that most children only use the internet for doing homework and playing games. Eighty-six per cent of European children use it to watch YouTube, 75pc use it for social networking and watching news while 56pc use it to download films and music.

Professor Sonia Livingstone from the London School of Economics, who headed the project, said: "Unbalanced headlines and confusion have contributed to the climate of anxiety that surrounds public discourse on children's use of new technology. Panic and fear often drown out evidence.

"The emerging picture from the 'EU Kids Online' evidence should guide schools, parents, government, and children in working together to balance the risks and opportunities presented by new technology."

What do young people themselves think of the internet? Bronte Fitzmaurice is a sixth year student in Yeats College in Galway. She's been on the youth advisory panel of the National Centre for Technology in Education for two years.

"Technology has taken over our world. You get up, check Facebook, come home, check Facebook, do homework and check Facebook."

Bronte believes we have to be proactive and bring internet education into the school curriculum.

"They should be bringing it into primary school education. Parents need to be educated, not just fearful of it, and teachers have to be part of it.

"Because of ease of access to technology you have to teach from a young age. You are taught how to cross the road. It's as important to teach a child to be safe on the internet," says Bronte.

What does she use the net for? "I use it mostly for Facebook and research for school. My teachers might say to look at some physics experiment on it.

"Really, keeping in contact with friends is most important. I text close friends and use Facebook for a wider circle. I keep in touch with people I wouldn't normally meet like cousins. I'd turn on Skype quicker than pick up the phone," she says.

Bronte has never experienced disturbing content on the internet, but if she did she'd inform a teacher or her parents.

"I wouldn't ignore it. From a girl's point of view, I think it's definitely hype about accessing porn."

According to the 'EU Kids Online' study, children first dabble with social-media sites like Facebook very early on. Many social network sites claim there are age restrictions for under 13s on their sites but the study proves that this isn't working, as nearly 40pc of nine to 12-year-olds have a social network profile.

Simon Grehan is the Internet Project Co-Ordinator at the National Centre for Technology and Education in Dublin City University. He was one of the Irish partners for the study and expands on the Irish portion of the survey results.

"One quarter of fifth class children and a half of sixth class children are on Facebook. Parents and older siblings are signing them up. Interestingly there's also a massive difference between a smartphone user and a PC user.

"A smartphone user will access their social network sites 10 times more frequently than a PC user. We lead the chart in European countries for these devices."

Online bullying was also probed in the study, with six per cent of children reporting being bullied online, while three per cent confessed to bullying.

The bullying statistics bring in a key fact about the internet -- most of these activities are taking place more frequently offline. The study found that 19pc were bullied in the real world and 12pc bullied someone else.

"You rarely come across purely online bullying -- it's usually connected to their social life if they've started dating," says Simon.

"It's a new channel of what has always been there. There are wildly varying figures for kids who've experienced cyber-bullying, from as low as four per cent to as high as 40pc.

"Bullying has to go on over a period of time. You can get one bad message and it's just a nasty message. The 'epidemic' of cyber-bullying doesn't exist," he adds.

Simon believes we should have a more positive attitude towards our children using the internet.

"We suffer from 'black swan' syndrome. There is little reporting of boring stuff like kids doing homework on the internet. It's just when something goes wrong that the area is highlighted."

Mr Grehan says parents are fighting a losing battle if they think they can control their children's access to the internet through just rules.

"Because technology is moving so fast, and it's not just one PC per family, there are lots of different devices so we now have to work on the assumption that you're not going to be there as a parent when they encounter things on the net.

"It's about building trust, teaching values and ethics and preparing them for how to respond. Talk to your children about boundaries and why we need them. Don't use sanctions like withdrawing phones or cutting off the internet as that's a barrier to communication.

Ciaran Rigney (16), from Glasnevin in Dublin, is a transition year student in St Kevin's College in Finglas East. He found his parents helping him when getting familiar with the internet was beneficial.

"My parents would tell me what not to click on. In primary school I would do small projects and my mum would help me look up Wikipedia. My education would have started at home on how to search the net and be safe," says Ciaran. For him the internet is very much part of daily life. "I use the internet for Facebook and keeping in touch with friends. I am constantly texting too. I also do projects on the internet."

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