Tuesday 20 August 2019

Parents should engage with their kids' 'online lives' to help keep them safe

Cyber safety expert Alex Cooney. Photo: Tony Gavin
Cyber safety expert Alex Cooney. Photo: Tony Gavin

The most important piece of advice we can give to parents is to engage in their children's online lives from an early age. We need to equip our children with the skills and knowledge they need to navigate the online world safely, responsibly, and with respect for others. We know many parents feel overwhelmed about how to address this, but you don't need to be a technical genius, you just need to get involved. If we start when they're young, it leaves us more scope for allowing them greater independence as they get older.

1. Make it really normal to talk about what they're seeing and doing online

It's really important to have regular conversations with your children about what they're seeing and doing online. Don't just talk about the scary stuff, but engage with them on the things they enjoy about the internet too. We would advise having conversations about online safety from an early age.

We find many children are incredibly resistant to talking to their parents because they are afraid their parents will ban them from a particular app or from their device. The most essential thing to reiterate to them, as often as possible, is they can come and talk to you about anything that upsets them or makes them uncomfortable online and that you will figure out a solution together.

2. Do your research

Even before you first let them have a device, it's important to do some research on how to make it safer for them to use. This will include doing a Google search on the safety aspects of that particular device.

Talk to them about why you are putting safeguards in place, so it's transparent. If your child wants to download a new app or game, do your own research on it first. Don't just rely on the PEGI rating for a particular game, or the age restriction of an app, look at it and look at the advice available on it from good sources like CyberSafeIreland, Webwise or Common Sense Media.

3. Set clear ground rules

Set good ground rules around using the internet, and apply them consistently. Some good suggestions include not allowing them to use devices in the bedroom, but in open family spaces like the kitchen and living room, which means you can keep a watchful eye on them when they're online.

Set limits around use so they are not online for hours at a time or just before bedtime. Agree good family rules, like no devices at the table, and remember to model this behaviour yourself where possible.

4. Don't leave them to it

Whilst technical controls can be really helpful, they do not replace parental responsibility. Always keep a watchful eye on your child when they are online.

The more engaged you are the better, so take time to explore the online world together. You may be surprised how much fun you can have.

5. Hold off for as long as you can

Last, but not least, we know parents face enormous pressure to get their children devices and to let them download the latest app or game, but our advice is to hold off for as long as you can.

Make a sound judgment about when they are ready to have one, based on their maturity levels. When you do decide to let them have a device, follow the steps above. Incentivise them to be smart about what they're doing online and follow the rules by explaining this is likely to result in greater independence for them as they get older.

Alex Cooney is co-founder and CEO of CyberSafeIreland, which provides training on internet safety for children in 4th to 6th class - www.cybersafeireland.org.

Irish Independent

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