Monday 21 January 2019

Dr Sinéad McDonough: 'How parents can help their children to stay safe online'

'Many children say that cyberbullying is taking place during the night, without a parent’s knowledge' Photo: Getty
'Many children say that cyberbullying is taking place during the night, without a parent’s knowledge' Photo: Getty

Dr Sinéad McDonough

December is the time of year when children and teenagers will include smartphones, iPads, tablets, laptops, TVs, gaming consoles and computer games on their Christmas list.

It's also the time of year when young people spend additional time online. And while technology, digital and social media use can bestow us with remarkable benefits, it can also have negative effects on our health and well-being.

For school-age children in particular, technology and digital media use can be a double-edged sword. In the age of digital parenting, children are exposed to many online risks. There are, however, some practical steps parents can take to protect children from possible dangers they may face in cyberspace over the festive season.

If your child has asked for a mobile phone, it may be an idea to devise a phone contract with them prior to the phone being unwrapped on Christmas morning. Discuss both your expectations and your child's - a worthwhile first step is to have a conversation about boundaries and create a written phone agreement.

For the younger child in particular, discuss why it's important for you to have the passwords and include this in the contract.

Check the parental controls on the phone itself. On iPhones, go to settings. Under the content and privacy restrictions in screen time, you have an option to block or limit specific apps and features on your child's device. You can also restrict the settings for explicit content, privacy, and purchases and downloads.

SelfieCop is an app that automatically forwards photos taken on a child or teen's phone to his or her parents. The idea here is to make young people reflect more carefully about what they are taking photos of and possibly sharing. iKydz is a parental internet control solution - it allows parents to apply age-appropriate filters and online schedules to individual devices.

There is a growing body of evidence in studies around adolescents and pre-adolescents that suggests that media use negatively affects sleep and can lead to depression.

Though cyberbullying can take place 24/7, I note from my work with young people that many report cyberbullying is taking place during the night, without a parent's knowledge.

Some children also report that they check notifications and log into social networking accounts several times during the night.

Often when children get their first phone, they want to open up an account on a social networking site and download various apps.

A fantastic resource for parents is commonsensemedia.org. It provides independent reviews and age ratings about all types of media.

Once an account is activated, help children to set privacy settings at the strongest level. This process should include making sure that accounts are set to private and the location setting is turned off. Sites can often change privacy settings, so make sure you stay up to speed with them.

It is vital that we keep reminding children and teenagers not to share any personal information via social media - this includes their password, address and their school details.

Some children have told me that they have secondary accounts on the same social networking platform. They typically have one account where mum and dad are friends with them (usually with very little activity taking place on this account) and secondly they have a 'real account' - this is generally the social networking account where children have many online 'friends' and 'followers'. Unlike adults, children, particularly younger ones, may not have the ability to recognise a fake profile.

Finally, parents should understand their own roles in modelling appropriate media use and the balance between media time and other activities over the festive season.

Dr Sinéad McDonough is a forensic psychologist with Safe Search Ireland

Irish Independent

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