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Features

Raising children in a digital age

Bex Lewis

We're warned it may corrupt them with porn, expose them to predators or cyberbullies, even re-mould their brains. But Bex Lewis thinks the internet is better seen as a huge opportunity for parents to foster trust and imagination in our children.With every new technological advance comes a flurry of fear. It happened with the printing press, the telephone and the television, so it's no surprise that the internet has brought another 'moral panic'. The sociologist, Frank Furedi, suggests that this occurs whenever society feels unable to adapt to dramatic changes and fears a loss of control. This is not helped by the fact that the media tend to generalize from single instances of harm, implying that we are all 'at risk'.

Children admit to hiding online behaviour from parents Social News Daily1

Sharing snaps of your children online 'could cost them a job if employers find embarrassing photos' Daily Mail2

Children in Leeds at more risk than ever from online bullies Yorkshire Post3

Secretly starving: inside the world of anorexia blogging Daily Telegraph4

These are some of the tamer headlines facing those caring for children - enough to tempt any parent to snatch the devices from their children's grasp until they are 18.

 

A FRENCH WINDOW

But is there another approach - one more akin to the traditional French view on alcoholic consumption? While other societies ban wine for under-18s, the French famously offer it to their children from an early age, introducing it slowly and under supervision, which normalises it and drastically reduces the likelihood of alcohol abuse.

Remember that fear sells newspapers. Professor Tanya Byron in her 2010 government report on the internet noted that news about children and the internet 'still predominantly focuses on the extreme, often tragic, and thankfully rare cases of harm to children and young people.'5

In a survey undertaken for my own book on the subject6, I found that many parents are more level-headed: 'Don't be scared, don't be fearful,' advised a parent of teenagers. 'Just be aware and help your children to navigate this phase of life.'

With digital technology we need to cultivate an attitude of respect, rather than of risk-avoidance. The digital is a part of our everyday lives, and it's not going to go away. There are huge opportunities available for those who have learnt how to be critical, constructive, and confident inhabitants of the digital environment.

The more confident parents and carers can get in understanding the online world, the more confident they can be in their children's use, and the more positive experiences their children have online. The same way as you don't need to be a mechanic to drive a car, you don't need to understand all of the technology to use digital media - even power users only know a handful of tools really well.

 

LOCAL & GLOBAL

We often focus on the global nature of the internet, but it's worth remembering that many children are usingtechnology to augment local relationships. The online environment is not only 'virtual': real things happen, real relationships are built or deepened, and communications online clearly have offline consequences.

As Professor Sonia Livingstone, author of Children and the Internet, points out: 'Even though … face-to-face communication can ... be angry, negligent, resistant, deceitful and inflexible, somehow it remains the ideal against which mediated communication is judged as flawed.'7

Parents can't control their children's whole environment, online or offline, so need to give their children the capability to deal with problems as they come across them, wherever they face them. There are many positive opportunities online, but often we struggle to see our way past the negatives.

Respondents to my questionnaire mentioned a wide range of fears: 'stranger danger'; accessing porn; cyber-bullying; addiction; ID theft; loss of social and communications abilities; the lack of control because technology is increasingly mobile; and the permanency of material online. There were worries that, with no time to be bored, creativity was being stifled; concerns that, in a consumerist world, we are all being pressurized into buying the latest devices; and fears that the resulting focus on individualism leads to a lack of concern for the wider community. Some were afraid that children are spending too much time viewing screens, a distraction from 'more rewarding pastimes' such as playing outdoors.

Let's take a closer look at some of these concerns.

 

STRANGER DANGER

Online sexual grooming occurs when someone makes contact with a child with the motive of preparing them for sexual abuse, either online or offline.

In her 2008 government review, Professor Byron made the point that the number of incidents of harm from strangers compared to the level of contact is low, as it remains the case that very few abusers of children are strangers to them.8 It's entirely likely that strangers really are just other children who want to make friends. As adults, if we meet others online, we would take sensible precautions such as meeting in a safe space, and not meeting alone. Let's allow our children to do the same, as we put the risks into perspective.

As the journalist Dan Gardner has pointed out, repeated claims that '50,000 pedophiles are prowling the internet' have no reliable source. It's a statistic impossible to collect in practice, but large enough to scare parents.9 It is certainly worth spending money on software to protect your children, but remember that they are more likely to report anything untoward to you if they know you won't default to banning all digital technology.

 

CYBER-BULLYING

Headlines such as 'Schoolgirl hangs herself after she's bullied by online trolls' attribute much to the power of social networking alone. Yet research has highlighted that the factors that lead to bullying online are typically the same as those offline. Social media may be a catalyst in teen drama, causing it to be spread faster and wider, but it's unlikely to be the sole cause of suicide. To label it as such is unhelpful, possibly even dangerous, as it may encourage copycat behaviour from others who feel that they don't get enough attention.

Nancy Willard, a cyber-bulling specialist, worries that the intense media focus on cyber-bulling makes bullying appear 'normal'. For the bully, it then doesn't appear to be a big deal as 'everyone else is doing it', while for the bullied, it can feel as if it's a phase of life that has to be lived through, and they simply put up with it. Cyber-bullying has become easier with mobile technology, but has also provided new opportunities for prevention, including calling for help, and recording hate calls. It also provides opportunities for bystanders to come in as 'digital allies', with supportive messages and indicate that the bully's behavior is unacceptable. Ensure that children understand that they are not interacting with a screen, but with human beings who are behind the screens.

 

SEX ONLINE

The media have focused heavily on the dangers of porn online for children, to the extent that many parents feel they are powerless to stop it. Professor Livingstone adds that debate in this area can be difficult, as the media tend to mix up a range of complex issues into one big scare story. Although searching out 'adult material' has been a rite of passage for many years, the hard-core nature of online pornographic material does seem to have changed young people's expectations about sexual behaviour.10 Famous blogger 'Belle de Jour' argues that to 'help them understand pornography as entertainment, as opposed to how sex should be, we need to stop skipping the subject of real sex and real relationships when talking to young people'.11

With the rise of sexting (texts of a sexual nature, including photographs), children need to understand that this is simply a modern version of 'if you loved me, you'd do this for me', and to understand that once an image has been sent out, even on a 'temporary' site such as Snapchat, the image is out there and could have been captured - the best advice is help your children understand not to send them!

 

ADDICTED BRAINS

The EU Kids Online project (2010)12 discovered that nearly half of the children questioned described themselves as addicted, and in fact saw the term as a 'badge of honour', although only about ten per cent demonstrated true signs of addiction. If children appear to be playing online excessively (every day, for long periods, sacrificing other activities) and it's affecting their mood, then it's worth investigating further.

Be aware, however, that we often use the term 'addiction' for digital technology, whereas if a child spent similar amounts of time reading a book (and consequently not interacting with others) this would rarely be described as addiction, and probably encouraged. Talk to the parents of other children to understand what may be normal for your child, and to teachers to clarify whether your child's behavior has changed in school.

There are constant references, usually negative, in the media to the 'fact' that digital media are 'rewiring children's brains'. Our brains, however, are designed to rewire with every new (or repeated) activity that we do, whether it's a maths lesson or a computer game. Others worry that children are 'losing their ability to communicate' because they have their heads in computers, but many are learning to communicate in more creative ways - if not in the same ways as generations before them.

 

A POSITIVE FOCUS

So what specific benefits does digital technology provide for children?

It allows them (and their parents) to undertake a range of tasks: they can communicate instantly with each other, search for information, play games, and make travel arrangements. Later, it can help them search for jobs. When a club or after-school activity is finished, children can ring or text parents to say that they are done. They can share experiences via phone cameras, and find something to do if bored. Taking part in conversations with others around the globe both widens their knowledge and challenges their cultural stereotypes. The internet has given some children a voice through online projects, encouraged involvement in politics, and raised awareness of substance abuse prevention. Texting can allow more time to think about a message before sending it.

As in the past, both disaster and utopia will be predicted as the result of new technologies. Parents and carers, however, need simply to continue doing a good job, drawing on core parenting skills that have worked for years. These include providing a safe space for children to grow up in and the means to communicate, making the most of the opportunities and resources available, and questioning (and supporting) industry, the government, and educators who provide for them.

Most importantly, with regard to technology, stay educated and interested in what your child is learning and doing, and how it is affecting them. Ensure they understand that you are with them on their 'digital journey'.

 

TRUST EARNED

'God did not give us a spirit of timidity,' writes St Paul, 'but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline' (2 Timothy 1:7). Life is not risk-free, but children respond well to the lesson of Luke 16:10 that 'whoever can be trusted with a little can also be trusted with a lot'. Our children benefit when they learn that life is made up of these cause-and-effect relationships - even though the effects they experience may sometimes be unpleasant.

Another tool recommended by many books and websites is a 'Family Internet Agreement'.13 Some offer simple agreements for the family to sign, but my research highlighted that families should discuss specifically with their children what should be in such an agreement, and create something that fits in with the family's values, such as a three-column sheet with 'Yes, we can', 'Don't like it', and 'Don't even think about it', with the rules potentially moving columns as the children get older.

You may not stick to it all, but the conversations will be helpful. It's worth taking time to agree what the consequences should be for breaking the rules. Boundaries will be pushed, and rules will be broken. As an example, if your child is found texting at 3am, keep the device in your room overnight for a month, returning it each morning, with stricter punishments for repeated rule breaking.

 

MODEL PARENTS

In the most effective agreements, parents also agree what their own Internet practices will be. Titus 2:7 reminds those with responsibility to 'Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity'. Although children can learn a great deal through direct teaching, they learn much more by watching the actions of significant adults in their lives. If you appear to be surgically attached to your mobile phone, why would a child not think this is behaviour to emulate?

Think too, about how the ten commandments might apply in the digital environment. An obvious example is 'do not steal' as plagiarism increases and copyright is flouted. In a culture where 'free' has become expected, your family is more at risk from the viruses that come with illegitimate downloads, than from stranger danger.

 

SPACE TO LISTEN

At the heart of the advice I give is that appropriate adults need to talk to children about their online activities and behaviour, providing space to listen and discuss any issues that arise. This is the most powerful and effective weapon you have in your parenting toolbox. Earlier this year, British media featured the story that having family meals at the table led to an increase in happiness. This has also been identified as a factor in reducing childhood obesity - and in the area of media and digital engagement, a shared meal provides the perfect opportunity for ongoing conversations.

It's important also to take time to chat to others involved with children, to ensure that children get the same message about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior online.

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, believes that parents need to have the 'online privacy' talk before they have the 'sex talk' with their child, and also warns that parents should think about the names they give their children.14 The more unique a name, the easier it is to find - which could be viewed as both an advantage and a disadvantage.

Most social media sites have good advice on how to set privacy settings, so take time to familiarize yourself with those, or ask a friend, or Google it.

 

GOING PUBLIC

When posting content online, I tend to assume that everything could become public, either now or in the future. I ask myself whether I would mind seeing it on the front page of a newspaper, or whether my worst enemy could do something unhealthy with what I've just shared.

Children are especially encouraged not to share photos in school uniform, or to use check-ins on location- based software, which gives away a regular routine. Be particularly aware of sharing photos and details if your class contains children who have been adopted, and may need protecting from their birth families.

Filtering software is valuable for younger children, but we have to expect that older children will try to get around the protection, so don't expect that you can install it and your job is done. Take time to understand how, when and where your children are accessing the internet, what they are gaining from it, and where behavior could be changed - and how to deal with distressing material when they come across it.

You rarely want to rely entirely on technology as the total solution. There is no technological magic bullet, and no filter can promise to be 100 per cent effective at blocking everything unhelpful. Human beings (both producing the information, and you as the responsible adult) are more sophisticated than machines, so don't leave young children with a tablet device as an easy babysitter. Ensure that you are at least within listening distance. With older children, ensure monitoring is used as a conversation point rather than 'spying' - that so important trust between you can be far too easily shattered.

 

HAVING FUN

There are real opportunities for fun and adventures with your children here. Take time to discuss with them the positive opportunities on the internet, identifying something new to try at frequent intervals. Go on Wikipedia and search for something that you know a fair bit about, and decide with them which information you support, and which you would like to challenge. You could even make a live update. Have some fun with your children, undertaking some 'no-limits futurology': what do they think life will look like in x number of years? Think about creating a 'souvenir' book to bring back out at that time in the future.

Seek opportunities to challenge unhelpful trends online, such as the Neknominate phenomenon (where Youtubers challenged others to drink drinks fast and in unusual circumstances), like the South African who instead developed the RAKNomination. (Random Act of Kindness).15

Overall, be encouraged. Christopher Ferguson, a professor from Texas A&M University, who researches the effects of technology on human behaviour, claims: 'Youth today are the least aggressive, most civically involved, and mentally well in several generations .' (Pew Internet)

So perhaps there's no need to fling up our hands and worry that things have moved too fast. There are many excellent opportunities online, and great adventures to be had. The more confidence that parents have digitally, the better the experience for our children.

 

NOTES

1 http://socialnewsdaily.com/24868/children-admit-tohiding- online-behavior-from-parents

2 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2554438/ Sharing-snaps-children-online-cost-job-employersembarrassing- photos.html

3 http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/latestnews/ top-stories/children-in-leeds-at-more-risk-thanever- from-online-bullies-1-6457682

http://s.telegraph.co.uk/graphics/projects/inside-the-world-of-anorexia-blogging/

5 'The Byron Reviews', linked from Child Internet Safety, Department for Education, http://www.education.gov. uk/childrenandyoungpeople/safeguardingchildren/ b00222029/child-internet-safety (2008/2010)

6 http://digital-fingerprint.co.uk/2013/02/ questionnaire-digitalparenting

7 Livingstone, S., Children and the Internet: Great Expectations, Challenging Realities, Polity, 2009, p. 26.

8 The Byron Review, 2008, p. 54.

9 Gardner, D., Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, Virgin Books, 2009.

10 Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., and Gorzig, A., Children, Risk and Safety on the Internet: Research and Policy Challenges in Comparative Perspective, Polity Press, 2012, p. 166.

11 'Sex education will always trump web censorship', Dr Brooke Magnanti, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/ sex/9817973/Sex-education-will-always- trump-webcensorship. html 22/01/13

12 Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., and Gorzig, A., Children, Risk and Safety on the Internet: Research and Policy Challenges in Comparative Perspective, Polity Press, 2012.

13 http://www.safekids.com/contract.htm

14 'Google's Eric Schmidt: drone wars, virtual kidnaps and privacy for kids', Charles Arthur, http://www.guardian. co.uk/technology/2013/jan/29/google-eric-schmidtdrone- wars-privacy, 29/01/13.

15 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/ africaandindianocean/southafrica/10615052/ NekNominate-South-Africans-turn-drinking-crazeinto- force-for-good.html