Screen-Age Parenting: How to Protect
Your Kids Online and Why It’s Important
The world is more connected than ever before, and it’s not just adults who are increasingly reliant on digital technologies. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), mobile subscriptions in member nations outnumber people and have done since 2017.
Young people today are quite comfortable using both the internet and technology, even small children can navigate smartphones, computers, tablets, and more with ease. This is unsurprising perhaps given these kids have grown up in a world where the internet has always been there.
In line with rising internet access and use, children are going online at younger ages. One 2013 study even suggests that kindergarten-age children are familiar with devices before being exposed to books. Ofcom figures from 2019 reveal that in the UK, 52 percent of three to four-year-olds and 82 percent of five to seven-year-olds are internet users in one way or another.
Figures such as these highlight just how pervasive internet use is. Parents of school-age children once had to primarily worry about their child’s physical safety but now, children’s online activity adds another layer of complexity to parenting, which was never an easy job in the first place!
Kids face a number of threats online, all of which can be combatted to some extent through better digital literacy skills and a solid parenting strategy. Below are some key screen-age risks and a few ways parents can handle these.
Few threats strike as much fear into the hearts of parents as online predators. With the anonymity of the internet on their side, predators can easily assume a child-friendly persona and gain a child’s trust. They may try to encourage a meeting in person with a child, seek to manipulate, or eventually ask for images.
Kids’ use of social media, messaging apps, and other platforms with in-built chat capabilities, such as Minecraft, make it easy for perpetrators to find and potentially befriend children. Online predators employ a number of strategies to make this possible including breaking down trust barriers and other grooming strategies.
Mitigating the risk
Short of banning your child from using these platforms, an unpopular move which many kids will rebel against anyway, a parent’s best strategy is to educate children about the risks of online predation. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have for many parents, but it is essential nonetheless.
Try to instill a strong sense of online stranger danger in your child. Explain that revealing information, even something as seemingly innocuous as their hometown, can lead to danger. For younger children, consider monitoring their online activity and chats on a regular basis.
Older children need to have their privacy respected and monitoring accounts won’t work, instead, encourage frequent discussions about risky behavior online, such as sending images or engaging with message requests.
Children can also stay protected using a VPN, which hides their IP address and therefore their actual geographic location.
Digital content is not sorted according to age suitability or appropriateness, rather it is available to all users at the click of a button. Pornographic material, for example, is easily accessed through peer-reliant sites such as Pornhub. Most of these sites do not ask users whether they are 18 or older, a step which has limited success anyway, so children can find and access sexual content, both intentionally or unintentionally with relative ease.
Pornography isn’t the only concern, violent images or videos are also just a few clicks away, and sometimes in places parents would least expect. YouTube Kids, for example, is riddled with off-brand cartoons that depict both sexualized and violent acts. A Wired investigation noted Paw Patrol characters committing suicide along with other disturbing content courtesy of the video-sharing site’s autoplay function and algorithm.
Mitigating the risk
Parents have several technological solutions available to help filter out inappropriate content:
- Internet filters - Although not foolproof (and a tech-savvy child may easily skirt the filters), these tools go some way towards blocking inappropriate content.
- Parental controls - Use devices’ and browsers’ in-built restrictions to set parental controls. You can block pornographic material, of example, or restrict sites that offer extreme views.
- Use content filter apps - An app such as Safe Vision filters and blocks inappropriate YouTube content and makes sure your child can only view approved channels. Choose a filter app that’s managed by people rather than algorithms.
Outside of technological solutions, one of the best things you can do is talk to your child about inappropriate content. If they have seen something disturbing or have accessed pornography, don’t threaten to block them from internet use as this may cause your child to avoid talking to you in the future out of fear they will lose access. Instead, sit them down for an honest conversation.
Schoolyard bullying was once confined to school hours, but now children may face bullying online that continues long past a three pm school day. Mostly an issue for older children from the age of 10 onward, cyberbullying is a form of online abuse and may involve nasty messages, cruel comments, and other humiliating acts.
According to the US National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), only one in ten teenagers will tell their parent or guardian they are being bullied online. Cyberbullying has been linked to lower academic performance, anxiety, depression, and a greater risk of self-harming practices.
Mitigating the risk
Because children may be reticent when it comes to sharing their experience of cyberbullying, parents need to watch for changes in their child’s moods and/or behavior. Teens who are being bullied online may withdraw from family activities or discussions, they may seem upset or unwilling to go to school. They may also spend more time online watching for new comments or messages.
A proactive approach is helpful here, talk to your children about cyberbullying and explain how dangerous it can be, this helps your child understand why they shouldn’t participate in bullying and offers them coping strategies if they face bullying themselves. Parents can also encourage a short digital break, although ultimately the onus shouldn’t be on the bullied child to remove themselves from the online environment.
Speaking to teachers and parents of other children may also be helpful.
About the Author
Amy Cavendish is a content strategist at TechFools, a tech blog aiming to inform readers about the potential dangers of technology and introduce them to the best ways to protect themselves online. As an outspoken advocate for digital freedom, Amy is dedicated to empowering her readers to take control of their digital lives with her thought-leadership articles.