What you don’t know won’t hurt, or so you think. From taking selfies & wefies with our mobile phones, playing virtual games, making our own videos, to making friends on social media and even attending online classes, growing up in today’s world is a whole lot different than how most of us would have experienced during our adolescent years.
Indeed, the online landscape has changed and advanced so much. How do we protect our young ones in a world that has technology so rooted in everyone’s mind (and even taking over our lives)?
For some parents, trying to know what their children are doing online is tougher than scaling Mount Everest. For others, checking and monitoring their children’s mobile activities is a habit, as regular as a daily caffeine fix.
Kids today are so addicted to technology. They cannot live without it. They feel more attached to their phones than with us. These are common things you hear amongst parents these days. The ability to be constantly connected can be beneficial and detrimental. On the good side, kids get access to a vast array of information online and can connect with gramps living in a different time zone. On the bad side, it can affect school/work performance, relationships and concentration. The biggest challenge therefore, is how to get the most out of technology without it spiraling out of control.
Whichever ship you are on, one thing all parents can agree on: You want your kids to learn and grow in a safe, happy environment, be it online or offline. Here, we share a list of threats you may or may not already know, and how you can observe telltale signs and help minimise their exposure.
RECOGNISING ONLINE THREATS
We get it, after you posted a carefully crafted image (following 10 filter attempts) and a funny caption, you want to see how others react to it.
A swipe and a tap, and you get the world’s “approval”. Refresh your feeds, check out someone else’s beautiful weekend, another’s exciting day out, and you want to be the same. Why is no one liking or viewing my post? Is there anything wrong with it?
It is evident now how easy it is for kids (adults too) to be sucked into this online game, where they seek validation from others or join their friends in stripping others of their “identity”. When not properly guided, social media can get addictive and very damaging. Indeed, constant exposure to social networking may lead to self-obsession and narcissism. Additionally, since kids are not equipped with the right level of maturity yet, they may get caught up in the social media whirlpool. A teenager may think that his/her “social ranking” is defined by their online “popularity”, where the more friends (or likes) they have, the more popular they are.
Too much of something is not always a good thing, in this case, social media. Kids who find themselves obsessed or addicted may waste hours on end just mindlessly browsing and refreshing their feeds, resulting in distractions from schoolwork or disruptions in daily routines.
This stems from the evolution of social media discussed above. According to StopBullying.gov, cyberbullying as the name suggests, is bullying that takes place “digitally” through mobile devices, computers, tablets, etc. Unbeknownst to many, cyberbullying can occur to anyone and on any digital platform through everyday activities like texts, apps, social media and forums. This includes “sending or sharing negative, harmful, even false information about someone else, often infringing on their privacy, with the intention of causing embarrassment or humiliation”.
These are some areas identified by StopBullying.gov as common grounds for cyberbullying to occur: social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc), Text/SMS or Instant Messages (via social media messaging, emails or messaging apps such as Whatsapp, Kik, Telegram, LINE, etc).
Indeed, we all know how easy it is to post anything and anytime while on the go, from a passing comment about a photo or a celebrity/political party, to posting photos of our meals or holidays. With the rise of mobile technology, these contents are easily viewed by families, friends, acquaintances and perhaps even strangers. Sometimes, the posted content can be interpreted in a totally different light the individual may have intended. Such distorted information (or misinformation), once shared, becomes difficult to remove permanently, especially “viral” content that are circulated rapidly.
Getting attacked by faceless user IDs can become overwhelming. Oftentimes, cyberbullying may carry on offline and victims continue to suffer insults, taunts, embarrassment or humiliation. In dire cases, cyberbullying can lead to death. As parents and educators, it is easy to overlook this aspect as we may not “see” or “hear” bullying taking place when it happens. However, just because they are not reported does not mean they are not happening or did not happen.
Online Grooming, Sexting
One of the most important advice for your kids when they are online, just as in real life, is do not talk to strangers! Refrain from accepting friend requests they don’t know and report any odd messages or emails.
Catfishing has seen an increase in recent times, where one takes on a false online persona to lure unknowing victims into a scam or a relationship. If a ‘friend’ starts talking in a weird manner or makes strange requests to meet up with your kid at odd hours or places (or worse, the friend’s place), red flags should be raised. Teach your kids to read the warning signs and come to you if such events occur. If your child has a new online girlfriend, boyfriend, or even friend, you should also be able to verify the person’s identity.
Parents don’t think their kids will fall prey to online predators, or nothing much can happen when all the kids do is Youtubing and Facebooking. But they fail to realise that the danger is close to home and accounts of online grooming have been reported on an alarmingly regular basis. It is not far-fetched at all. These experienced predators know how to ‘attack’ kids’ weakness and insecurities, and often pretend to be on their side when “the world does not understand them”. They pretend to be empathetic, shower them with gifts and attention and after getting the kids’ trust, they proceed to do the unimaginable. Worse still, some kids don’t know or don’t think they have been abused. They trust the predator, and in some cases, fall in love with the predator and will defend their actions.
Inappropriate Online Content
There is cause for concern over the advances of mobile technology in recent years. On one hand, access to information and knowledge is now easily available over the Internet; on the other, this means that kids may accidentally or intentionally be exposed to inappropriate material that is often uncensored or sexually explicit.
On the “It’s okay, let kids be kids” end, inappropriate material can come in the form of a “famous” influencer or celebrity twerking her bottom in a video, or a circulated video showing boys spouting profanities and smoking, or a silly group of kids skateboarding down the staircase. On the “I am now very concerned” end, it could be a leaked sex video, a man “livestreaming his livestream“ (that’s a real story reported on Medium), a teen inflicting harm on herself, etc. Or it could be an opinion piece on how it is norm for women to be submissive to men, or a video showing decapitation of any kind. You would be surprised at how easy it is for such material to be returned on Google results. Other times, your kid may chance upon other explicit and violent content through their social media feeds, shared by someone they are following. When they least expect it, they may stumble upon an online betting portal and end up with a gambling addiction. Furthermore, pornography is now within grasp on the Internet, no matter if you like it or not.
I would be very alarmed and concerned, and uncomfortable, if I found out that my child has been exposed to any of the extreme scenarios mentioned above. We think we know that exposure to undesirable content can warp a young mind, may distort reality, and can have long-term damaging effects on them. We also fear they may become desensitised and misinterpret certain violent behaviour as acceptable behaviour. But we do not fully know the extent of HOW it will warp their minds, and HOW it may affect or change their behaviour.
MANAGING THESE THREATS
Setting Healthy Limits
As an adult, we know better to set boundaries (what to do and what not to do) and limits (for how long and till what extent). Enforce a start and end time for usage and limit their access around non-educational materials.
Adjust screen time rules according to different age groups and differing needs:
- A 2-year-old kid does not require much screen time, except for some occasional edutainment, which should not go beyond 20 minutes at any one point.
- An elementary school student may have online assignments, but will still not require a lot of time online; as opposed to that middle school kid who may need to conduct online researches for school projects.
Keep the computer or gadgets in the common area like the living room – so the younger kids won’t be alone and you can supervise their usage as necessary. Although restricting the devices to the common area is a good idea, it may not work for every family. It will be increasingly tougher when the kids get their own devices, and it is virtually impossible for parents to look over their children’s shoulders 24/7. It is hence imperative that such rules are established from the beginning so that the kids understand and agree to the rules.
Be A Role Model And Teacher
Be a role model. Sounds easy? It actually takes a little more effort than we think.
If we want our kids to keep device use to a minimum, especially during meal times or family time, we better make sure we are doing the same when we are with them. No checking on work emails or sneakily browsing through Facebook feeds.
Guide the young minds on proper and responsible usage. Take good time to talk to the kids about how and how not to behave online, and how not to act towards other in ways they don’t want to be treated. For instance, a true friend would not post hurtful or fake comments about another friend. How would they feel if they found out that a friend had posted hurtful words about them? Similarly, that’s what their friend will feel if they are the ones posting that hurtful comment or image.
The topic about media representations of sex, relationships and gender roles has been talked about at length in recent years, but is not commonly discussed between parents and kids. Through the years, media has inevitably fostered unhealthy cultures such as “sex sells”, “thin is beauty”, “men are more successful than women”, etc. These statements do not hold up in the 21st Century, and we ought to teach our kids to proactively question the messages’ accuracy and intent.
Most importantly, parents must practise what we preach and keep in mind that we are required to play an active role in teaching our kids how to discern right from wrong, good from bad, danger from harmless, etc.
Maintain Open Communication
Communication is key. Communicate often with your children, talk to them about your day and encourage them to talk about theirs. Be sincere in wanting to listen to what they say, even if it’s simply about what they had for teatime. Don’t take it as another monotonous task you will yourself to go through.
Some kids may not like to talk about himself or herself, or what happened to them. Take it slow instead of getting mad and forcing it out of them without understanding how much hurt or pain they might be in. In cornering them, they may recede and withdraw even more, and this does not help matters at all.
One approach is to learn to read the signs. Parents should always be more observant about possible changes in their kids’ behaviour that may point to any signs of distress or silent call for help. Maintaining regular and open communication will help a child open up if something happened, and they feel comfortable enough to approach you for help instead of bottling it up.
All of the above is imperative in your efforts to protect your child from the perils of the Internet. While it may not be 100% foolproof, we strive to do as much and as best as we can. Make use of technology tools to help you keep an eye on what they are doing. Instead of forcefully controlling them, let the kids understand where you are coming from, and not leave them to wonder why all you want is to control them. Fret less about what they are doing behind closed doors or under the blanket. Don’t let the tool (the Internet/the device) become a weapon.
Lastly, parents must bear in mind that there is no substitute for a supportive and loving relationship between parents and children. With the right amount of support and trust, negative encounters can turn into positive learning.