Sexts, Texts and Selfies: A guide on protecting your children as they navigate cyberspace and social media.
92 percent of adolescents aged between 13 – 17 are online daily and more than half of these kids are online several times a day. Younger children are also accessing online apps daily. This is a concern because frequent use of social media exposes children to risks of cyber-bullying, low self-esteem, sexting and other serious dangers, such as online-grooming, identity theft and pornography. Given our children’s large online activity, it is crucial we guide them through the digital world and how to use it safely.
Words Jessica De Freitas Cardoso
Although most of us remember a time before the internet and social media, adolescents cannot imagine the world any other way.
While we acknowledge there are great things about the digital world, we can’t ignore the potential risks:
Children may be tech-savvy, but their cognitive development is not yet matured.
Social media is their primary form of communication with each other.
They feel a strong urge to always be connected no matter where they are.
There are pressures during adolescence to conform to what fellow peers are engaging in.
Whether we like it, or not smart devices and social media apps are part of our children’s lives and they have a strong influence on the way children communicate, share and exchange information. Susan McLean, who was a member of the Victorian Police for 27 years and widely recognised as Australia’s first ‘cyber cop’ has released a book titled Sexts, Texts, and Selfies, published by Penguin Random House Australia.
So, what do children and adolescents do while they’re online?
If you allow your children to have accounts and apps on their devices, you MUST make sure you know what they are using so you have an idea of the level of interaction the game or app allows for the users. Apps and games children frequently use include: Ask.fm, Facebook, Facebook messenger, Facetime, Fortnite, Instagram, live-ly, musical-ly, Omegle, Minecraft, Sarahah, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, Wishbone, and YouTube or YouTube kids. There is another app called the Secret Calculator which is downloaded by children to hide content they don’t want adults to find out about.
Given the popularity of these interactive forums, it’s unrealistic to command children not to use these sites or simply trust they won’t. As parents, we have it in our power to minimise the risks accordingly:
Keep tech devices out of the bedroom. It’s a lot easier to monitor what your child is getting up to if their devices are in common living spaces.
Parental monitoring. It isn’t invasive to walk past and check what your child is doing. Check for changes in behaviour. Make sure they’re on a pre-approved site and communicating with people they know.
Don’t social stalk. If you see your child do or post something online you don’t like, don’t make an online comment. Speak to them directly about it.
Set an example by not responding to abuse. If something upsets your child online, make sure they come to you first about it. Make sure you don’t retaliate and post something abusive back. Set a good example.
Report the abuse. If your child receives a nasty comment, make sure they know how to report it. Go through the settings of each site/app with them so they’re aware of how to deal with abusive language.
Block and delete. If your child is being bullied, they should block or delete the bully from whichever site or app they’re on. And make sure you investigate the extent of this bullying, that way the bully can no longer hurt your child.
Keep a copy. If you are reporting a serious comment or series of harassment, it’s important to screenshot or save the comments on another document for evidence as schools or the police will usually need proof.
Advise your child to exit any site or game that makes them feel uncomfortable. Make sure your child knows some warning signs and that if they feel slightly uncomfortable, that they can come to you and they will not get into trouble.
Have a family Internet contract. Have set guidelines including which games/apps they can use, who they can talk to, what information they can share and how long they’re allowed on these sites. There should be consequences if rules are broken.
Never threaten total disconnection. If you ban your children from everything, they will most likely hide things from you.
Make sure they know you’ll help them no matter what. Kids fear they’ll get into trouble if they tell their parents about a problem or something they’ve seen. Make sure they understand they can tell you anything.
Monitor your child’s phone plans and credit use. Check their phone usage regularly and keep an eye out for any changes in usage or communication with unknown numbers.
Learn the lingo. Spend time online with them. Learn the abbreviations and common terms.
Need and want – know the difference. Children will often say they ‘need’ the Internet to do homework but usually they will only need it to download something or do the research. They do not ‘need’ to be connected to write the essay or do the worksheet. Be aware of this!
Install filters. Make sure there are parenting controls and locking software on any device your child uses.
Know the device. Do not allow your child to use a device that you do not understand! Find out the ins and outs of it before you give your child access to it.
Use parental controls. There are systems in place for every device. You can turn the camera off, limit the age rating, not allowing in-app purchases to avoid a bill, and not allowing them to add friends themselves. Doing these things will protect your child.
Turn off location services. Having location services on can be dangerous as it gives people the ability to find out where your child is. Make sure this feature is turned off. Children can also post photos/statuses where they ‘check in’ or tag places on apps like Facebook and Instagram. Make sure they don’t do this or that they wait until they have left.
Set time limits. Set a time limit. It’s recommended that children get no more than two hours of screen time (excluding time used for school work). Don’t allow young children especially, to use devices when you’re asleep and can’t monitor them. Make sure everybody understands this.
Check their profiles. Have a look at the content on their profiles. Make sure they’re not posting inappropriate images, videos or comments. Remember they don’t always know right from wrong, or if something puts them at risk, so teach them.
Keep personal information private. Make sure your child knows what personal information is and how much to keep private.
Obey age restrictions. Make sure your child knows they shouldn’t lie about age online. There is a reason why each site and app have age restrictions in place.
Set social networking profiles to private,This will greatly increase your child’s safety online. Make sure they also come to you if they receive friend/follow requests from people they do not know.
Only interact with people you know. People aren’t always as they appear online. Strangers should not be accepted simply because there are mutual friends between your child and the stranger. Online predators do this to gain access so make sure your child does not communicate with strangers online.
Online scams. Teach your children about pop-up ads and to steer clear of icons saying they’ve won something. Ignoring these will keep your device and your child safe.
Use strong passwords. Make sure your child’s passwords are not easily guessed such as their birthday, favourite team or pet’s name. Make sure they know NOT to share their passwords with their friends. Teach them why this is dangerous.
Trusting older children. Susan suggests older children writing their passwords down and putting it in a sealed envelope. Put the envelope in an agreed safe place. This allows the child to see if someone has opened it and to build some trust.
Turn the webcam off. If your child isn’t skyping with relatives or talking to friends, there is no need to keep the webcam on. Make sure the light is off or you can cover it with some tape or Blu-tack.
Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s okay. Make sure your child knows that not everything online is correct. Information and even people’s identities isn’t always as it seems. If they’re researching, make sure they know to consult a few different sites.