Teaching your child cyber safety and online smarts in 2014 is as important as learning to swim and cross the road, reveals renowned child and adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg.
MICHAEL Carr-Gregg doesn’t beat around the bush.
Passionate, frank and to the point, the child and adolescent psychologist is a realist.
He’s acutely aware that society now lives in a digital world. And he holds grave concerns that most parents “don’t have a clue” about the plethora of cyber dangers and potential “nasties” facing their children online these days.
But the internet, he says, is not a demon. And social media is not something to shun.
Instead, the answer is to embrace it – with caution – and instil a family internet policy to protect children without limiting their freedom to learn, explore and communicate online.
As one of Australia’s foremost experts on cyberbullying, Dr Carr-Gregg says parents and other adults underestimate the dangers facing youngsters and the damaging psychological effects of online harassment.
He says we are living with the phenomenon of “digital Dutch courage” where children and teenagers show extreme bravado and say and do things online that they would never contemplate in real life.
And the advent of the internet, smart phones and tablets has added a whole new 24/7 digital dimension to traditional schoolyard bullying.
In days gone by, bullying victims were afforded some respite outside of school hours with their homes providing a temporary safe haven. But these days, online interactions happen around the clock.
“School has changed a lot,” Dr Carr-Gregg says. “When I was at school and I was bored, we would just play with our yoyos…These days it’s very different.”
His new book, Beyond Cyberbullying, provides an up-to-date manual for digital parenting, highlighting significant issues facing mums and dads.
His new book, Beyond Cyberbullying, provides an up-to-date manual for digital parenting, highlighting significant issues facing mums and dads
As a father-of-two and a long-running child protection advocate, Dr Carr-Gregg wants parents to exercise greater control over their children’s online use and is calling for cybersafety education to be an essential part of the primary and secondary school curriculum in all Australian schools.
He also supports the introduction of an e-safety commissioner, which is currently under consideration by the Federal Government, and wants children to sit “digital drivers’ license” tests to demonstrate they have the skills to use online resources responsibly.
“What I want to say to parents is that the internet isn’t going away,” Dr Carr-Gregg says. “You can’t dump your kids in the digital stream and just think that they’re going to float away happily.
“There are significant dangers in terms of cyberbullying and sexting. And the reality is that if your kid does something really dumb, they could actually end up on the sex offenders’ register.”
Dr Carr-Gregg says cyberbullying comes in many forms including harassing and threatening SMS messages, pictures or prank phone calls, impersonating a person’s screen name and posting “set-up” images and videos online.
He urges parents to be especially vigilant of the “sexting” phenomenon, which involves the sharing of sexually explicit images and videos by mobile phone, warning that such acts constitute “child pornography”.
TIPS FOR PARENTS
- Ask your child about their online interactions and the people they are friends with.
- Limit social networking to one hour a day for children.
- For every hour of “screen time”, ensure your child invests another two hours in play (preferably outside).
- The school’s policies on homework and bullying.
- If your child is the victim of cyberbullying, do not take them offline. Be sympathetic and supportive.
According to the Alannah and Madeleine Foundation, a national charity charged with protecting children from violence, one in four young Australians are bullied at least once a fortnight.
Studies show that children are at the greatest risk of cyberbullying during the transition from primary to secondary school and again at Year 9. It’s no surprise that the perpetrators of traditional schoolyard bullying are the same kids who harass others online.
Latest research by the Australian Communications and Media Authority found up to 21 per cent of 14-15 year olds reported being cyberbullied in 2013.
Disturbingly, the study also found that 13 per cent of 16-17 year olds reported that they or their friends had been involved in “sexting” and had sent sexually suggestive nude or almost nude photos or videos of themselves. Eighteen per cent of 16-17 year olds reported receiving such messages.
“Cyberbullying is basically another form of bullying, but in cyberspace,” Dr Carr-Gregg says.
Dr Carr-Gregg wants parents to exercise greater control over their children’s online use and is calling for cybersafety education to be an essential part of the primary and secondary school curriculum in all Australian schools.
“A lot of it is through text messages saying incredibly unkind and nasty things, spreading rumours, exclusion, teasing, taunting – so it’s really just an electronic version of what used to happen in the schoolyard.
“Now we’ve got the additional problem of Facebook bullying… and of course, that gets seen by a lot of people.
“There are ‘burn books’ that name and shame people online, the ratings system where people rate their desirability from a sexual point-of-view – all of these things are 24/7. They are humiliating, they’re repeated and seen over and over again and cause considerable distress in terms of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation.”
Dr Carr-Gregg says that, contrary to popular beliefs, research has shown there are significant advantages for young people using social networking, but conceded the FOMO or “Fear Of Missing Out” phobia was one of the biggest factors contributing to social networking addiction.
“I do believe there is an obsession, particularly amongst my clients, with missing out on what’s going on,” he said. “It’s an addiction to knowing what is actually happening – and obviously being out of the loop in adolescence equals social death.”
That has been compacted by a general reluctance by parents to parent, he says.
“There seems to be a ‘Vitamin N’ deficiency in Australia at the moment and parents are very hesitant to say ‘No’.
“There seems to be this desire to be your child’s best friend, and to not put limits and boundaries around the internet is hugely problematic.
“I’m saying to parents that the use of the wi-fi network shouldn’t be taken as a right.
“They should use random wi-fi password generators so that every morning when the kids wake up there’s a new password. And they may like to put a note on their fridge that says: ‘Morning kids, would you like today’s wi-fi password? If so, make your bed, walk the dog and do your allocated chores’.
“To me, this is from the University of the bleeding obvious but a lot of parents just aren’t doing it.”
He urged parents to install blocking programs on computers to control children’s internet use. Programs such as Cold Turkey and Self Control can block all social networking sites for either 30, 60, 90 or 120 minutes.
Dr Carr-Gregg says the issue of cyberbullying is often complicated by the fact that the vast majority of kids are not disclosing when they are being harassed or victimised online.
“That is catastrophically bad because it means that nothing is done about it,” he says.
“It’s the duration and the frequency in which cyberbullying is carried out that is directly proportional to the psychological harm in terms of depression, anxiety, deliberate self-harm and suicidal thoughts. That is an absolutely pivotal message.
“The second issue is to make sure that your children know how to respond, that is not to respond but to delete the message and save the evidence to report. These are fundamental skills which are as important as teaching your child to swim and cross the road in 2014.”
Parents should be on the look-out for several tell-tale signs of cyberbullying, including if a child avoids the computer, won’t discuss their online activities, shows anxiety every time a text message arrives, sleeplessness, mood changes, appetite changes or falling grades.
“These are critical indicators that parents need to be attuned for because prompt intervention and prompt action is associated with a much better outcome.”
One of Dr Carr-Gregg’s most serious concerns is child pornography laws that he says have not kept pace with the changing technological landscape, including the issue of “sexting” amongst kids.
“One of the things that really frightens me is that you can have a 13-year-old kid who takes picture of his genitals with the school iPad and sends it to a few mates and can be prosecuted under section 474.20 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code 1995, which makes it an offence to possess, manufacture or distribute child pornography,” he says.
“I do not understand how that warrants being put on the sex offenders register or 15 years in jail or a $500,000 fine. To me, putting kids on a sex offender register for something like that is ludicrous. How do you justify putting sexually curious kids in with convicted paedophiles and how can you be the perpetrator and the victim of the same crime?”
The answer, he says, is a streamlined and mandatory cybersafety curriculum to educate children. He cites the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, which had developed several child protection programs, including eSmart frameworks for homes, libraries and schools.
The FOMO or “Fear Of Missing Out” phobia was one of the biggest factors contributing to social networking addiction.
“We need to proactively educate these kids in schools. At the moment there is a huge variety of cyber safety. There is no one system, no set of standards. In the UK, for example, cyber safety education is mandatory in primary school.”
Currently, only the Victorian and Queensland education departments have rolled out the foundation’s framework to all their schools, but some individual schools in other states have opted to introduce the policy independently.
“It’s ironic that only Victoria and Queensland have taken up e-Smart as a framework for their schools,” Dr Carr-Gregg says. “What that means is that a generation of kids will be getting substandard cyber safety education, and in some cases no cyber safety education at all. I think that is intolerable.”
IF YOUR CHILD IS THE VICTIM OF CYBERBULLYING, TELL THEM:
- To not respond to the message or image.
- Save the evidence.
- Block and delete the sender.
- Report the situation to the website or internet service provider.
- Tell trusted people, friends, adults, teachers, parents and police, if necessary.