With technology changing faster than you can say ‘snapchat’, how do we allow our kids access to the online world whilst also ensuring keeping kids safe online?
One of the most hotly debated topics in households across the region is undoubtedly online access and screen time. Kids crave it whilst parents are justifiably concerned.
Screens can be a wonderful way for us all to learn, get information, socialise and be entertained, but they cannot be the only way we do this. And unfiltered online access opens a door to a plethora of inappropriate content and chat.
Martine Oglethorpe from The Modern Parent believes that managing screen time is based less on time limits and more on the effects of the screens and the impact on other areas of their lives.
“Time limits can be effective when children are young and they aren’t able to regulate their behaviours without our input,” advises Martine. “However, we also need to be teaching our families and ourselves ways of incorporating the technology and devices in ways that are balanced and healthy.”
What is an appropriate age for a child to have their first phone?
A lot of this will depend on what the phone’s capabilities are, because getting a phone and getting internet access are two quite different things. “A child of any age can have access to the internet as long as it is monitored, filtered and done with intention and purpose,” says Martine. “A parent can use the internet together with a young child for all manner of information and investigation and it may be a really useful tool to learn new things or explore areas of interest.”
“Having free reign to search the internet without monitoring or filtering however, shouldn’t be given to children at all, as the internet obviously opens up a world of inappropriate content, as well as being a doorway for people to make contact with young people.”
Getting a phone with internet capabilities is vastly different, as this opens a child up to a world of online content, contacts and connections that they need to be cognitively ready to handle in terms of their behaviours and their ability to think critically alone.
“Having a phone usually means the parent has little input into what happens with that phone, so one needs to ensure that child is socially, emotionally and cognitively ready,” explains Martine. “As most apps and social media require an age limit of at least 13, getting a phone too soon before this time can obviously lead to times when that cognitive thinking and behaviour is not developed enough yet and can put young people in situations they are not ready for.”
How to monitor a child’s online activity
Another quandary facing many parents is how much monitoring is required. Kids want a little privacy but parents want to ensure kids are safe online.
Monitoring a child’s online activity varies greatly with different ages and with individual children. When young people start out on a social network Martine recommends giving access to one network at a time. “This way parents can access and monitor as much as they can, using this time to teach and guide in the appropriate behaviours,” she says. “Looking for teachable moments to help learn skills and thinking is also a more effective way to teach than lecturing a child on cyber safety. There are people doing the wrong thing online all the time so one never needs to look far to find these teachable moments!”
Whether it’s a sport star who lost their sponsorship deal for an inappropriate tweet, or the group text that was intended for four friends but was viewed by eight parents, using these examples of how we lose control of our audience are much more effective when we can provide real life examples.
Are there any apps to be wary of?
All apps have the ability to get young people into trouble if they are not ready for them or not being used in the right way. “Every social network also has the ability for young people to view porn or inappropriate content, to experience cyber bullying, and to be contacted by people who don’t have their best intentions at heart,” says Martine. “That being said, there are certainly some apps that take more care when setting up for safety issues, and there are those apps such as Yubo, developed for young people to ‘meet friends’, that can open them up to a world of people who are waiting for young people who may be somewhat vulnerable to make those online connections that won’t serve them well.”
What about online games such as Fortnite and Roblox?
Having some knowledge and understanding of how games work must be a priority when allowing kids to play popular games.
“You don’t have to know every single aspect of the game but some initial research can easily help determine whether a game is appropriate for your child,” Martine says.
Organisations such as Common Sense Media review every app, game and media, and can be a great way to find out the dangers or elements to be aware of.
“Watching YouTube videos of others playing a game can help alert parents to any themes or content they may need to know about or discuss with their child before allowing them to play,” Martine also suggests. “And having systems such as Family Zone in place can also give parents reasons why they recommend or don’t recommend certain games for certain ages, and parents can then make their own informed decisions.”
“Once again, if a parent decides they are going to allow a child to play a game, especially if it is not recommended for their age, then they must ensure that they have gone to the settings areas of the game and made the games as safe and as private as they can.”
How to set up devices
When there are multiple devices in a household and multiple ages of children, the requirements for safety and wellbeing vary depending on the individual’s stage of development. “Systems such as Family Zone can allocate different levels of access to different ages. This also ensures the access for the older members of the family and yourselves as parents is not affected by the filtering system.”
If you don’t use a filtering system, Martine recommends going through every device and setting up as safely as you can.
“Parents must go to YouTube and Google and set up the search engines for strict settings and must also go to every game and app their child uses to ensure they are using it in the safest way possible,” advises Martine. “Obviously, this can be tedious and is never 100 per cent foolproof so getting a system to back this up is always recommended.”
“It is also important to note that despite filtering and monitoring, young people also need to be learning the skills, the thinking and the behaviours to keep themselves safe and to make good choices, so education and ongoing conversation should always be part of the equation.”
When to step in
Screens can be a positive addition to family life, if we manage to have constructive experiences online. Screens can help us learn and be entertained in ways that still allow us to fulfill the many other elements of our lives.
“If a child is still getting the right amount of sleep, coming to the dinner table without a fight, having time for all the other important elements of their lives then they are probably doing OK,” Martine suggests. “If these areas start to slip and we see warning signs of the devices taking over their lives, then it is imperative parents step in and make the necessary changes to avoid behaviours that can spiral out of control.”