When we see media stories about children who have been exploited or suffered abuse as a result of engaging with the online world, all parents shudder. These stories provoke our worst fears and elevate our concern about the dangers of the internet.
We often look for solutions that give a feeling of control. We limit access and try to set boundaries around technology use, we adjust phone and web browser settings and try to work out how to stop our children from discovering all the dark and awful content that exists online.
And so we should. Having the right settings for an online world designed to keep children safe is important – so important that it should be the foundation of how the internet works.
But it isn’t. Parents should not have to spend all this time managing a safe online environment for their children. It should be the responsibility of the companies and organisations who created, manage and profit from the internet itself.
However, more important than safety designs and managing screen time is building a trusting relationship with our children.
Trust means that if anything happens that makes our children uncomfortable or worried, if they see something that scares them or if they are approached by someone online inappropriately, they will come to you and talk about it.
The greatest safety feature we can offer as parents is not control, but support.
We want to know what is happening in our children’s lives. To do that, they need to trust that when they do come to us we won’t be angry or threaten to take away their technology, but we will respond with understanding and support and help them to solve the problem and feel better.
This is not a quick fix. (Nothing that works when it comes to parenting is a quick fix!) So, where do you start building trust?
1. Be inquisitive about your child’s digital life
We will benefit and be able to parent our children better if we take an interest in what they do on their devices. Ask them questions, get them to show you their favourite videos and websites, ask them who they chat with and which online celebrities they follow and why. This gives you an idea about the way your child uses the internet and gives you topics for discussion, such as privacy and what to do if they see things that make them feel uncomfortable or are approached by people in inappropriate ways online.
2. Be a part of your child’s digital life
Share what you do online as a family. Follow each other’s social media account, share photos you have taken, play computer games together, communicate online and offline and use technology in a way that makes your relationship with your child better. Too often, technology is a point of conflict and confrontation. Turn the online world into something that strengthens our relationships with each other, rather than erodes them. This will require being pragmatic and letting go of some control and requires us to trust our parenting and trust that our children will come to us when they have a problem.
3. Model the behaviours you expect
We know that children from a young age develop their values and behaviours based on what they observe parents doing. So, it is important that you use technology and model the type of respectful behaviour you expect from your children. How are you managing your digital footprint? Children will no doubt Google their parents when they are old enough to be interested. If we expect children to only use phones or technology at certain times or in certain parts of the house, we should have similar rules too.
4. Develop a plan together
Even with younger children, set aside 30 minutes or so every six months to develop a family technology plan. It can include different rules and agreements that the family have around when to put phones away (at dinner time, or during homework), not having screens in bedrooms or turning off phones at a particular time of night. A plan can be simple – a few dot points on a piece of paper stuck on the fridge – but it’s mostly about talking about the expectations parents have and what children’s needs are with technology, so everyone is on the same page and children are using technology in safe and supported ways.
5. Avoid the battleground
It is hard to build a trusting relationship with open communication if the use of technology, playing computer games and spending time on social media becomes a battleground. If our child anticipates your role is just to tell them when to stop using technology, then they’ll turn that into a game where they try to get more. This does not mean there aren’t rules and it doesn’t mean there aren’t limits. Families need to work together to come up with those rules and limits and that is what the previous four tips are there to help you achieve.
By Daniel Donahoo
Senior advisor, Alannah & Madeline Foundation