By Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psychotherapist
Remember that seventies slogan, "Do you know where your children are?" If it were to be updated to reflect today's concerns, it would read, "Do you know what your children are doing online?" If your kids are using social networks, instant messaging, texting, webcams and blogging, it is more likely than not that they are putting themselves in harm's way and the best way to help them is for parents to use the technology themselves so they can address some serious safety concerns.
The Internet has fundamentally changed every aspect of our lives, but it is a double-edged sword. For parents, in particular, it is difficult to navigate the opportunities and challenges of children's increasing digital fluency and time spent online. There are certainly many benefits for children, who can leverage the web's collaborative environment to gain access to information, people, and skills that can benefit them the rest of their lives. But there is also the undeniable, uglier side of the unfiltered content on the World Wide Web, and responsible parents who are aware of the potential dangers are struggling with how to protect their children from a place where every comment, image, and video is global and forever. According to a McAfee survey, 49% of young people aged 10-23 have had an argument with a friend, ended a friendship, got into trouble, or feared for their safety when online. As with any risk, the burden of helping children navigate the web in a manner that keeps them safe falls primarily on their parents.
To truly understand the risks children face today, it is important to understand where they are in their development. Children are playing with iPads from when they're young, being introduced to social media as toddlers and developing Facebook profiles well before the accepted age of 13. In a recent study, 82% of tweens admitted to using a Facebook profile.
And yet, this is the stage at which children do not have any understanding of a critical phase of development -- cause and effect. They should be able to make a mistake, and then be able to move forward without a care in the world. Ideally, these missteps can then become the "distant memories of childhood." Sadly, today when these lapses in judgment are made, and made online, the memories no longer become distant nor are they left in childhood.
A parent's role in guiding children through the potential risks of online behaviour are crucial. Tweens and teens may not realise online posts can be circulated without their knowledge, for all to see. Kids need to know these unflattering posts can resurface later in life, which can impact their reputations, both online and in real life. Thoughtless posts, which seem funny in the moment, can also impact everything from university applications to future jobs. And in a worst case scenario, questionable posts can even put them in harm's way.
Studies consistently show that parents who actively monitor their children's online behaviour and habits ensure a much safer web environment for kids. The mere awareness that a parent is looking at what kids do online can modify behaviour in a positive way. In order to be a proper resource for your child, it's important to stay well-informed about the current issues and safety options, and perhaps most importantly, understand what your child is experiencing both on and off the Internet.
But of course, even these measures are not enough because it is well documented that as children hit their teen years, parents become less influential with their children. This is why it's so important for the community to be involved in providing guidance on the dos and dont's of online behaviour. Parents, educators and older peers must collaborate and provide consistency when teaching responsible online behaviour. Schools and teachers can provide powerful guidance for both preteens and teens when parents' voices are being temporarily ignored or rejected. Older peers are also are a wonderful resource to provide respected guidance about how to behave and sidestep Internet-related difficulties, especially as they are seen as cooler and more "in the know" than parents at this life stage.
Communicating regularly and staying involved is always the key to successful parenting, especially with so many new threats both online and offline. Having open, honest conversations with your child that outline what kind of online behaviour is acceptable and is agreed on by both of you, is a great way to underscore both a healthy and safe way to steer through the complex digital world. When having these conversations, explain to your children how people aren't always who they seem to be online and that there is no such thing as privacy or an expiration date when it comes to posting content to the Internet.
Whatever you post will always be accessible online, around the world and forever.