How to help children stay safe on the internet
Tips for taking charge of tech on Safer Internet Day from The Week Junior features editor Ben Isaacs
Today is Safer Internet Day, created to help the public become aware of the issues everyone faces online. The day focuses mainly on the needs of young people, which means parents and guardians need to do their bit to ensure the next generation have responsible and positive experiences when using technology.
Here are some pointers for helping your children have a healthy relationship with tech from Ben Isaacs, features editor of The Week Junior.
Depending on the age of your children you may currently be bombarded by requests for smartphones. Your children may already have their own tablets they use at home or even a connected smart speaker in their bedroom. It’s enough to make any parent anxious. How much screen time is too much? Will they be exposed to inappropriate material? Could it lead to bullying? Are the games they’re playing going to make them violent? However there are a few straightforward things you can do that will help your child have a healthy relationship with tech.
1. You’re the boss
If you’re concerned about the way your children may use tech, make it clear that all devices belong to you, not them. This may mean keeping all devices in your own bedroom at night. It could also be ensuring that parental controls are enabled. All devices and consoles, from iPads and Nintendo Switches to Echo dots and Chromebooks, will have the option for parents to restrict what each user can access. The onus is on you to enable these to your specifications though. Every time you let your child use a device you should research these controls before you hand it over. These can prevent your child from using a device for too long or even block access to violent video games. Some apps allow you to spy on everything your child does with the device. Although this may give you some peace of mind it could also erode the trust between child and parent so proceed with caution – there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
2. Know the signs
Is your child moody and bored when they don’t have access to devices? Do they get angry when you limit screen time? Do they have trouble sleeping? If so you need to find ways to help them be entertained and engaged away from screens. This may mean cutting back on your own use of tech. If your child gets nervous or jumpy when they get a text or become secretive about their online activity there’s a chance they are being cyber bullied. If you suspect there is cyberbullying, raise it with your child and/or their school.
3. Set an example
If you can’t keep away from your own phone at the dinner table then it’s difficult to persuade your children that they shouldn’t do the same. Children are likely to copy this behaviour as they get older and will also consider tech to be competition for your attention. This only makes tech seem even more important and desirable to them. If you’re crossing the road with your children while checking a text message, they’ll end up doing it too when you’re not around. If you think you may use your phone too much then look up Apple and Android’s new settings for helping you cut down. This will be one of the big tech trends for 2020.
4. Accept they can’t have your childhood but show them the best of it
The world has changed dramatically since today’s parents were themselves children. You’re fighting a losing battle if you try to enforce an entirely screen-free existence for your offspring. Today’s adults had a lot more freedom outside the house than they give their own children and that inevitably leads to more digital interactions. Fortnite, for example, is more than just a game, it’s a social space. For many children who can’t go out and play in the streets or wander off to the park like their parents did, games such as Fortnite are where they meet with friends to chat and have fun. You can mitigate this by taking the time to enjoy the outdoors as a family or get together and play very low-tech board games.
5. Strike a balance
The most obvious analogy for tech consumption is food consumption. You may want your child to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet but you’re unlikely to begrudge them chocolate or sweets every now and again, especially if they are physically active. The same goes for tech. You wouldn’t let your child eat cake for every meal on a Saturday so you probably shouldn’t let them play video games from dawn till dusk. But a piece of cake or an hour of Minecraft at tea time after finishing their homework and going on a family bike ride is rather more palatable. Tech itself isn’t bad, but like food, people’s relationships with it can be unhealthy.
For more information and advice to help young people stay safe online go to the UK Safer Internet Centre.
Ben Isaacs is features editor for The Week Junior, the award-winning weekly news magazine for eight– to 14-year-olds