How do you talk to your child? How do you protect them in an ever-changing cyber world where you feel at sea?
These were the questions facing Meath mum-of-four Siobhán O’Neill White when she realised her son had seen a picture of a girl stripped down to her underwear on another child’s phone.
Siobhán, a tech-savvy mum, who with her husband Dave, runs the parenting website mumstown.ie, says it’s an issue that’s coming up more and more as parents grapple with the dangers of what kids are being exposed to.
She says they got their son a mobile phone when he went to secondary school a year ago so he could keep in touch with the family in case he missed his bus. He goes to school in Balbriggan and the family live in Bettystown, Co Meath.
But Siobhán says they could never have imagined the Pandora’s box that opened with the arrival of the mobile phone. She says parents don’t know what kind of content is being viewed and she makes the point that once a child sees something online, they can’t “unsee” it.
Siobhán maintains a strict technology policy in their home for Mitchell (13), Robyn (11), April (9) and Summer (5) which includes no tech upstairs, no devices allowed in bedrooms and strict times around when they can be used.
After the incident where her son saw the photo of the girl on another boy’s phone, Siobhán said her son was upset and really bothered about it. She and her husband talked to Mitchell and sat down with him and let him watch parts of a documentary called Audrie and Daisy about two teenagers in the US who endured online harassment after naked pictures of them were sent around.
“Parents keep asking the question ‘What am I doing wrong?’ I would say if parents are not savvy, take a course, get some parental controls on the laptops and turn off the Wi-Fi at night. It is our responsibility to parent them and as parents we need to know what they are doing. If you let them off with no guidance around this, you’re looking for trouble,” she says.
Last summer, the ISPCC undertook a case review of the cyber issues that the charity encountered from children, young people and families in the previous 18 months. Among the main issues highlighted were children and young people often viewing age-inappropriate, violent and/or pornographic material online.
And new research published earlier this month showed that almost nine-out-of-10 primary school children use mobile devices — smartphones, tablets or iPods — to access the internet. The average age at which sixth-class pupils said they went online was 7.6 years old.
The survey of 4,500 children, aged from six to 12, across 29 schools was carried out by Zeeko, a company which teaches internet safety to children, teachers and parents. Zeeko founder, Joe Kenny, says society does not understand the impact of the ubiquitous mobile Wi-Fi device and today’s children are born into a world of smartphones.
However, Kenny says parents shouldn’t wring their hands in desperation. Instead, they should talk to them openly about being safe; the earlier you speak to young people about safety, the better chance you have of embedding that behaviour.
He uses the analogy of parents over-protecting children by not letting them cross the road on their own. When applied to devices and phones, he says you simply can’t restrict but must educate them and teach them how to use technology.
“Yes you can restrict and lock down the Wi-Fi but you can’t legislate what your children do on a playdate,” he says, pointing out that if parents talk to their child and show leadership themselves when it comes to mobile phone and device usage, it’s healthier for everyone.
He says parents are often at the end of their tether grappling with these issues but he says he has five basic rules of thumb:
• Have open communication with your child about the goods things and negative things they do online
• Empower your child through education to protect themselves online
• It is not technical knowledge, it is the maturity to know how to behave online
• Balance safety settings and internet access
• Keep up to date.
Parenting coach Allen O’Donoghue agrees that communication is the key and that technology is as big an issue as talking to kids about sex or drugs. O’Donoghue, whose company helpme2parent.ie runs parenting courses says parents need to show example themselves.
“Children see what their parents do and want to replicate that behaviour. How can you talk about boundaries if you are spending tonnes of time on your phone interacting with people?” he asks.
O’Donoghue believes that there is no reason for a primary school child to have a mobile phone. For a secondary school child, he says parents need to be aware that if they have unlimited access to the internet and social media, they are going to access information they can’t process.
However, he says the flip-side is children need to grow and they need the freedom to discover things by themselves and if parents are monitoring 24/7, there is no opportunity for this. He says parents do grapple with the question of invading their child’s privacy on the one hand and keeping them safe on the other.
He suggests talking to them about the boundaries you put in place and the reasons they are there in the first place. “Tell them there are things online they are not ready to see and if they’re online explain that everything they see isn’t necessarily true. It’s all about having these discussions — it may be embarrassing — but as a parent it’s your responsibility,” says O’Donoghue.
According to Galway-based internet safety expert Jeremy Padgen, parents should simply keep their kids away from smartphones for as long as possible.
Pagden — whose company schoolswebsites.ie designs web technology for schools and provides safety advice on technology and cyber bullying for parents, schools and teachers — says he’s having to address the phenomenon of the naked selfie in classrooms.
“If a kid has sent one of these selfies, it’s because they have been asked to send it. When I’m talking to children, I tell them that if someone asks you for one of these, it’s not because they like you or love you. I make the point that it’s because they have no respect for you. I tell them the one thing they can control is their self-respect and you can see that they really take this on board,” he says.
His advice to parents is get savvy about the issues; if they’re not get help.
“It’s too young for anyone under the age of 13 to have a smartphone. Don’t give them unlimited access to the internet. Make sure that devices are password protected and you have the password and never ever let phones into the bedroom”.
“I know one mother who had a deal with her children that if they ever cleared the search history on their browser, they lost the device. The key is to set the ground rules early — make the rules into habits. By the time they get to 13 they won’t think of them as rules anymore,” says Pagden.