What Do Parents Need To Know About Internet Safety?
A divide that exists between many teenagers and their parents is the Internet. The second generation to have grown up with the Internet is coming of age and this is a reality that their parents often simply cannot relate to. With smartphones, we now carry the Internet around with us in our pockets and most teens cannot imagine a reality in which this is not the case.
The Internet has brought humanity riches galore from increased connectivity to ease of information access. The web is synonymous with the freedom to create, learn and communicate. Nevertheless, with freedom comes warnings and, if you haven’t spent your life deep in the online matrix, they might not all be staring you in the face. So, here’s a breakdown of the most important aspects of the Internet to be aware of. The sooner you start having conversations with your child around online safety, the better equipped they will be to protect themselves in the virtual space.
Social media toxicity
The dangers wrought by social media on young people and their mental health is well documented so there really is little novel insight that this blog can bring to the topic. However, it’s worth emphasising how difficult it is for someone who has not grown up with the Internet to reach an in-depth understanding of a life spent in the clutches of social media.
It may be tempting to look at your child and wonder how on earth they can be so influenced by images of people they have never met. But the fact is that, for them, online influencers are often as real and present in their reality as their real-life peers. We all know what it’s like to be painfully jealous of a friend; social media magnifies that feeling tenfold. In a world where instagram features so prominently, comparison, whether it’s around body image, wealth or experiences is not something young people can easily opt out of.
What can be done?
Each parent chooses to handle the issue of social media differently. Some ban it all together before a certain age; others enforce limits on screen time to keep hours spent on instagram and twitter to a minimum. While regulations such as these can be helpful in some cases, many parents come up against problems when they employ outright banning as their method of choice. The best you can do is ensure your child feels safe coming to you with concerns they may be having on social media, as bottling up their negative experiences is guaranteed to make them ten times worse.
Pressure to post
The flip side of the content teenagers consume on social media is what they choose to post themselves. If your child is creative and enjoys curating their instagram profile in their free time, fine. Problems arise when they experience pressure to produce content they are uncomfortable with but feel forced to contribute in order to remain relevant and acknowledged by their peers or online community.
Such content could be anything from intimate images to excessively personal, bare all-style posts. It’s important to remember that once something is on the Internet, it’s there for good. Your child might choose to delete posts or even their whole account further down the line, but downloading and screenshotting ensure that, even when they think they’ve eradicated something, they can never be entirely sure it’s gone.
What can be done?
Make sure your child has a solid understanding of the permanence associated with the Internet. Encourage them to ask themselves before each post if they would be happy with teachers or future employers seeing this content. Impress upon them that what their online footprint consists of is their choice and no one else’s.
While content regulations are becoming more sophisticated with every year, the Internet is the largest archive in existence and total regulation will never be possible. This means that it’s easier than ever for an Internet-savvy teenager to find, whether intentionally or unintentionally, material that they are simply not ready for.
Such content might be violent, sexual or upsetting and most parents will not want their children anywhere near it. But the Internet, being the Internet, will always be home to unsightly content and young people, being young people, will always be a captive and curious audience for it.
What can be done?
Parents who respect their children’s desire to learn and experience new things will be conflicted by this one. To block or not to block? Censorship or no censorship? You’ll be relieved to know that a blanket ban on the internet is not the only way to shield your children from what they might find online. Filtering software helps block inappropriate content and certain browsers exist that are created just for kids. Test them out to see which is right for you and your Internet safety choices.
While the Internet has the power to be a wonderful communication enabler, the ugly underside of this is, I’m sure, no stranger to any of us. It’s amazing what taking away the necessity to look someone in the eye while you’re insulting them can do to people’s social etiquette. Around 50% of young people say they have been victims of cyberbullying at least once. Cyberbullying comes in many different forms. It might come from someone they know personally or it might be by a complete stranger. Both can be immensely intimidating.
We all know the struggles of experiencing bullying as a teenager. The majority of us are already drenched with insecurities during our adolescent years without others prodding at them and making us feel worse. Social media exacerbates this problem due to both the anonymity and the personal nature of what many young people choose to share online.
What can be done?
Open up the channels for communication. Cyberbullying might not be something you experienced but you should not belittle it as a lesser form of harassment as online bullying can be just as upsetting for the victim as its in-person equivalent.
Hand in hand with cyberbullying comes its sinister cousin, online deception. Talking to someone you’ve never met can be exciting at first but it can all too easily lead to danger further down the line, particularly when teenagers are involved. Catfishing (i.e. when someone uses a false identity to trick their online interlocutor into having a relationship with them or giving them money) is a tragic reality of the online universe in which we live.
More and more people are meeting “the one” virtually and this makes internet users increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and deception, especially young people who might not be fully aware of the risks. Online predators luring adolescents into an in-person meeting with them can have dire consequences and parents will understandably want to do all they can to prevent this from happening.
What can be done?
Teenagers are frequently targeted by catfishers in part because they simply don’t know any better. So, ensuring your child is aware of the dangers posed by meeting people online is of the utmost importance.
Even if you’d rather your child never met with someone they’ve been speaking to online, the abundance of dating apps on the market means that chances are they will, at some point in their lives, go on a date with an online acquaintance. So, make sure they know the ground rules - i.e. always meet your date in public; if they don’t look like their photo, walk away immediately; never give away personal information, such as bank details.
Whether it’s gaming, social media or the reams of audiovisual material that populate every corner of the Internet, 90% of online content is designed to make users spend as much time with it as possible. Your teenager is up against forces that most adults struggle to resist because they are designed to infiltrate our reward systems and leave us constantly wanting more.
But with so much of our lives now being lived online, it can be difficult to establish when addiction begins. The truth is that Internet addiction often looks like many other addictions; symptoms can include anxiety, depression, mood swings and poor nutrition. It is also very difficult for an addict to set healthy boundaries when it comes to the internet and they will always be looking for an excuse to get back online. If your child seems to be suffering with these symptoms, it might be time to seek help.
What can be done?
Though the addictive nature of the online space is there by design, all is not lost. Internet addiction is now a well-established disorder and therapists are learning more and more about it, meaning there is now a multitude of treatment options. From Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to group therapy, there are plenty of possibilities out there if you feel the problem has gone too far.
The question of internet safety can feel like an overwhelming one and it too often constitutes a blind spot when it comes to parents’ understanding of their kids’ daily lives. However, going through online protection concerns step by step will help you work out the measures you need be putting in place for your family and the conversations you need to be having. Good luck!