Internet Safety: it's Time To Learn What Your Children Know
In order to protect children, parents and teachers need to learn about the technology they are using, advises headmaster and 'tech’ mentor Richard Follett.
By Richard Follett
7:00AM BST 17 Oct 2013 - telegraph.co.uk
Judith Woods found out her young children had seen online porn
I am sure we can all remember childhood temptations to push the boundaries of curiosity. Such innocent rites of passage have continued through the ages, with parents guiding, correcting and advising from a position of experience.
But today’s parents are placed in the terrifying position of being almost entirely unable to protect their loved ones from potential harm.
The explosion of technology and, in particular, social media, that occupies a huge proportion of the lives of teenagers, is unprecedented. Never before have parents known so little about the mistakes their children are making on a daily basis, or been less educated about the perils and pitfalls they face, or less able to offer any wisdom or guidance.
As a result, parents are forced to seek cures rather than preventions, picking up the pieces rather than preventing the damage in the first place. Today’s parents have realised that merely to ban a child from using social media raises the barrier of distrust, forcing children into a position of dishonesty, such is the power of their addiction to the drug of technology.
Charities, schools and organisations are fighting back and have made significant progress over the past five years in providing education for children of all ages to help protect them while using online technology. Leading the way is CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, who adopt a “Prevent, Protect, Pursue” approach.
21 Jun 2013
CEOP see its role as education, and bringing offenders to justice. CEOP, which is now attached to the newly formed National Crime Agency has, since 2006, trained more than 13,000 adults and their resources have been seen by some 2.5 million children.
In addition, direct CEOP work has led to more than 1,600 arrests of online predators. While the statistics provided by CEOP and other excellent organisations are encouraging, the problem evolves as quickly as the technology is improving.
A recent study by the NSPCC demonstrates a shift from online predators who are unknown, to online contemporaries who are often known to those they victimise. The NSPCC states: “The focus of campaigns now needs to shift towards reducing the risk from their peers.”
As a headmaster, I would love to have a magic button which could automatically filter adult content and block comments which upset others. But websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Ask.fm are no different from many aspects of society in their ability to cause harm if access to them is unmoderated by parents. We have seen in the past few months some horrific examples of children reaching such a state of despair that they take their own lives, a hideous reminder of the menace of cyberbullying. This trend in itself, where children and adults may hide behind the veil of anonymity to cause long-term damage to others, evolves as quickly as the latest social media app hits the web.
I have met many parents who object to these sites, who are none the less happy to allow their children to watch certificate 12 and above films at a much younger age, and who knowingly turn a blind eye to computer games such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, which have just as great a potential for harm or desensitisation. But the NSPCC believes that the primary technology-related threat to children is technology-mediated sexual pressure from their peers. Central to all of this is the alarming growth in the culture of “sexting”, the practice of sending explicit images (generally of the sender) by mobile phone to another person.
So what, if anything, can be done? The secret is as old as any teenage parental dilemma, and ironically it returns parents to the cause of the problem: communication. As the methods of communication have evolved and children are in danger of becoming increasingly less familiar with face-to-face conversation, the importance of parents talking to children openly can only pay dividends.
Engaging in open discussion and showing a consistent interest in their patterns of behaviour is a good start. So too are firm boundaries from the outset. Ensuring that laptops are not used in bedrooms, preventing mobile phone and internet access late in the evening (and especially keeping such devices away from children at night-time) will all help reduce the risk.
There are many schools of thought on the issue, ranging from the trusting parent who has a close relationship with their child and sees little need for formal regulation, to the anxious and perhaps ultra-protective parent who refuses to allow any technology into the household. There is strong research evidence supporting the view that parents who take an authoritative (but not authoritarian) stance will have children who are less affected than those who leave the child to make their own decisions.
We also need to consider what additional training parents might need to guide their children safely through such critical years. Children are desperate for boundaries and the frequent cries for help are ample evidence of this. I am yet to meet a parent who is happy about their child spending several hours every day using a mobile phone, tablet or computer, but few seem to have the confidence to enforce what they know to be sensible behaviour. Often parents simply don’t know where or how to start.
But there are organisations trying to help. The Parent Zone, established in 2005, is now at a stage of development where it is training PitDA (Parenting in the Digital Age) facilitators to deliver education specifically to support parents. Its approach is an astute one, offering suggestions and guidance that each parent can tailor to their family situation, rather than a “one size fits all” strategy.
Many believe that on this topic the triangle between school, pupils and parents has rotated, with the children sitting on high and their powerless parents and teachers marooned underneath, but this should not and need not be the case.
These challenges require a firm stance and — as with so much of parenthood and teaching — consistency is vital. The consequences of failing to do this for our children are clear to see.
An alarming statistic recently suggested that at the current rate, by the time our children’s generation reach 80 years of age, they will have spent 25 per cent of their lives in front of a screen for recreation purposes. If that prospect is not enough to spur us as parents and teachers into action, we deserve every problem we get.
Richard Follett is headmaster of Vinehall Preparatory School in East Sussex, Ambassador for CEOP, a PitDA Facilitator and Education Advisor for the CyberSmile Foundation.==============================================
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