Safer Internet Day on 7 February is a good reminder to make sure we are helping our children to stay safe online.
It is a little concerning to hear that ‘sharenting’– “the habitual use of social media to share news, images, etc. of one’s children” – has been selected as one of the top words for 2016 by Collins Dictionary. Combine this with the statistics from Ofcom that the average adult is spending more time on digital devices than sleeping each day and Nominet research showing that parents share an average of 300 pictures of their children online every year, and it becomes clear that we may need to tighten up our internet use if we want to set a good example to our children.
As a parent myself, I am witnessing first-hand how differently the younger generation views and interacts with the internet as they grow up with it in ways I did not. The internet is entwined with their daily routines, from checking the weather app before school to using the sat-nav for the quickest route to a play date. While there is no doubt that the internet offers great potential and opportunities for our offspring, it’s also an area of potential harm, not least because “the internet was not designed with children in mind”.
These are the words of Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, who released a report last month into how well (or not) children are prepared for using the internet. The report highlighted not only the large amount of time children are spending online – for 12-15 year olds it is over 20 hours per week – but the worrying gaps in their understanding, especially regarding privacy.
It is likely that the education system will soon play a formal role in preparing children for the internet, with a new computing curriculum (including e-safety) planned by the Government. As parents we can offer support in the home by reinforcing the messages learnt at school – and this starts with tidying up on our own internet usage.
A good first step is to check the privacy settings on your social media accounts to make sure only people you actually know are able to see the information and images you’re sharing, and consider alternative ways of sharing pictures of the kids. Facebook has created a new photo sharing service called Moments, which allows you to share images privately, and there is also great advice for helping kids stay safe online in the Parents Portal in Facebook’s Safety Centre.
I’m mindful of the need to take care when sharing pictures of other peoples’ children, for example, asking permission from the parents before we post a shot. Encourage others to do the same when they snap pictures of your little ones too, especially as our research shows the average parent uploads a picture of someone else’s child thirty times a year.
The next step is to talk to your children about how and why they can keep themselves safe online, as well as supervising or monitoring their internet use to protect them. Encouragingly, most parents are already engaging in some sort of internet monitoring activity: an Ofcom report recently found 96% of parents with children aged 5-15 use at least one method, whether it be technical tools, setting rules, supervising or simply talking to their offspring.
The good news is that help is available, if you know where to find it. Most home internet service providers offer guidance on setting up filters, while a great website called NetAware – a joint project by 02 and NSPCC – covers the latest social networks children are using to help you stay up-to-date.
Judging whether time spent online is impacting your child’s wellbeing is a more complicated question and involves reviewing not only the time spent online, but also the activity. Trawling through photos on social media and watching ‘water bottle flip trick’ videos on YouTube – which may surface content you don’t want them watching – is vastly different to developing skills through online games or researching for a school project. Talk to your kids about the benefits and drawbacks of the internet and encourage them to decide for themselves what helps and hinders them.
For guidance, it’s always good to talk to other parents, and there are useful tools online for creating family media plans if you seek a more structured approach to internet use. To establish some boundaries, it might be worth updating the parental controls of devices such as iPads regularly to keep your kids safe as they surf – the NSPCC website is a good place for advice on this.
Being a parent is tough, and the internet has added a complicated new dimension to our roles as sources of guidance, support, control and encouragement. Like so many aspects of parenting, internet usage starts with setting the best example we can. Let’s make 2017 the year of less sharenting and more parenting, doing what we can to help our kids explore the online world in safety.