Kids & Screens: Safeguarding Discussions
This blog is about my own digital privacy journey and how taking these steps has influenced my parenting. A topic that is relevant to but also goes beyond digital privacy, is how to have conversations with children about online safety.
Serious safeguarding topics are: online grooming, sexual abuse, manipulation and blackmail, bullying and being exposed to violent and other types of inappropriate content. There are good websites which give helpful advice, managed by organisations experienced in communicating these topics to parents, guardians and adults who work with children. Two examples of such sites that I have found useful are:
My own blog is not a professional online safety advice site. I can, however, describe some of the experiences I have had with discussing online safety with my own children, and I think it is important to do so.
As a parent, you need to find the right balance between being smart and cautious, yet not falling prey to unhealthy paranoia.
The Internet can be a vile place, and there are adults with bad intentions towards children. These adults can be strangers, but also people you and your kids know personally.
It is difficult to write about topics like this, but I have heard the story of one case of online manipulation which led to sexual exploitation. The adult predator was a family friend of the victim and developed a relationship with the child online. The sentence that most stuck out, when hearing and account of the events leading up to the abuse, was that the online predator had apparently regularly asked the child:
Where are you right now?
A specific technique like this is something that you can discuss and address with your own children. You can explain that the question 'Where are you right now?' may seem innocent but could be an attempt to see how likely the presence of an adult is. The question might be a warning sign for bad intentions, and you should encourage your child to always check with you, should they experience anything like that.
One of the benefits of the simple rule of keeping all screens out of the bedroom is that in most cases, there will always be someone else in the room with the child. But as children get older and become teenagers, this may not always be the case, and so ensuring a continued level of comfort discussing difficult or embarrassing topics is important. I have also found that just calling your child from work, if they are home earlier, and having a short conversation about their day, can be a good way to touch base.
I don't have a magic formula for establishing a comfortable rapport with your child for discussing trickier topics, but I can say that regularly (several times a week) showing interest in what they are watching on their screens and asking further questions can help naturally open the door to the occasional more serious discussion. It is good to remind your child about their right to be safe. Having conversations about these topics normalises them, and at the same time allows you, the parent, to check everything is still going well. To me, that is a better approach than avoiding difficult topics simply because these conversations are hard to begin.
Children should understand what an adult sexual predator is, that online manipulation and abuse by adults is real and happens to people. They should also be aware that identifying information should be kept private (address, phone, email), and that how someone presents themselves online may not be who they really are. There is no need to instill fear or encourage paranoia, but I think it is important to discuss this factually.
What is clear from reading the professional safeguarding websites above, is that keeping an open dialogue is key. Children should know they can always approach you about any topic, and not be afraid or embarrassed to do so.
Children are going to be engaging with strangers online. This is normal and how our society operates. It is clear from the Plan International document about online safety for adolescent girls (linked on the Unicef site above) that problems occur when young people are not 'equipped to navigate online spaces safely.' While the document has a much broader focus, a general take-away is that delayed access to online spaces and apps can lead to harm, because children with late online experience are more naive. The right way forward is not to ban access, but to teach children how to navigate the Internet themselves safely.
I have covered the issue of parental controls before. Based on the reflections written by my oldest child, after leaving home, I am in two minds about whether parental controls are helpful at all, and that perhaps setting up shared administrative rights is a better, less policing way. For younger children, setting up time and content limits can be a safe way to start learning how to use apps and platforms responsibly. I also think information tools like Microsoft's parent report can help inform parents about the number of hours their kids spend on average on their devices and apps.
I have tried to establish a ground rule that no one can be added to a game server (Minecraft, for example) or a chat group (Signal, WhatsApp) if my kids don't know the other person in real life. If they are unsure, they need to check with us first. This is not that easy to follow up consistently, and so I end up having regular conversations about screens, and just asking 'Who is that?' when a name or friend request pops up. Playing games together with your child can also bring the platforms your they spend time on closer to you in a natural, non-policing way.
Finally, you need to be prepared to deal with surprises. Rules you thought you had established can be broken innocently, or as a silly joke. One of my children once began inviting all companies in the neighbourhood to a spoof chat group as a prank. New accounts are sometimes created without much thought. I think it's important to deal with these situations calmly and with a sense of humour, yet not budge on the initial rule or agreement, and ask your child reverse their steps if that seems right.
I feel out of my depth writing about the topic of online safeguarding. You don't want to end up giving bad advice. But on the the other hand, all parents have to deal with this situation. Children need to learn how to navigate online spaces safely, so they can mature and not be taken advantage of at a later point. With that in mind, perhaps it is better that adults share and discuss their own experiences with safe-guarding. I therefore welcome the input from any parent, guardian or adult professional working with children who reads this. I'd be interested to hear your experiences, what worked and what didn't. That can be done in the Reddit comments section below.
Finally, it is important to be realistic and not to allow a false sense of security to creep in. Doing your best to protect your child doesn't guarantee their safety. Parents need to be prepared to respond calmly and empathetically at all times, should unwanted situations do occur. We should also not think twice about reporting any misconduct done by adults to the appropriate authorities.
---Discuss on Reddit---
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For all the clarity of their webpages, the NSPCC was not so forthcoming about what the acronym stands for. I had to go to Wikipedia to learn that it means "National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children", a UK-based organisation.↩