A major concern held by parents of young children (and teenagers) is about how they may protect their children from the risks that lie on the internet. While it is convenient today to give adolescents tablets to occupy them, many parents have experienced the terror that stems from seeing a child stumble on pornographic images or footage on YouTube. Today’s conversation on children in the digital age is no longer whether children should be allowed to use the internet, because, whether you converse or not, most of them will. A good number of smartphone owners today are children. Others who do not own devices openly or secretly use the mobile devices of their friends, parents and, siblings to go online.
Parents are worried about the safety of their children online, and rightly so. It is almost impossible to hold a parenting conference and not talk about ‘Parenting in the digital age’. While research on the effect screens and digital content are having on us is still evolving, there are already enough research findings and case studies to make parents concerned. For example, there is ample evidence that too much social media use – especially platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat – is linked to depression, low self-esteem, and poor body image.
Generally, children face the following risks online:
The risk that children will come across age-inappropriate content online, especially sexual, violent and self-harm content. A lot of suicides involving young people today are linked to content that they came across on the internet. For instance, it was suspected that Umar Abdulmutallab was partly radicalized by the content he came across online.
The risk that children are exposed to when they befriend strangers on the internet. There is the possibility that they could be defrauded or become victims of online grooming – a term used to describe a situation where an older person befriends a young person with the aim of sexually exploiting that young person. In 2012, Cynthia Osokogu lost her life during a meet-up with people she became acquainted with on Facebook and BBM.
Conduct risk refers to the risk of children engaging in unbecoming conducts on the internet. In 2017, Harvard rescinded the admission of ten newly admitted students that had posted racist information on Facebook.
Commercialism is also an issue online. Young people are often unaware of the hidden costs of certain applications they use and there is also the challenge of targeted advertising to young people. Many children engage in online betting and some of them are exposed to online fraud.
Despite all the issues highlighted, we must not be blind-sided to the fact that we live in the digital age. The internet, social media and smartphones are not by themselves, immoral. They are amoral. Their ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ depends on the use to which these platforms are put. Hence, it is not ideal for any parent to think that the solution to online safety is to completely bar a child from accessing the internet. It’s not the best move in this digital age because children need to be digitally knowledgable for them to be relevant.
So, how do parents protect their children from online risks? First, by parenting. Digital technology has not changed the core of parenting, even though it has occasioned new challenges. It is easy for many children to be influenced by what they see online because they spend many unsupervised hours surfing the internet. Therefore, parenting is very important. It is vital that children have a parent-figure that they can revert to concerning information and people that they encounter online. No matter how many questions children ask Google, they will be more loyal and trusting to whoever they believe genuinely loves and cares for them. In today’s world, loving a child goes beyond meeting their physical needs. There are core emotional and psychological needs that children have.
It is also important that parents ensure to continue having conversations with their children. The place of discipline and punishment for wrong behaviours should not be side-lined, but it will be better if parents ask genuine questions, rather than being judgmental and condemning. For example, many parents always conclude that whenever a child holds a mobile phone, the child is spending time chatting, playing games, or involved in some form of entertainment. That is a wrong assumption. In the first place, these activities are not wrong and should not be demonized. Also, the child could just have been doing something academic on the mobile device.
One way to have conversations is to discuss trending issues with your child. For example, internet fraud has been on the front burner in Nigeria for a while now and it’s a good topic parents can discuss with their children. However, these conversations are only possible where a close relationship already exists between parent and child.
It will take a close parent-daughter relationship for a girl-child to confide in a parent that she feels unhappy over her looks because the ladies she sees on Instagram all look smooth-faced and slender. It will take a good parent-son relationship for a boy to confide in a parent that he is one of the few students in his class that has not asked a lady for her naked pictures. And just in case any parent is wondering if children today are concerned about these sorts of issues, that is the more reason why such parent needs to stick close to their children to feel the pulse of childhood in the digital age.
Parents must be aware that we are living in a world where truth is not absolute but subjective. They must begin to see the world beyond the scope of the community where the family lives, works, schools and worships. The world is now a global village and the influences on children are beyond those in their homes, schools, and places of worship. For example, research reveals that more than one third (34%) of kids in America, aged 6-17, consider social media stars to be among their top role models, outranking the influence of musicians (33%), athletes (27%), actors (22%) and even the President (16%).
Parents must acknowledge the fact that children will ask seemingly weird questions. Parenting skills must, therefore, be enhanced and top-notch to have healthy conversations towards seeking answers to questions raised. Since it is impossible to track a child’s online activities 24/7, it is important that parents teach – and emphasize – values.
What children do online is partly a function of their state of mind offline. A lonely child is a good prey for an online groomer. A child without adequate sex education may have more chances of easily becoming a regular visitor to pornographic websites. A child seeking quick cash may see nothing wrong in engaging in online betting. Actions are often tied to values and it is no different with children. Frequent reminders of values and emphasis on them will make a mark on the subconscious of any child.
However, no matter how much values children have, they will still make mistakes. That is why they need to know that they are loved, rather than feel controlled by rules and regulations. A child who has no confidence in the love of the parents will be afraid to report his or her mistakes.
In summary, it is important to note that society has changed – thanks to digital advancements – and parents must be ready to meet the child-upbringing challenges arising from this societal change. I know that where the issue of the internet and smartphones arise, many parents have questions about what age to give a child a smartphone, when to allow children use social media and how children should be taught to stay safe online, amongst other questions.
While these questions are legitimate and important, more important is parenting itself and the values emphasized to a child. This will ensure that parents are not just setting rules for their children but are setting rules based on values, and the children will understand this, hopefully. Even if they do not understand now, they will get to see the wisdom in it someday.