Handing loaded guns to children

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I believe giving your child an online connected device without strict supervision is simply asking for something bad to happen. I know that this post may go against the grain for many of our readers. You are welcome to disagree with me. However, I ask, first, that you hear me out. (Get yourself something to drink too before settling in because this is a 10 minute read.)

We have some children who were given iPads at a young age. For a myriad of reasons, they were banned from our household and remained with the other parent. Unsupervised use of these devices led to a child, at age 8, inadvertently having access to pornography (amongst a whole bunch of other concerns). For me as a parent, this is totally unacceptable and, yet, I had a Court appointed psychologist discount it saying ‘it happens more and more often in young people these days’ to excuse away the other parent’s lack of supervision.

Similarly, this year one of the primary school aged children in our home was given a mobile phone. It was proposed, arranged and paid for by another parent. I was in absolute objection. I felt it was unwarranted in our home and was asking for problems, not only in terms of online access but also with there being different rules for different children when we strive to create consistency in expectations in our home. However, the principles given and the types of expectations shared by the other parent were agreed and, with reservation, we allowed it.

After this child’s first act of stepping out of the boundaries in our home, the argument came forward that we were far more restrictive on device use than the other home. They were probably correct insofar that we demanded from the start that the phone not be used outside general adult presence. Plenty of argument was attempted to bypass our home’s rules both through inconsistency between homes as well as ‘needing’ to have the phone outside of allowed screen time allowances in order to take calls.

Of course, as time progressed boundaries have been pushed and broken the rules around the phone have become tighter and tighter in both homes. And, despite the rules imposed by the other parent that were already in place in our home, the child involved has found plenty of ways to subvert those rules imposed. They aren’t lacking in intelligence by any means.

So, what does it really matter if a child finds alternate ways to communicate with their friends?

Maybe my experience is different to the average Mum and Dad, insofar that I spent my teen years in the world of irc (internet relay chat). I too had a parent who had no idea what the risks were of this as the world of computers being in the home was new. But, I was surrounded by friends engaged in the same activities and as teens we had the insight to normalise rules and boundaries about how we engaged with each other, both in private group chats but more importantly in public irc channels. We kept each other safe.

Social media is not just friends, it is potentially the whole world – the good, the bad and the downright evil. Friendship communications are hand enough to manage but allowing our children to engage with strangers including celebrities online carries a significant burden of risk.

Online chat with friends can be reason enough to remove online engagement.

If you are someone who has allowed your child to have a ‘connected’ device, do you know what your child is chatting about with friends? Whether by phone calls, the various means by which they can message or the ‘live’ videos they can share that aren’t permanently published so you have no way to review them? At this point, I have to wonder how many parents know because I have had to pin down a few for coffee to put them in the picture.
Now don’t get me wrong, our children have access to computers. The older ones have laptops knowing that they are needed for secondary school. However, in our home those devices must be used in our living area where the screen is visible and monitorable from the kitchen (the hub of afternoon activities) and are not allowed to be taken into bedrooms at all.
The eldest two are of an age where they are old enough to be engaged in social media (by provider’s policies) and we have had to institute a bunch of rules around that. Each app engaged in has rules wrapped around it. If I went through all the rules in this post you would be ready is dissertation so we can come back to this another time. I will just talk about one for this moment.

Examples from 6 months of Instagram

One of the rules I have around Instagram, is that each child must have an active log in on my phone (for their account which must be a ‘private’ account). This means that I see every notification from the app and can easily vet content and communications. And, with this alone, I have seen far more than I expected or wanted.

I am proud to say that my children have been wise in vetting who they allow to see their content and, when unsure, have run it past me. This has enabled me to identify more than one account which is suspicious and has given me the opportunity to show them what about them makes them that way so they can apply the discernment to not approve people themselves. You will be surprised how many people use animals or a celebrity spoof or fan page to lure young followers who they can then enter into dialogue with. I mean who wouldn’t want the chance to chat with who they believe is the real Logan Paul?!?

But even with known friends it isn’t all on the up and up. Firstly, I have seen gossip amongst children in many, many chats across different social media apps create real life chaos in the school ground, pitting friends against each other. I have also witnessed false kindness and false trust building online, only to have it used to manipulate the child that was drawn into it in real life. Technically, though, neither of these things count as cyberbullying… …yet. This is where it begins and unless you have the balanced picture between what is happening online and what is happening in real life you probably have no clue that there is an undercurrent that has the potential for far worse things to happen.

Thirdly, do you really know what your child is talking about? Do you know what is going on in their world? Back in my day secrets were shared one on one, in person. It took guts to trust someone else back then whereas today young people find it easier to trust someone on the other side of their device with the sense of separation making it easier to divulge what they hold inside. If the secret was unsafe and expressed in person it was grounds to tell an adult immediately. Now, with the sense of separation through technology, there in increased disclosure and I am not yet sure if that is a good or a bad thing. At this stage I believe that it is more of a grey area and that it depends who the audience is.

I have smiled and cried simultaneously on the inside when one of our children has made the best of a bad situation of this kind of disclosure too. A friend confessed to being engaged in self harm (cutting). He gained their commitment to talking him before engaging in any future acts of self harm. He refused to give 100% secrecy to the disclosure, when asked to, only agreeing to keep information shared to himself as long as the friend didn’t do anything to harm themselves or others. And wisely, he came to me and we spoke about it for some time. I believe this friend is just 12 years old. Did you know that these were the types of conversations that are really going on? Do you know what your child is talking about?

Inviting predators into your home

Though I have never directly worked in a law enforcement agency, I have known more than my share who have, including some who have worked in the ‘kiddie porn’ and ‘missing children and child recovery’ teams within Australian Federal Police. And from what I have learned, there is an imbalance between concerns of potential engagement with our children in person versus that which occurs online.

In our southern region there have been another school-based alerts about strangers in vehicles potentially being a risk to our children. It sends parents into a frenzy and with irony they give their child a phone to ‘keep them safe’. (Just a general thought, if you were planning to kidnap a child isn’t searching for a mobile phone and fitness watches the first thing you would do just to dump them quick?)

So, now our kids have our devices where they can be targeted, through social media, through ‘competitions’ that require phone number and address disclosure as well as age disclosure in some cases where they are targeting a known demographic. Through the myriad of apps that allow private messaging or commenting that can be used to induce inappropriate sharing. Instead, now it isn’t someone obvious on the streets near the school. Now, it is someone who is likely misrepresenting their identity and have been invited into your home through your child’s own unsupervised hand.

Children and even teenagers are not fully aware of all the risks of online connectivity.  I have only shared just some of the ways that I feel that we are handing our kids a loaded gun and, yet, somehow we need to find ways to keep them safe.

Disarming the Loaded Gun

So, how do we take away the risks of an online device? The truth is, outside of virtual abstinence, we simply can’t. There are two main things that we can to minimise those risks.

Firstly, we can equip our children to make wise choices. We can engage in regular conversation about good choices, talk about risks when they come up in the news or in other conversation, and talk about the consequences of what is shared online for their future, including their reputation and their careers. We can also set up expectations around the use of devices both from a safety perspective as well as a general health perspective. Those expectations can even be put in writing as a reinforcement of expectations.

As part of this, you can also reinforce that the expectations around interactions online are the same as if you are interacting with someone in person. If it would not be acceptable to undertake in real life, then it is not suitable for online communications either.
Secondly, we can monitor our children’s use of technology. We can make use of technology visible and unhidden. We can provide direct supervision and know where they are spending their online time. Then, we can also engage in post-activity monitoring by checking messages and each of their apps and reviewing the manner in which they are engaging with others.

Join the Conversation

Do you have questions about the use of technology by your children? Concerns about certain applications? Comment below with your question, then join the conversation 7:30pm Australian Central Daylight Savings Time, Tuesday 14th November 2017 in our Parenting Group – Positive, Passionate and Purposeful.

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