A child’s curiosity is a wonderful thing…
A person’s mind develops the most their formative years and has a tremendous influence on the rest of their life. Right from infancy, curiosity plays a big role in a person’s life. It is curiosity which leads people towards sources of knowledge. When a child is young, he or she learns primarily from their parents. As they enter school, their circle of knowledge grows to their teachers, peers and life experiences. In today’s digitally dominated world the internet is a leading source of information for children, tweens, teens and adults alike. Not only do they learn from it, but also get entertainment by playing games or watching movies and connecting with their friends. So what’s the harm in this, you may ask? While the internet can be a treasure trove of information, it also has dark pockets that contain information that are not suitable for children, tweens and teens and can influence their behavior.
The internet is a medium where many people upload information of all kinds, good and bad, making it available for anyone to access. Children have a difficult time differentiating between what is real and not real (monsters under the bed for example), what is right and wrong, true or false – so they may be exposed to things that may be risky for them to see or can even cause them harm. Physical (sexual exploitation) and emotional trauma may be caused because of exposure to content that is inappropriate, not age suitable, content that is false, propaganda and influencers that they are vulnerable to, the list goes on and on. They might see a violent video such as the recent beheading of a journalist at the hands of ISIS, triple X rated porn, cruelty in the form or cyberbullying, hate groups, you name it it’s out there.
Online risks that your child can fall prey to
Are you wondering what menace lies behind a computer/laptop screen which can be activated with the a few clicks of your child’s finger tips? Let there be no mistake. The internet is hugely beneficial in many ways. Educational websites and games of every variety possible have helped our kids in so many positive ways. Being able to connect and Skype with a friend or family member that lives far way is amazing. But parents must also be aware of the risks when kids go online and the tremendous influence that the connections and information they are exposed to may have on their behavior. I’m amazed for example that ISIS is recruiting people via social media, like Twitter. Here are only a few of the online risks that lurk behind the tremendous informative nature of the internet. Click here for more info about online risks.
1. Contact with strangers – Parents begin at an early age to teach their children to refrain from talking to strangers and never to accept candy from strangers. What happens when a stranger via an interactive video game attempts to connect with a child or friends a tween or teen on a social media site that’s not who they think they are? How can they teach a child how to refrain from engaging in conversations with a person virtually that they think is their friend? With social media and chatting groups mushrooming around vulnerable children online, this is one of the biggest risks and challenges for parents. Sexual predators such as pedophiles use the internet to lure children into a conversation and then groom the child into believing that they are a friend they can trust. Tragically some of these children become victims of online predators, human trafficking, and other horrific crimes. Many children are using social networking sites under the required age of 13. Social networking sites are a virtual playground for online predators to lure children into friending them.
2. Improper conduct – Cyberbullying is an example of improper behavior online that kids as young as 4th grade are being exposed to in growing numbers. “Cyberbullying” is an intentional online act to torment, threaten, harass, humiliate, embarrass or otherwise target another child using the internet and social media. One in four kids has been a victim of cyberbullying, and one in five has been a cyberbully themselves.
Sexting is another type of behavior that is growing among tweens and teens and can have a serious impact on their lives. We’re all aware that peer pressure can lead kids to do things that we might never expect that they would do. As a parent being aware of behavior that may impact a child is so important so that you can continually have a conversation with your child about the consequences of these behaviors.
3. Uncensored content – A text, a video or a photo, any form of communication online that contains improper information for a child is another concern. Impropriety may be in the form of sexually explicit, extremist, racial, violent or derogatory information being posted online. Cult groups, religious or political propaganda, groups that promote drug use, anorexia or alcohol use are all out there online today for your child to access.
4. Privacy Risk – Children have a difficult time understanding boundaries and privacy. They may not understand the concept of over-sharing personal information. Adults understand that what they share to in their family is different from what is shared with co-workers, which is also different from what is shared with friends and so forth. Kids don’t get that yet. On a social networking site, children may not fully comprehend that providing personal information such as their real name, birthdate, school, address etc. could put them in harms way for identity theft or an online predator.
Signs that your child may be in trouble online
It’s unrealistic to expect parents and caretakers to keep watch over their child every minute of the day, but checking in on their online activity and behavior is essential. Unwittingly, a child may stumble upon inappropriate content, or friend a person who may attempt to sexually exploit them, or become a victim of cyberbullying. So parents must keep an eye out for these signs that are usually associated with children who have been in contact with undesirable people or content on the internet:
1. “Hiding” behavior – Does your child quickly shut the monitor off when you enter his room? Do you catch him looking away sheepishly when he’s been on the phone and you question who it is they’re talking to? A child may feel really uncomfortable with an action that has taken place online and not know how to handle it. They may be engaging with activity or behavior that they know that you wouldn’t approve of. They may feel a sense of powerlessness or even feel like what’s happening out of their control. Keep an eye out for “guilty” behavior your child may display especially while using the computer or smartphone. Any unusual behavior such as withdrawal or abrupt change in habits too should be cause for concern.
2. Pornographic/Extremist/Racial/Violent/Demeaning/Immoral content –Downloading such content or getting them from friends using various free tools has never been as easy as it is today. There are many web pages within websites that you may not be aware of that your child can access. Tumblr, Facebook and other social networking sites have groups and pages within these sites that have porn content, pro-drinking and pro-drug use content … and definitely not for kids.
3. Unusual internet usage – Has the recent cellphone bill caused you concern, especially when you notice that a lot of the usage has been late in the night when you assumed your child was safely tucked in bed and asleep. Is your child purposely engaging in inappropriate internet usage without your knowledge and during the times when he/she is certain you are not around to supervise them? There are also many games online that can result in addictive behavior like Minecraft. Is your tween or teen spending more and more time online? The American Psychiatric Association recently recognized “Internet Gaming Disorder” in the DSM 5, a manual used by clinicians to diagnose psychiatric problems.
4. Not Wanting to Go to School – Any time a child all of a sudden not wanting to go to school should raise a red flag and prompt some concern from a parent. Talk to your child and try to find out if they’ve possibly been a victim of cyberbullying. Educate yourself about cyberbullying and its impact.
Your role in keeping your child safe online
If you are worried about how you can protect your child’s innocence but at the same time let them access the information sites that are beneficial to them, here are some simple steps you can follow:
1. Have a chat with your child about acceptable online activity and behavior as soon as they go online and are old enough to understand. Think about the kind of parenting style you use offline. Are you using the same parenting style online?
Today’s generation of parents need to have that discussion about online safety and behavior as soon as a child begins going online, that’s age appropriate. Go over expectations of online activity and behavior with your child. This needs to happen early and often; in the same way that the conversation about sex education is important in the early teen years. Previous generations had “the talk” about what used to be coined the “birds and the bees”. Life for kids and parents is much more complicated today and must include the online behavior conversation. The offline world and offline world are one and the same for kids today and parents need to be engaged in both worlds.
2. From time-to-time, check-in your child’s activity and behavior on their devices. You know your child best. Some kids require closer supervision than others. Monitoring children’s online activity is important, but you should let them know that you are checking-in. Keep the lines of communication open. Let your child know when you see that they are behaving according to your guidelines. Know who their friends are online. Remind them frequently that the internet is not private period.
The internet is here to stay. Parenting has changed forever. In fact, without access to the online world, your child’s knowledge may suffer in comparison with that of his or her peers. Many schools are adopting a one to one laptop per student program. So cutting off your child’s access to the internet is impractical.
Children, tweens and teens will continue to be curious as they explore and discover their universe. What can you do as a parent to mitigate risks online and be an authoritative parent. A practical solution is for you to increase your knowledge about the online world and the associated risks in order to better monitor your children’s online behavior. Staying educated about the online world as a parent is the best way to help keep your kids safe and prevent them from being exposed to cyberthreats, inappropriate content, inappropriate behavior and teach them how to behave appropriately themselves.