Today, kids’ minds are struggling to make sense of everything from appearance ideals to sex and violence, as well as direct bullying and solicitation
The news has been full of horror stories about children being exploited, bullied, frightened and manipulated online, and it seems to be getting more widespread – and more and more serious – every day.
Normally, parents and guardians can draw on their own childhood experiences to help kids navigate the difficulties of life. However, the fast-moving world of technology has opened up a whole world of new dangers, often leaving us grown-ups, who weren’t reared with smartphones and iPads under our noses, at a loss for words of guidance, and confused about how to act in order to protect little ones online.
Schools have a huge role to play in keeping children safe online. And when schools and parents work together, they can ensure that children are receiving the same message at home and in the classroom.
Marie O’Sullivan is a primary-school teacher, counsellor, IT trainer and an author and facilitator for Westport-based Anokha Learning. Anokha Learning provides Department of Education-approved online courses for teachers and guardians, including a course on internet safety and cyberbullying prevention authored by Marie.
An advocate of the school-wide approach that sees staff, parents and children collaborate, Marie is passionate about listening to children and validating their experiences. She believes that every child has the potential to thrive and achieve when they feel psychologically safe.
Here, she shares advice for anyone who is worried about keeping a child safe from the many threats posed by the internet, while also harnessing the many benefits that new technology can bring into their lives.
Why does the internet pose a particular threat to children?
MO’S Devices such as laptops, mobile phones, games, and so on offer unparalleled positive opportunities for children, allowing them to engage in self-directed learning and fun. However, they also pose risks to the uninitiated … Children need to be explicitly taught how to minimise the dangers associated with their online activity.
Think about how technology can impact on a child’s developmental needs. Physically, overusing technology can affect sleep. Consider also the material children are exposed to as they browse the internet. What types of values are being promoted? How might self-esteem be negatively impacted when comparing oneself unfavourably to carefully curated selfies of one’s favourite celebrity/social-media influencer?
As adults, we may be conscious that such images are likely to have been digitally edited, or at least that the subject may have selected favourable poses or enhanced their features using makeup, etc. Children however may not independently develop the faculty to critically analyse the images presented to them online or in other media.
What can we do?
MO’S One way to combat this is to talk to the child or children in your life about how and why others might choose to enhance their appearance when sharing images online. Reflect on how you might model self-acceptance through your own use of social media. For example, a few years ago, many women shared make-up free selfies online as part of a charity campaign.
Socially, children need to interact with peers to learn how to form friendships. Children acquire language through communicating with others. Time spent playing informs their understanding of the world. Therefore, technology use should be supervised and time limited.
Children find it very difficult to conceptualise their digital footprint. They may not anticipate the dangers that could arise from innocently disclosing information online such as the name of their school or tagging their location in real-time. Help children to understand why it is important to keep such information private.
Sometimes the children are the experts on their online activity and this can leave us feeling at a disadvantage. One way to overcome this is to keep up an open dialogue about their digital lives. Discuss their favourite websites and their use of social media.
Talk to them about what they can do if they encounter cyberbullying. One simple strategy is ‘stop, block and tell’ [see box].
Listening to children can uncover experiences they have encountered that may have left them feeling uncomfortable. For example, they may be concerned about a friend who has received nasty messages. We can pre-empt this by brainstorming what children can do if they or a friend are targeted by cyberbullying.
How can schools help?
MO’S Because technology evolves so quickly, it can sometimes leave us feeling overwhelmed or inadequate. Schools are legally obliged to have anti-bullying policies that specifically refer to cyberbullying. As the adage goes, prevention is better than cure.
School-based initiatives can be very effective in teaching children how to navigate the digital landscape safely. When the school community collaborates (staff, parents/guardians and children) the unified messaging about acceptable behaviour online is very powerful.
By keeping ourselves informed about simple strategies to keep safe online we empower the children in our care.
Suggested resources: www.anokhalearning.com, online education for teachers on internet safety and cyberbullying; www.webwise.ie, downloadable guides for parents and teachers; www.zeeko.ie, sign up for regular updates on such topics as smartphones and apps to be wary of, etc.
Stop Block Tell
The Stop Block Tell code is an effective way of helping children to learn how to take care when they are on the web, including social media.
The first step is to stop the content coming into your phone or computer. If a child feels something is not right – even if they are not sure why – the first step is always to stop it. That means not replying to a post, not sharing a post, comment or photo. It also means not writing something like “go away” or “leave me alone”.
Every child who is using Snapchat, Facebook (yes it’s for over 13s, but that doesn’t stop primary school children using it) or Instagram should know how to block a user who is bothering them. It’s an easy thing to do, and a child who knows how to do this is being empowered to take care of themselves … Blocking a user means they can no longer contact you, and there is also a facility to report a user.
The third step is to tell someone if you are worried or upset about anything you have seen on the Internet, including social media. That person can be a member of your family, but ideally an adult or trusted person who will take action for you. This might be a website with inappropriate material, or – more likely – a comment or photograph on social media that has upset you.
Showing someone not only means you are sharing the worry it might have caused you, it also means someone can reassure you and protect you. Being a victim of cyberbullying can sometimes mean you are afraid to speak out; but telling someone is the first step to solving the problem.
Tips for school community
• Distribute a list of child-friendly search engines to all staff and parents/guardians
• Set up an Internet Safety Council consisting of staff, parents/guardians and children
• Consider how you could equip less confident members of the school community to develop their knowledge of internet safety measures
• Use survey monkey to find out what sites and social media children are using. Tailor school-based initiatives and talks for parents/guardians around the information that emerges.
• Use the school newsletter and website to promote internet safety
• Invite guest experts to inform staff/parents/guardians/children about safety online
• Explain to children that they should be very careful about the information that they share online
• Once we post something online it can be shared by others. It is very difficult to retract
• Include cyberbullying and internet safety as a topic when delivering input about transition to secondary school
• An Internet Safety week can help to raise awareness and to promote understanding.
Source: Anokha Learning, Westport (www.anokhalearning.com)
New Mayo News series
The Mayo News is planning to run a series of Q&A articles on keeping kids safe online, with each article focusing on a particular problem or scenario that parents or guardians encounter.
Please let us know about any worrying online issues that have arisen with children in your life, or write to us with any questions you might have. We will pass them to the team at Anokha Learning and publish their responses (all query sources will be kept anonymous).
Send your questions/issues to Ciara Moynihan at firstname.lastname@example.org.