Digital resilience: 7 bitesize conversations to keep your kids safe online
Resilient children can enjoy the internet and are less likely to experience harm online, they have good digital skills and positive attitudes to technology. But how do we build digitally resilient kids? Despite being a former media teacher, and a blogger, I am the first to put my hand up and say that coaching my own kids about internet safety can feel overwhelming. However, my research quickly reassured me that parents have more skills than we realise, already in place.
Building digital resilience in children needn’t be overwhelming, it simply involves adapting the skills you use to keep them safe offline, to keep them safe online. So I’ve highlighted 7 smaller conversations to have, on the school run, on a walk, on a day out, or over breakfast, to help build your child’s digital resilience over the years.
Research by Parent Zone and the Oxford Internet Institute demonstrated that ‘good enough parenting’ is key to teaching digital resilience - being consistent and always aiming to do the best, but also accepting that perfect is impossible. In other words, just like crossing a road, parents can’t make the internet completely safe, but they can help a child to navigate it safely. Parental internet controls are useful tools, but they aren’t foolproof - children also need to build the skills to navigate the online world independently.
It’s important not to bury our heads in the sand about technology. When parents say they ‘don’t do social media’ or ‘don’t get snapchat’, it’s akin to leaving children to cross a busy road without training and so parents are missing golden opportunities to keep children safe and informed. Experts recommend we become ‘digital mums’ and ‘digital dads’ and navigate the online world alongside our children.
Talking doesn't have to be overwhelming either, look for everyday opportunities to discuss things that crop up in the news and in your own internet use. Days out together are the perfect relaxed opportunity to chat - ‘side by side chats’, in the car or while walking, are much more effective than sit down face to face chats. Conversations about digital safety should be a two way street too, talking about benefits and dangers in balance is the best way to maintain an open dialogue.
When I think of internet safety I often feel I need to be telling my children something, and be armed with facts, but it is just as important to let them feel you want to hear what they have to say. When children feel listened to, that’s when they truly open up.
1. Screen time
Families strive for a healthy balance of days out, family time, internet time and time alone! Rather than worrying about screen time and constantly fighting battles over it, discuss the issues with your children and make new rules together.
Sometimes parents need to set better examples too, after chatting to our kids, we decided to buy a proper alarm clock and stop using our phones as alarms, so our kids aren’t greeted by us glued to screens every morning. More days out and activities as a family will lead to less opportunity for screen time too.
2. Shared Online Time
It’s vital to talk to our children about who they talk to and what they do online, just as you would ask about friends and activities in offline life. Take an interest in their digital habits and ask them to tell you what apps they use or groups they join. Engaging in shared online activities as a family is a good way to maintain an open dialogue and model positive online behaviour and applications. Look out for apps that you can use on days out together, like Geocaching, SkyView Free and OS Locate.
3. Teach children to see through images in the media.
Selfie culture has made self image a bigger burden for young people. As a media teacher my favourite exercise was teaching children to deconstruct images. Start by googling ‘before and after photoshop’. You can then discuss the processes of making celebrity images look flawless before and after a photo is taken - punishing training and diets, copious flattering lighting, heavy make up and stylist picked clothing, followed by layers of photoshop.
Experts recommend that parents don’t point out their child’s flaws or weight gain, or comment on their own.
4. Reputation Management
To this day I still remember my Mum sharing an interview with the 80s singer, Tiffany who always managed to do her homework, despite being on tour - it made a much bigger impression on me than Mum realised at the time.
Highlight role models in the media who choose not to overshare or navigate the online world effectively. Discuss age appropriate news stories about people who have got into trouble over things they have said or done or shared on the internet.
It is important to remind young people that their future employers or contacts may look at social feeds. When it comes to sexting, sending sexual images, prevention is much better than trying to clean up an image from the internet afterwards; having open conversations rather than simply saying don’t do it really helps. It’s good to remind older children that sharing behaviours that are illegal for their age online could get them in trouble with the law - sexting is illegal if you are under 18.
5. Cyber Bullying
We've all had a difference of opinion online, and although stressful for those involved, this can be also an opportunity to illustrate how easy it is to fall into the trap of becoming an online bully. Set a good example in how you ‘talk’ to people online yourself, talk about why some people become ‘trolls’ online and share insights into how you successfully navigate differences of opinion yourself online. Nipping any online bullying behaviour in the bud early is a good way to model future online encounters, it is all too easy for children to forget about other children’s feelings when they are talking via social media, rather than face to face.
If children talk to you about being bullied on the other hand, thank them for telling you, ask them what they want to do before reacting, talk to teachers, monitor and record events and rebuild their self esteem through praising and developing their strengths.
6. Cyber crime
Older children tell me that they feel ‘spammed’ at school by some internet safety messages, but they find the messages about how to avoid internet scams can be thin on the ground.
All schools approach internet safety differently, so don't rely on school alone to build your child’s digital resilience. Many kids admit to switching off at the mention of ‘eSafety’ at school too, so it’s essential to communicate internet safety messages at home.
Always discuss basics like password safety, but also try to share scams you are made aware of with your children so they know the sort of things they are trying to avoid in their own time online. My children were fascinated by my blog being hacked, luckily it was easily fixed, and I was able to explain that it could have been avoided by keeping all my software up to date.
7. Have you talked PANTS with your kids yet?
The NSPCC’s PANTS acronym is an easy way into talking about and helping to prevent sexual abuse by creating resilience to abusive situations both on and offline. ‘Privates are private. Always remember your body belongs to you. No means no. Talk about Secrets that upset you. Speak up, someone can help.’
parentzone.org.uk has produced Resilient Families, a free online course for parents and carers that covers all the challenges of preparing your child for a life on the internet.
Read NSPCC PANTS interactive resources for further advice for parents and children.
This article has been informed by Vodafone’s Digital Parenting magazine, a brilliant resource for parents and a great springboard to inform ongoing bite size conversations on the topic on internet safety. Paper copies are often sent home via school, ask your school if you haven't had your copy.