Naomi, who is 10 years old, is having a sleepover at her friend Jaime’s house. A babysitter is there but she is on her phone, distracted. Jaime tells Naomi she has something to show her.
The next day, Naomi goes home and tells her mother that she saw a man and a woman having sex on the computer. Naomi was not expecting to see this explicit material and is now very distressed about what she saw. Her mother is devastated.
It is not uncommon for youth to accidentally stumble across, or be exposed intentionally or unintentionally by their peers, to sexually explicit images or videos online. A new study shows that one in five children between the ages of nine and 17 report having accidentally seen sexual material online through websites, pop-up videos and spam emails. Moreover one in nine say they have received unwanted sexual solicitations online.
There is near universal use of digital technology among youth — 95 per cent of teens report they own or have access to a smartphone and 45 per cent report they are online “almost constantly.” Children under the age of eight also spend a considerable amount of time with screen media — on average two hours and 19 minutes per day.
Internet technology can be used as a valuable informational resource and learning platform. But, as it is largely unregulated, it also has its disadvantages. There are a growing number of initiatives to promote safe, ethical and responsible engagement online, under the umbrella of a concept called digital citizenship.
Due to their inexperience, children may not understand the risks they can be exposed to online. Below, we provide some suggestions and resources to arm parents, educators and young people — to use the internet safely and responsibly.
1. Have discussions early and often
Start discussions about online (and offline) safety and responsibility early and continue to have them regularly. Don’t wait for an issue to arise. Parents can have these discussions at home, and teachers can incorporate digital citizenship into the curriculum. This “two-gated approach” ensures all youth get the information they need to be safe online.
2. Monitoring and age-appropriate information
Media smarts (a not-for-profit organization for digital and media literacy) suggests that when children are under eight, parents should sit with or near them when they use the internet. Children aged eight to 13 should use the internet in common family areas and should be made aware of the potential dangers of the internet. Adapt messages about online risks as youth age and/or as the frequency of their internet use increases.
3. Stay current
Make an ongoing effort to stay up-to-date on your child’s media use, and the various apps and websites that kids are using and visiting. Your discussions will be most effective if they cater to the specific platforms that your children spend time on. Common Sense Media provides reviews of online games, apps and programs kids are currently using.
4. Set boundaries
Just as you set boundaries in their offline lives, set internet ground rules that are tailored to your child’s development and maturity. Have specific rules about which websites can be visited, which apps can be used and what can be shared online. Know who their friends are, online and offline. Remind kids that they should always talk to a trusted adult if they feel unsure, worried or confused.
5. Use controls and filters
Set filters to try to block adult content. You can also include parental controls on apps such as Netflix so that your child only views shows suitable for their age. There are also sites such as YouTube Kids, that try to ensure safer online experiences for kids.
6. Learn from your child
Today’s children have grown up with the internet. It is possible that they are more knowledgeable than you about certain websites and apps, and that’s OK. Take the opportunity to learn from them. This effort will show your interest, while also allowing you to identify potential risks associated with the platform in question.
7. Reflect on your own media use
Setting a positive example for your children is as important online as it is offline. Be mindful of your own internet use, as well as your online presence and profile. Children will notice and learn from your behaviours, so modelling digital citizenship and safe media usage is crucial. Initiate device-free family time to provide opportunities for connection and engagement with one another.
8. Be understanding
Not all children are distressed by what they see online, but if they do see something that makes them uncomfortable, they may feel embarrassed or distressed, which may make them reluctant to talk about it. Let kids know that you can’t help them if you don’t know what’s going on. When children do talk to you about their concerns, or a situation that happened, try to be understanding, supportive and empathic and assure them they did the right thing in bringing it to your attention.
9. Don’t overreact
Blaming your child, or one of their friends, for anything that happens online may diminish the chances that they will seek your help in the future. When kids feel that they can come to parents for help with difficult topics, they are less likely to engage in risky behaviour.
10. Generate “what if” scenarios together
“What if…” you are online and see something that makes you uncomfortable? “What if…” you post something then decide it shouldn’t be online? “What if…” someone asks you for personal information online? Going through these scenarios with kids before anything has happened will help them know what to do if they encounter trouble.
11. Prevent risky behaviours
Kids will be kids, and you can’t feasibly monitor everything your child does online. This is especially the case for teens. It is important to build their “toolset” so that they can handle a variety of situations. Teach children to ask themselves the following before posting online: Is this illegal, harmful or hurtful in any way or does this put my personal information at risk?
12. Teach problem-solving skills
While preventing problems is a great first step, it is also important to provide suggestions for how to deal with a difficult situation or crisis when it arises. Here are some situations that kids and teens often encounter, and strategies for how to deal with them. In all situations, let kids know they can come to you to work through it together.
–Unwanted contact from a stranger: Block the person, report the person to the website.
–Unwanted contact or cyber-bullying by a peer: Collect evidence of the harassment or bullying (e.g. the date, what happened, record of the conversation). Ask the person to stop, and do not fight back or retaliate.
–Being asked to send a nude photo or “sext”: Go through “what if” scenarios. “What if” the person were to share my photo with others? Brainstorm ways to turn down a request for a sext, such as using humour.
–Receiving an unwanted sext. Use the “delete and don’t repeat” principle: Delete the text and do not share the image.
From a very young age, the knowledge and skills imparted to children by supportive adults — including parents and educators — can positively influence the decisions they make online, and offline too.
By Sheri Madigan
Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development, Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, University of Calgary
By Gina Dimitropoulos
Assistant Professor of Social Work, University of Calgary
By Nina Anderson
MSc Student, University of Denver, University of Calgary