This is a blog post for parents, for adults, for adults who are parents, and those who work with young people.
The point of SID is, one would hope, fairly obvious; to help young people stay safe online. We could add that we would like them to thrive online. To be safe, confident, creative and compassionate digital citizens. Across many parts of the world on Tuesday 6 February, Safer Internet Day, schools and organisations that work with young people will be sharing safe messages, and engaging young people in activities, to raise their awareness of the opportunities and challenges. I suppose, there will be some sessions for parents too.
After ten years working in the area of online safety it is clear to me that we need to focus our attention and support on the adults who are using social media, and specifically, though not exclusively, parents and carers.
So many adults criticise young people for their naïve and anti social behaviour on social media. They share scare stories of apps and sexual predators, examples of young people sexting and young people bullying. I suggest we pause for a moment and ask ourselves why young people behave in this way.
When we see headlines stating ‘Children as young as seven are sexting’ we could conclude that social media apps and services make children share sexualised images of themselves and other children. That’s a possibility, but doesn’t make much sense. Or we could conclude that, as society has evolved, children have become more aware of their sexuality at an ever younger age. Well, it’s a possibility I suppose.
Or, we could look to the behaviour of adults online. We could look to the celebrities who share sexualised images of themselves. Or.. we could look at ‘normal’ adults whose sexting is a part of normal sexual relationships
If we accept that consenting adults are using social media to send sexual messages or content to each other then we can hardly be surprised that children, who aspire to be adults as soon as possible, will do the same. Generating sexualised images of children is an offence in the UK and as such we need to ensure our young people are aware of this. Similarly, the misery of such content being shared in a public arena, online, or at school for example, cannot be underestimated. Young people have been so ashamed and upset when their images are shared without permission with an unintended audience, have, in some cases, resorted to suicide.
Why would young people think it is normal to humiliate someone in this way? Well, we only need to look at the behaviour of adults who, motivated by revenge or malice, use websites and social media to share these private and intimate images and messages. It is hardly surprising then that young people will behave as adults do.
What can parents and carers do?
They can accept that sexting is, for many, a normal part of relationships and as such they need to help their children be aware of the dangers and provide strategies, and warnings, relating to how to sext more safely. This may sound counter intuitive and yet most of us recognised many years ago that we needed to provide youngsters with information relating to safe sex and healthy consensual and respectful relationships.
Parents may find this short video helpful
I’m regularly asked to talk to children in primary and secondary schools about online bullying. The schools are aware online bullying is taking place and hope that I will be able to give the young people information to stop this.
To be honest, I don’t share their optimism.
Children will listen, and it is conceivable that some children will act upon some of what I say. What we must do is; consider, why do young people bully each other online? Could it be that they see adults and older children bullying each other while playing games or using their social media services? Adults including celebrities will treat one and other, and celebrities, disgracefully at every online opportunity. We can see hateful comments on news sites as well as on social media including Twitter and Facebook
As long as online bullying is seen as normal and acceptable behaviour we can hardly expect children to behave any differently.
What can parents and carers do?
As parents we spend every day of our children’s lives showing them how to be good, kind and considerate citizens. Whether we’re on a train, in a restaurant or at a public event, we continually remind our children to be considerate and tolerant citizens. We need, as parents, to show and share our social media streams with our children. Help them to understand how to relate, and engage with compassion and care, unlike the many heated and often offensive discussions we see in so many Facebook groups populated by adults and parents.
We read books to, and with, our children every night and perhaps we should do the same with our social media channels. This way we can start to develop digital young people who are considerate and empathetic digital citizens
Children will make mistakes.
They will let themselves, and you, down.
They’re just kids. They’re learning how to be adults.
As adults and parents our role is to recognise they will make mistakes. To help them through the often traumatic situation they’ve created and give them the love and confidence to learn from the experience, and move on. If we don’t do this then we have to ask ourselves; ‘Are we certain our child will never be so very unhappy and desperate that they take their own lfe?
What can parents and carers do?
We can recognise that, even though they’re our children, and we are the parents, we may not be the trusted adult when the Bad Thing happens. Remember when you were young and you did something that was so terrible that you were frightened to tell your parents?
Every child should have at least three trusted adults, other than their parents and class teacher. Often when the Bad Thing happens, the parent or teacher is the last person they want to tell. For this reason, I deliver training for lunch-time supervisors, librarians, cleaners and other adults who children may feel they can trust. It may be an older sibling, a friend’s parent, a neighbour or relative. Ensure your child knows who their trusted adults are, and make sure you know who they are too. As a parent I’m sometimes the last person to know when my daughters have had a challenging incident, and that’s okay, they have a network of others who can provide support and guidance, and I’m pretty much okay with that.
And finally, don’t forget to ask your children; ‘How are things online?’ Today, our young people have many complicated, challenging, supporting, competing realtionships in a way that many of us can hardly comprehend if we had a pre online childhood. Listen to you children. Share the apps. Speak with them from an informed and interested perspective.
Let's try a little more understanding and a little less criticism of our young people, and perhaps in future, the focus of Safer Internet Day will be about supporting parents to be the digital parents our children need and deserve.
I have a section on my site for parents
And a Facebook page for you
And a Twitter account
Oh and an Instagram account too
And you’ll find information for parents on the Safer Internet Site
Thank you for reading.