The internet plays a huge part in our lives: for work, staying in touch with our friends, shopping, playing games, studying or just watching some hilarious cat videos, we are spending more and more time online.
We are bombarded with more and more information and the technology to handle this quantity of information is evolving at such an incredible pace, we can hardly keep up with it. Researchers estimate that in a couple of years, humanity will have reached the limit of our capability to understand and assimilate new technology. In his book Overcomplicated, complexity scientist Samuel Arbesman argues that we are already at that level.
However, we will never be as good at keeping up with technology as our kids.
The arrival of Broadband internet at the beginning of the century gave birth to a generation of digital natives. Kids today learn how to operate smartphones or tablets before they are able to talk. A 2014 report by Ofcom found that six in ten (62%) children in the UK use a tablet at home – a 50% increase on the previous year. In a 2015 survey, Ofcom asked children across the UK about the devices they have. 81% stated they had a tablet at home, 86% a laptop and 83% a gaming console. Of the children interviewed 91% said they had an internet connection. The popularity of the tablet computer seems to have triggered a decrease in the percentage of children with a TV in their room.
Children and young people tend to go online to connect with their friends or make new ones, chat and play games or browse for Information.
As Jane Rumble, the Director of Market Intelligence at Ofcom put it, “these younger people are re-shaping communication. They seem to use technology in newer, more creative ways and develop fundamentally different communication habits from older generations, even compared to what we call the early adopters, the 16-to-24 age group.”
Besides the obvious benefits of the internet and technology this digital world also poses a series of risks. It is really important that parents be aware of these risks and talk about these dangers with their kids, in order to keep them safe online.
In their report, “EU Kids Online: Final Report”, the London School of Economics and Political Science have identified and ranked, according to incidence, the following risks:
- Giving out personal information is the most frequent risky behaviour for close to a half of online teenagers
- Seeing pornography online is ranked as the second most common risk, with 4 in 10 teenagers across Europe encountering it at some point.
- Seeing violent or hateful content: a risk experienced by roughly one third of teenagers.
- Being bullied online has been reported by 1 in 5 European teenagers (with even higher rates in Eastern Europe)
- Lastly, meeting an online contact in real life seems to be the least frequent, but it is arguably the most dangerous risk. Roughly 9% of online teenagers go to such meetings. Most of these meetings are with teenagers in their same age group. Although less likely, the risk of a child meeting someone online who then abuses them in a subsequent face-to-face meeting has a higher impact.
Coping with risk
Children understand technology and the online world better than their parents. But what about the risks?
According to studies (2010 Risks and safety for children on the internet: the UK report), children have a somewhat short-sighted view of these risks as they perceive risk as a measure of how much something bothers them (i.e. makes them feel uncomfortable, upset or that they shouldn’t have seen it) at a given moment.
However, kids learn very fast and develop the necessary skills to cope with new risks they encounter. Having someone they trust talk to them about risk can greatly improve the learning curve.
Educating and mediating kids
Parental controls are overrated and your kid, if smart, will figure out how to bypass any security restrictions you configure on your home Wi-Fi. That’s like locking him in the back garden and telling him he is not allowed to look over the fence. Teens are curious by nature and if you are not proactive about satisfying that curiosity, you risk them gaining their own understanding about the world. And this is especially the case with the cyber world.
Even in the age of mobility, home is where kids usually have their first contact with the online environment. This is the best opportunity for parents to teach safe online behaviours. The earlier this process starts the better. Observe them and ask them how they use technology. Play the curious student and get them to “teach you”. This will get them to open up about their online habits and help you get a better grasp of their exposure. The UK Report for Risks and Safety for Children on the Internet revealed that 74% of UK parents talk to their children about what they do on the internet, making this, as in Europe generally, the most popular way to actively mediate children’s Internet use.
Ask them about social media, about how to create an account, and how to manage it. Follow them on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat), be observant and supportive. By gaining their trust, not only will you be able to monitor them and know what they are doing but you will also make it much easier for them to talk to you.
From an early age you can try setting some ground rules about how and when they are allowed to use technology. For example, no computers after bedtime. Or, allowing them to use the internet only from the living room. But in the end, the best approach is giving them the tools to assess and be able to cope with the risks on their own.
Don’t worry if they make mistakes and don’t punish them if they do, because this might lead to losing their trust. Rather, treat such occurrences as learning lessons and explain why what they did was wrong and make sure they are willing to ask for help if they run into trouble or realize that they did something wrong.