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Children and Cyber-Safety – A guide by age

As much as people love to talk about the ‘good old pre-Internet days’, there is no doubt that those days are history. I think we have also passed the transition stage of it being reasonable to opt out of the technological world. Smart devices are a reality in schools and many students experience connectivity through games and content on their own time. Some people respond with a complete ban of all technology in the home, or an expectation that children will just figure out the boundaries on their own. Both of these extremes are dangerous.

Instead, we need to empower our children to become smart digital citizens and manage screen time.  Here are some tips by age:

Age 0-4

Paediatric advice states that children will get little benefit from any screen time before the age of 2. Some people may choose to select high-quality programs to be viewed on a tablet device or simple educational games as a child approaches 3 or 4, but it is important to view these actively. Passively allowing children to consume content on a device puts them at risk of finding inappropriate videos that often appear in the sidebar of YouTube and are easily clicked. At the least, it can encourage children to enter into a distracting spiral of mindless content. To avoid this, using YouTube kids can be helpful. That can be found here.

Using a device as a family activity also demonstrates that it is not a passive, isolated activity and that parents will always be involved to ensure digital safety. At this age, it can be useful to set an egg-timer on how much screen time is allowed, giving a 5 minute warning when the time is running out to ensure that children learn how to balance their screen time with other activities. The general recommendation is less than an hour per day.

If your 4 year old is a whiz kid, you might also try early coding on HopScotch https://www.gethopscotch.com

So much fun!

Age 4-7

At this age, children are more capable of comprehending some of the risks of using the Internet. A great starting resource is ‘The Internet is Like a Puddle’ by Shona Innes. This book is reviewed here by Sex Ed Rescue. Children at this age may be more skilled at using regular YouTube as they will use it at school. However, leaving them to it opens them up to accessing content that is inappropriate. It is also easy for time to slip away and for children to scroll and click on video after video, which can encourage distraction from mindful, social activities. Parents and educators can set a great example by limiting their own digital distraction and explicitly setting and adhering to limits to engage with a range of activities that don’t involve devices.

It can be a lot of fun to access child-friendly videos via a parent’s account, again, with very close supervision and time boundaries. A child’s best learning at this age and younger is done offline, particularly in the development of their attention span and intrinsic motivation. With that being said, there are some amazing coding resources that are very safe and private for children to use which can complement early reading and problem-solving. Have a look at https://www.codecademy.com and https://code.org although an adult will need to create the account. There are forum options on these sites, but they are easily avoided with supervision.

It should also be noted that social media is not recommended at this age, as there are privacy risks for such young children.

Age 7-12

A child at this age may start to have their very own device. Some key measures for good digital habits include setting up a filter, ensuring that they are charged and used in a common area, setting time limits on usage, and not using devices within two hours of bedtime to promote restful sleep. These habits should continue into the teenage years with some increases in time allowed on devices.

As early as it may seem, this is the age at which it is time to start talking about healthy relationships and at the older side of this age range, pornography. I always introduce these discussions as an educator with open questions – what do you know about cyberbullying? How can you keep yourself safe online? Where can you go if you get into trouble or someone is saying things that make you feel uncomfortable?

From here, you can lead into the values and expectations you have about communicating with technology – that the way you expect your child to speak online is the same as face-to-face conversations. Although 7-12 year olds may have limited access to social media as the age limit is 13 for Instagram and Facebook, some parents allow their children to use iMessage or email services to communicate with friends. Keeping the conversation open is important, as is checking in on their online activity. Sometimes, children won’t talk about online bullying without a bit of probing, so it is important that we take an active role. They need to know that there are places they can go for help if they get into trouble online and schools in Education Queensland have even installed a help button on the desktop for children to use in cases of cyberbullying.

As uncomfortable as it makes us feel, around half of children surveyed in sex education research studies disclose that they have been exposed to pornographic images in some form from the age of 9 onwards, and some younger children have also been exposed to it. Rather than pretending that it isn’t happening, we need to broach this conversation early.  Using open-ended questions is the least threatening way to do this, so children don’t feel ashamed or accused – what do you know about pornography? Do the kids at school talk about it? Have you seen it, how did it make you feel? What have you seen? If using the word ‘pornography’ is too confronting with young children, it can be better to describe these images as ‘private videos’ or ‘private pictures’ with explanation as to what sort of content you are describing with your child’s maturity in mind. Of course, it is better to be clear with children that you are talking about images that show private parts and behaviours. Don’t use euphemisms.

A younger child may say it makes them feel ‘yucky’ or ‘weird’, whereas an older child may express discomfort, which is a good opportunity to talk about some of the negative attitudes encouraged by viewing objectifying forms of pornography – violence, humiliation, lack of consent, and disrespect. Depending on the age and maturity of the child, aspects of these attitudes can be discussed, but a parent may also compare what has been portrayed in explicit images to close, healthy relationships between people.

Now is also the time to set house rules (and consequences) about not seeking this material out and install filters that can limit the content as much as possible.

Age 13-15

At this age, a teenager may start dabbling with Instagram and Facebook, which can be a positive and fun experience. When setting up accounts, it can be worthwhile to be part of that process to ensure that their profiles are private and don’t contain any identifying information (such as their school and location). There are functions on Facebook that make it possible for the user to elect who can send them friend requests. The ‘view as’ function also shows what can be seen to someone who is not connected with them and allows settings to be changed on each individual post.

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In response to their burgeoning sexuality, many young teenagers are curious and will use their devices to look at explicit content if they have free reign to do so. It is vital to ensure that the earlier conversation about healthy attitudes towards sex and relationships is an ongoing one. At this age, it is also important to talk about ‘sexting’ – rather than waiting for it to happen to your child, start the conversation early. Give them key ways to turn down requests for sexting, including:

  1. How to straight up say no and stand by it
  2. Use humour – “I wouldn’t mind striving for Jennifer Lawrence’s freebies, great wardrobe, and chill attitude, but getting involved in an accidental leak of nude photos is one thing I don’t really want to have in common.”
  3. Being able to tell someone without consequence – make sure your child knows that you are that person.

These tips and others were found on the Sexting Handbook by Common Sense Media, which you can find here.

The other concerning aspect of Instagram that is rarely spoken is the influence of the of Insta-famous. One trend is the Insta-Fit movement, which portrays people who share training regimes, recipe, and other fitness tips. These pages can be benign, however, there are some users who exhibit unattainable ideals and disordered eating behaviour. I have personally followed a fitness page that started off sharing cute protein slice recipes, only to turn into a fitspo affair where the user dropped weight rapidly, surviving on broccoli and chicken breasts. All of the commenters were encouraging her and about a year later, she came clean and said she had been hospitalised for an eating disorder – not before cashing in on her eBook full of “fitness tips.” This so-called “fitness” model had no qualifications in nutrition or personal training, yet her eBook sold thousands of copies, mostly to young girls. It can be difficult to distinguish between healthy portrayals of fitness and disordered behaviour through filtered pictures, so it is important to have conversations around the way these images can portray unhealthy body goals. Knowledge is power!

Age 15+

By this age, it is time to loosen the reigns a little to provide some independence, but definitely not time to close off the cyber-safety conversation. Keep on talking!

My next post aims to unpack some of the impacts and considerations regarding pornography (sexual and otherwise). This is relevant to young adults, but it is a topic that requires an entry of its own.

A woman using a MacBook on a sofa with a white iPhone nearby

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