Following the Christchurch terror attacks parents around the world have been concerned about what their children might see online and how they might cope with the immense tragedy of the events. Emily Writes spoke to the author of Keeping Your Children Safe Online, John Parsons, about what parents should know.
I met John Parsons at an event at the Nelson Arts Festival. At first we didn’t hit it off. We got into a rather heated discussion about screen time and empathy for parents. But when I really talked to him, I was struck by how much he knew his stuff. He was the first person I thought to get in touch with when parents started to email asking for help in supporting their children after the Christchurch terror attacks.
The following is a conversation we had by email. John is a busy man. His main job is an internet safety and risk assessment consultant who delivers cybersecurity training workshops for the health and education sectors and for New Zealand Police. But he also speaks to parents, and his book Keeping Your Children Safe Online has become my internet safety bible.
Kia ora John, I wanted to talk to you about supporting children in their use of social media following the Christchurch terror attacks. Parents I’ve spoken to are really afraid of their children seeing the footage of the terror attacks. Should we be taking phones off teenagers, devices off our kids? There are times they will have to use devices and when we’re not there – what can we do?
In my opinion we need to keep young children away from social media at least for the next few weeks. The younger they are the harder it is to process major events like the one that has just occurred. We can also deploy parental software controls to provide nurture and parental oversight.
Teenagers have educational commitments to maintain so taking devices of them is not practical. These devices also connect them with friends and family which in times like these can also provide them with therapeutic support.
There are numerous ways to access information online so it is important to sit down with the young people in our lives and explain to them, based on their age and level of maturity, that there are places on the internet that have images, video, and text that are both illegal and harmful to see.
Explain to them that if they accidentally see something related to the recent tragedy to talk to a teacher, a guidance councillor, their ‘lighthouse’, or Mum or Dad if they need help to process it. It is also important to emphasise that under no circumstances should they forward or deliberately expose other people to it.
The live footage of the massacre has now been classified “objectionable” by our censor’s office and watching it can carry a sentence of 10 years in prison. Parents would do well to remind their children about the classification.
I also suggest parents explain that this deplorable act captured on film should never see the light of day. Tell your children that if they have a copy of the video they should delete it, out of respect for the victims and their families – and of course to protect themselves and family members who may accidentally access it within the home.
I know what you mean by a ‘lighthouse’ but can you explain to people who may not be familiar with your work?
A lighthouse is a support person for your child. I encourage all parents to get their child to choose a lighthouse. Sit down with your child and let them nominate a person they, and you, trust and who shares the same values as you to become their lighthouse person. Make this a special moment in both your child’s life and for your nominated person. The role of the lighthouse is to be there for your child at any time, day or night, in person or by phone, to listen to them and help them when they need it, and then support the child and accompany them to meet their guardians and talk about what has happened. As the parent or caregiver, you can also identify all the support services that are there to help the lighthouse in their role.
Your book has advice about encouraging your children to be brave enough to say no to seeing or talking about things that upset them. I told my son to walk away if someone is talking about Christchurch and it makes him upset and he said that some girls were talking about guns and he became scared and left them before he heard too much. What scripts can we give our children to protect them from hearing too much?
I get young children to role-play a lot of potentially stressful situations using what we call chin up, shoulders back. Parents can do this with their children also as follows:
If you see or here something that upsets you, take some deep breaths, lift your chin, put your shoulders back, think of a person you love or trust, remove yourself from the situation and tell that person. Then you have all the power.
If you see or here something that upsets you say “I’m just off to the toilet” then they can remove themselves without feeling embarrassed.
As they walk away teach them to visualise in their mind who they love and or trust and tell them.
Teach them as they walk towards home they walk towards love, as they walk towards school they walk towards trust and in both location s they have people they will support them.
Many parents are saying despite the video being classed as objectionable and removed by Facebook children are still finding it. What can we do?
We must demand more action from the online platforms that store and distribute it. The systems were built from day one to make money – this is not a criticism, it’s just a fact. The developers could not conceive back them that this would happen, but it is. So our parents need to contact their politicians and demand action. The developers have created algorithms that track us, send us advertisements, monitor our key strokes, all in pursuit of profit. Again, this is not a criticism, it just highlights they have not focused enough on removal of harmful content. To still have this violence accessible to our children is unacceptable.
I think these large corporations should also be required by law to record any instance of a user attempting to post hate crime material and hate crime material that was successfully posted and then removed. This would include how long it was up and its distribution range, like how many people viewed it and in what areas of the world. If governments worldwide had access to this data, we could at least get an idea of how big the problem is. This would then help government budget for ways to combat and reduce it.
There have been people saying kids are showing the video at lunchtime and after school. What can we do to stop this? It feels like we need a full community response.
Over the last seven days I have been reminded all too often of how far this mass murderer’s actions have been made available to the world. I believe thousands of young children have viewed this video. I have listened to two children, 11 years of age, who said “it was like playing a first-person shooter game”. A teacher told me that one of her students had watched the full video with mum and dad.
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I am very concerned that as we go forward many of these children are going to need therapeutic support. As a community we need to stay firmly grounded in the fact that a man massacred 50 people in their place of worship, injured many others, left thousands of people who are directly connected to these victims psychologically wounded.
I think as this unfolds with a court case and news coverage, we need to send a message to the world which includes children and it could start like this: Let’s ask the media to block his face permanently in any news article, let’s ask the media to never use his name, let’s all make a pledge between us do the same in conversations in the home, at a barbeque or on the bus to work. We have a right to demand more from online platforms, but there is a lot we can do to clean up our own communication channels.
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