It’s a tricky conversation, but a necessary one. If you’re ready to talk to your kids about digital safety, you should read this first.
We stare at screens all day and all night. Is this good for us? We’re going to talk about that. Read more Screen Week content here.
Kids want phones. They want screen time. And they want lots of it. A recent survey found New Zealanders have increased their screen time during the pandemic to just over five hours a day. That’s not just adults – that’s kids too.
It can be hard to talk about, but we have to acknowledge that our children can be at risk when they’re spending time in digital spaces we’re not familiar with. Just as parents talk with their offspring and help them navigate difficult situations in the playground, we need to do the same with digital communication.
Traditionally there have been two schools of thought on approaching digital safety for youngsters: Either we give them access to everything and treat anything that crops up as a teachable moment, or we block everything until they cross a magical date threshold when they can look after themselves. Neither have worked.
I propose a different model, an active one that can only improve our relationships with our kids and help them understand the decisions we’re making: Talking and time.
I can probably guess what you want for your kids: a positive experience of being young while learning what they need to progress into a healthy adulthood. When it comes to online safety, an open dialogue really helps. Teenagers don’t want to hear, “because I said so” as an excuse for not being allowed to do something. When my parents said that to me, I went and got my ear pierced anyway.
Today, there’s a lot more at stake for our kids. The answer to “can I have Snapchat” shouldn’t be an immediate “no” because perhaps there’s a way they can safely engage with it while also being aware of your concerns as a parent.
But it’s definitely not an immediate “yes” either.
Talk to them about your concerns. Because one really uncomfortable truth is that, just as there are predators in the real world, there are adults looking to cause harm on Minecraft and Roblox servers. These games provide digital methods for grooming including giving away in-game presents of currency and using the chat function to create a sense of alienation between a child and their family. Gifts and seeding distrust is nothing new, but these online spaces are.
Talking about these things isn’t just about making a treaty to find the best possible compromise or strategy. It needs to happen often, it needs to evolve, and it can start very simply. After all, none of us want our children to learn about sex from porn.
Much like chatting about sexual predators, there are ways to explain to children there are things on the internet that are not for them. Ask who they’re playing with, who their friends are, what games they like to play, what they like about them, and what makes them laugh in one game, and jump out of their seat on another.
There are only so many times we can say, “Yeah, cool” when our child shows us their Minecraft house for the eighth time. But, as long as they’re inviting us into their digital realms, we should let them. What’s far worse is when they don’t.
Play the same games with them. If they’re on Roblox, get on Roblox too. Do the silly dress-up competitions. Laugh together at your ineptitude at moving around a 3D space with just your thumbs. Show them they’re not secretive family-free areas, they’re venues we can have a role in too.
Obviously that’s only to a point – teenagers especially need to feel agency over their friendships and communications. My eldest will still play Roblox with me. But not if her friends are too. That would be far too embarrassing.
Of course there is a place for systems to monitor their use of these things. But there’s a respect and mutual trust all this talking and time can build. My eldest has a phone. She knows I can use it to see her location, and will occasionally scroll through her messages.
It’s not her favourite thing in the world. It’s not mine either. But we both respect each other’s needs to balance freedom and safety. She knows I’m not trying to catch her out or get her in trouble; I want to make sure she’s safe, not doing anything untoward that she might not understand yet, and I do it sparingly.
The biggest annoyance in the time aspect is looking at those privacy settings in apps and monitoring systems. Setting those up can be a nightmare: most tech companies that offer these services seem to do so begrudgingly. They’d prefer not to and the set up isn’t easy.
Some final tips:
Have Safe Search turned on in browsers. Try setting their browser homepage to DuckDuckGo. It protects your kids’ privacy and stops big business tracking them while offering a safer search experience.
Look into privacy settings for apps. Roblox has an option to restrict access to any games that might be too scary for young children, and in most of those multi-player environments you can turn off chatting with strangers.
Every now and then ask your kids to show you their friends lists in games. Ask whether they actually know ‘ChewTurkey749’ in real life. Because they probably should.
Peter Warwick-Mahoney is a digital expert, SEO specialist and father of two.