I was recently asked to contribute to an article in Metro Magazine about online dangers. Here is my contribution to the piece.
Why are online challenges so appealing to children and why are they so dangerous?
There are many reasons why children gravitate towards the online world. Having relationships online is a huge part of modern life, we all inter-relate online these days. As parents are more aware of the dangers outside the home, we may encourage our children to play inside to alleviate our own anxieties and fears for their safety. Children are curious and will naturally want to seek and explore the space which they are in. In real life this can be dangerous but in the online world, it can be significantly more harmful because of the amount of inappropriate content that is easily accessible. Children need to feel connected to people and enjoy being around others of the same age. When children aren’t feeling emotionally connected to the world around them, they will seek solace in online worlds to alleviate their feelings of loneliness and disconnect, and also to alleviate boredom and a lack of stimulation that they might be feeling. In the days before computers, children would play outside to make friends but now, children will go online to make friends. As with all friendships, there are interpersonal dynamics that present in the group. The need to fit in. To be accepted by the group is just as important in an online group of friends as it is in real life. Consequently, if they have friends who are competing in online challenges, they are likely to feel peer pressure to partake also. Furthermore, children will push boundaries where possible. Seeking out online challenges which parents would not approve of, but their friends do, is a form of pushing boundaries. To a child, the online world might feel safe because they are accessing it from the physical safety of their home, as such they may feel lured into a false sense of security regarding the risks posed by some of these online challenges.
As parents we are also lured into a false sense of security. When our children are in the home and we know where they are, we feel that they are safe. For this generation of parents, in our childhood there wasn’t access to the dangers of the online world, therefore we aren’t equipped with that kind of knowledge from our own life experience to be able to naturally spot the dangers for our own children. It takes conscious learning to become aware of what might be a risk online for our children.
How could parents spot children might be involved?
Ask yourself these questions:
- Are they acting secretively with their device?
- Do they shut their bedroom door when they are online? What is their mood and attitude like when they come away from their devices? If they are anxious, detached, moody, it could be that they are being adversely impacted by the online interactions they are having. If they feel elated, what has caused this heightened feeling? Many online groups and activities can make children feel good because the child feels part of something.
- Has their attitude towards activities away from their screen changed?
- Are they becoming withdrawn and not communicating as they usually do.
- Are there any other behavioural changes?
- Do they want to spend all of their time online.
What can parents do to prevent (Talking/openness etc)
- Create an open, safe and non-judgemental environment where your child feels that they can tell you anything without fear of disappointing or upsetting you.
- Educate your children about the online world. Talk to them about what is safe and what the dangers are.
- Take an interest in what they are doing online. Watch them play a game, watch social media videos with them. You will soon start to see what kind of content they are viewing as it will come up on their pages.
- Explore their thoughts and feelings surrounding what is happening in their online friendships.
- Limit the amount of time they spend on their devices. Too much time online will have a negative impact on their mental health.
- Engage in activities together at home to help the child feel more connected. These activities don’t have to be exciting, even tasks such as household chores can help a child feel connected to the family when conducted with parents and siblings.