When I hear about the amount of time children are spending online these days - the appeal of gaming, the endless fascination with YouTubers, and the power of social media - I feel quite lost. My teenage years are a distant memory (it was the last century!) when you spoke to your friends on the landline, risking the wrath of your parents who rattled on about the phone bill and threatened to make you pay your share.
Your social life depended on leaving the house, and there was no mobile phone allowing you to cancel plans last-minute. If you stayed at home to watch the telly you had all of four channels to choose from. No doubt this lifestyle sounds prehistoric to young people today, but we didn’t question it. It was just how things were.
I don’t need to describe how things have changed. We’re all aware of the impact the World Wide Web has had on our lives, and by and large we’re highly appreciative of it. But I can’t be the only one who feels like I can’t keep up. The online world is changing so quickly I feel like I’ve been left behind.
As a parent, where does this leave me in terms of looking after my child as he grows up? I recently attended a free event held by Perth and Kinross council and partner agencies, called “Getting it Right, Keeping your Child Safe”. It’s an annual event with presentations from experts in online safety and child protection, with the focus on keeping children safe in a digital environment.
The online world is changing so quickly I feel like I’ve been left behind.
Our first speaker was Brian Donnelly, a specialist in anti-bullying and the director of Orbis Training and Consultancy. Brian believes that kids today are not unlike the kids of previous generations. They get home from school and they want to stay in touch with their friends, talk to them and have a laugh.
The internet is where they go to do this, and therefore we need to think of the internet as a place, rather than a thing. It’s a social space where children spend time with other people. Brian suggests that to help and protect our kids online we need to understand their online world. Even if it doesn’t appeal, try jumping onto Snapchat, Instagram and similar platforms, and see what they’re all about.
Personally, I am very guilty of mentally ‘switching off’ if a teenager starts talking about their online life. I just find it hard to engage with that world. But I cannot hope to protect my own child in a place that I haven’t seen for myself.
Some aspects of the internet are great for young people. YouTube has been hailed as a valuable source of information for the younger generation, presented in a way that they find easy to digest. If you feel different from those around you, the internet lets you connect with other people who feel the same. But social media can also portray idealised lifestyles that are, by and large, unattainable.
It can exacerbate insecurities over appearance and body image, and interfere with good quality sleep. Try to educate your children on how to stay safe online, ensuring that they know when to ask for help, and who they can ask for help. Remember, too, that you are a role model for your child and ensure that your own online behaviour sets a good example.
Justin Leary, a former police officer and co-founder of Darkbeam Ltd, spoke to us about the need to demystify the internet. He explained the Dark Net – the hidden internet that most of us simply don’t understand. But again, how can we protect our children from something we know nothing about? Children are now very tech-savvy – they have grown up surrounded by online devices – whereas adults are less so.
My own son, aged three, can already find what he wants on my smartphone almost as quickly as I can. Justin was clear in his advice to the audience: educate yourself to enable you to protect your kids. And talk to them; communication is vital.
Gaming can help children’s confidence and resilience, and provide them with a valuable escape from the pressures in their lives.
DCI Graham Binnie has 22 years policing experience, and is head of public protection across Tayside. He voiced his concerns over the internet as a platform for cyberbullying, hate crime and fake news. It enables fraud, extortion and child sexual abuse.
Our laws are struggling to keep up with cybercrime, and the police face a number of challenges in this area. Perpetrators may be based overseas and the police then require the cooperation of Internet Service Providers and legal authorities outside the UK.
Cybercrime can generate huge amounts of data – messages and images – which must be reviewed, and often multiple online platforms are involved. Graham stressed the importance of collaboration among different agencies to educate and protect young people.
Finally, we heard from Michael Conlon, a Digital Skills and Digital Literacy Officer for Education Scotland, and an avid gamer. Michael shared the fun and excitement of gaming with us. He reminded us that gaming has been around for a long time but the resolution and immersiveness of modern games has increased.
More people are gaming now, particularly since the introduction of smartphones, but we shouldn’t assume this is a negative development. Gaming can help children’s confidence and resilience, and provide them with a valuable escape from the pressures in their lives. Playing together online helps them socialise and bond with others. Some studies have suggested increased brain activity in the areas responsible for planning and organisation, spatial navigation and fine-motor skills. There is no clear correlation between violence in games and violence in real life.
However, parents should be aware of the danger of grooming within an online gaming group. Also, the way that games are monetised could entice children to gamble. Michael advised parents to participate in gaming with their children, be interested, talk to them, and encourage their other interests too.
If you want some tips on how to put this knowledge to use and keep your kids safe online, check out David from QWERTY IT Services' feature article on his top tips for keeping your kids safe online, here >>>
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