With National Child Protection Week on the horizon, there is an important opportunity to think critically about how we safeguard our young children online. We want to ensure that they reap all of the positive educational and creative benefits the internet has to offer whilst minimising the risks that devices connected to the outside world can enable. As parents, we play a critical role in helping set the boundaries and shape the foundations of healthy, balanced and safe internet use for our children at home and into the future.
This is not to minimise how daunting the management of technology in the household can be. As a working parent of three young children, I know firsthand the challenges and competing priorities of running a busy household, managing device disputes, retrieving phones and iPads before bedtime and being an attentive parent when my own phone is incessantly pinging me at dinner time. But, this is not something parents need to be overwhelmed by—in fact, we are continually creating compelling content to empower Australian parents through our extensive iParent resources available at www.esafety.gov.au.
A key question I’m often asked by other parents is how young is too young to expose your child to digital devices, games and apps? The answer is not always straight-forward, as it depends upon the judgment and maturity of the child, as well as the content you are enabling your child to access and under what conditions. This is where it is important to know that quality of screen time vs. the quantity of screen time is a pre-eminent consideration.
Parents should seek out games, videos and apps for their children that are age appropriate. For younger children, parental controls and privacy settings should be set at the highest levels. Web cams and chat functions should be turned off, particularly if you are leaving the child unattended on the device for any length of time. However, the optimal rule of thumb is to co-play and co-view with your young children, rather than leave them unintended or out of view.
The moment we hand our child a connected device we expose them to a potential gateway of content and contact that may have long-term damaging effects. Anecdotally, we’ve heard toddlers are being exposed to disturbing and violent content embedded in their favourite cartoons online. We also know through our research of 3,000 young people that one in four were contacted by a stranger via an app, game or social networking site, and only half of those surveyed spoke to a parent or trusted adult about their negative online experience.
As parents, we need to be armed with the knowledge and skills to safeguard our young children online—this includes starting online safety discussions early. While this can be overwhelming for some, it’s not so different from parenting in real life (IRL). Just as we wouldn’t let our kids to play in a sandpit with strangers unsupervised, the same rules apply online.
With that said though it’s important to note, child development and safety experts view “stranger danger” as a vague and potentially confusing term for pre-school aged children. We must be careful not to create the perception “that all strangers are bad”. For example, a new doctor, nurse or preschool teacher may enter their lives and it’s important they are comfortable with this happening. It’s actually more effective to explain the concept in context, for example, “Don’t ride in cars with strangers.”
In an online environment, this can be even trickier to convey. We agree with experts who recommend helping your child develop an understanding of how the internet works and how it allows people to create and share content, and ‘talk’ to each other—and that sometimes there can be someone on the other end who you may not know.
Young children do not yet have the cognitive ability to make the mental connection between an avatar in a fun game to the idea that there may be an evil, ill-intentioned predator on a keyboard behind that animated character. If tempered the wrong way, we risk unnecessarily scaring children when they should be engaging in a fun interactive online experience, expanding their learning and creative potential. The right response for parents of young children is for us to engage with them online.
Being engaged in their online lives, just as we are in their everyday lives is critical. This includes letting them know they can talk to us if they ever feel upset or uncomfortable about something they’ve seen or done online. Sadly, it is not a matter of “if” your child will come across confronting content online, it is a matter of “when.”
Parents are not alone in this journey. If your pre-school aged child has access to devices or you’re considering it, the eSafety Office has developed new practical guidance to help manage their experience.
The tips help establish ground rules to hopefully prevent those techno tantrums many parents—including myself—can relate to, and provide strategies for how to be involved, manage access and support positively. It is important to remind parents that they can be empowered with the right tools to help shape their children’s online experiences and to help them build the resilience and critical reasoning skills they will need overtime to be able to address any kind of confronting content or conduct they encounter online.
Above all else, it’s important to remember it’s not all gloom and doom. Our 2016 youth survey found young people identified many benefits of being online, including to play games, listen to music, research, for entertainment and to use social media to connect with friends and family, to plan their social lives and for self-expression.
It is important to remember that parents ARE the frontline of defence where their children’s online safety is concerned, and that we need to be particularly vigilant when we are handing over devices to pre-school aged children. The eSafety office will continue to build intuitive, accessible and evidence-based tools to help parents have these important conversations, set appropriate limits and effectively utilise parental controls to bolster their efforts, available at esafety.gov.au/parents.