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Creating responsible digital citizens and keeping children safe online by Alicia Drummond, Therapist and Founder of The Wellbeing Hub

The most common cause of drama in households seems to be screens.  Too much? Too little? When? Where? How?

Our children were born into a digital age, and for them there is very little distinction between their online and offline worlds. They segue seamlessly between the two at bewildering speeds often juggling two or even three screen based activities at a time. It simply isn’t the world we grew up in, and whilst many of us have become pretty tech savvy, it can still feel daunting trying to keep children safe in the wild west that is cyberspace.

When I was growing up in the wilds of North Wales we were actively encouraged to entertain ourselves outside for the majority of each day. Once we had received basic instructions on things like how to tell if the ice on a pond is thick enough to walk on, and what to do if we got that wrong, how to read a map, fix a puncture and who to ask for help (answer, other parents), we were given a packed lunch, and told to go and explore. Explore we did and adventures we had. When things did go wrong, I am thinking here of my sister falling through a barn roof, we generally sorted ourselves out, and could tell our parents what had happened safe in the knowledge that they would chalk it down to experience after asking what we might do differently next time (walk where you can see a nail because there will be a piece of wood underneath it).

Whilst the medium of play and exploration might have shifted online for our children, my parents approach seems to make sense. We must set them up to be able to manage the risks they will inevitably encounter online. We must educate them to minimise harm and give them the confidence and skills to know what to do if things go wrong. It is not enough to let them loose on the internet, cross our fingers and hope for the best, but if the low attendance at most school internet safety talks is anything to go by, that is exactly what many of us are doing.

We don’t need to be cyber safety experts but we do need to understand the basics such as safety settings, reporting systems, how to block unwanted contacts and create positive digital footprints.  The secret is to be engaged and curious.  When our children start out online we must be strict about making them stick to age guidelines. They must not be allowed unsupervised, unrestricted access and we need to know what they are doing and who they are talking to.  As they grow and become more responsible we gradually allow them more leeway, but always with the proviso that if something goes wrong they can talk to us, and we will help them sort the problem out.

Over 54% of British children now own a phone by the age of seven and within ten weeks of getting that phone, on average, 476 companies will have analysed their data. They use powerful algorithms to customise advertising and start pushing products. Games and social media apps are designed to keep us hooked. The product designers call it addicting. How can we expect children to make informed and conscious choices when they are up against such subtle mind engineering?

Our children are as vulnerable online as offline, and although we have had the Rights of the Child Act since 1989, it doesn’t apply online, where little is being done to protect their rights of privacy, to protect them from commercial exploitation, or respect their rights to safety and support. They need to understand how they can be manipulated by clever programmers.

If you are having endless arguments with your child about screen time you have become the enemy, but you are not the enemy, the tech is. You are preventing them getting their fix, but you are not making them take responsibility for their use and developing the internal regulation which will protect them against addiction.

Next time you want them to come for dinner and you anticipate a battle because they are gaming or chatting to friends on social media, try a different tack.  Announce that dinner will be ready in 45 minutes and they need to be at the table on time.  Ask them to set a timer on their phones – there are some great apps such as Time Timer which shows the minutes ticking down much like an old fashioned egg timer.

When dinner time comes around and no-one arrives, cover their plates and carry on eating. When they finally do appear, say something like. “it is sad that that game has so much power over you that you can’t even stop long enough to eat”, then exit the room and leave them to think. Most teenagers hate being controlled and particularly by their parents. When we shift the blame to the technology we dial down the drama and encourage them to take responsibility for their screen use. If this fails then we can safely say that their inability to self-regulate suggests they are developing addictive habits. Our job is to keep them safe, so until they can show they are able to self-manage we will need to put a screen contract in place (you will find our contract on the resources page).  Be prepared to negotiate if you want their buy in.

There is one rule that all families should have from the outset and it is no screens in rooms overnight. Teenagers need nine hours sleep a night – younger children need longer. It is hard to get enough if you stay up gaming for hours and then wake up to check your social media.

When trying to work out what time the screens need to be out of bounds, consider what time they need to get up (never later than midday) and work back nine hours plus an hour to get to sleep. Parents often seem to relax the rule as their children hit 15 but this is a mistake. The rate of emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression rises dramatically in girls at this time and sleep is a major protector of mental health. For the boys it is the behavioural disorders such as ADD/ADHD, but when you look at the symptoms, they are remarkably similar to those of sleep deprivation. Is it Ritalin they need or decent sleep?

We must also recognise that children are as susceptible to peer pressure online as offline and some will need strategies to be able to resist it.  Ask, “what would you do if someone was pressuring you to send a naked photo?” and help them come up with answers which feel manageable for them.

It is all about engagement and education. I bet that most of us ask our children how their day has been when they come home, but how many of us ask how their day online has been?  We wouldn’t let them head off to the park with people we didn’t know, but are we as vigilant about who they are meeting virtually?

It is a sad fact that the more time our children spend online, the more opportunity there is for those who would do them harm to find and connect with them. Online predators find their victims via social media sites, games, chat rooms and live game streaming sites such as Twitch. Once they have made a connection they will quickly move their conversation onto a private messaging site such as WhatsApp and that’s where it gets dangerous. Some will threaten their victims,  “I have control of your camera and have a film of you naked which I will release to your friends and family if you don’t do what I want.”  Others will lure young people with attention, gifts and treats before demanding payback in the form of sexually explicit or degrading pictures and videos, money, or gift cards. This is extortion pure and simple – it’s official title is financially motivated sexual extortion but it is more widely known as sextortion and it is on the increase:

  • In the first 6 months of 2023, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) received more reports involving ‘sextortion’ than in the whole of 2022.

  • Older teens (14-17 years old) are the most at risk, with boys apparently being targeted most often.

You must be vigilant and if your child is receiving gifts (these could be online in the form of new skins for their avatar or loot boxes) which they shouldn’t be getting, you need to act.  If they are becoming increasingly withdrawn or easily upset it is worth talking to them about what is happening online.    There are numerous apps which can help you keep your family safe online – our favourite is Schools Mobile and as a Wellbeing Hub member you can get a discount on the cost of your membership.

And so we come to time… the question we are asked most often by parents is always, “How long should my child be allowed on screens for each day?”  There is no hard and fast rule because it depends on what they are doing.  Active use of social media such as following inspirational role models, making nice comments on a friend’s story and messaging someone direct, has a positive impact on wellbeing. Using technology to learn a new skill like playing an instrument or cooking has a positive impact on wellbeing. Playing games with others helps teenagers remain connected with their friends, and being able to build amazing playlists on Spotify, create movies on TikTok or learn to code are all good things to do, but it all needs to be done in balance.

Talking to friends online is not the same as face to face communication. Too much time spent on high octane games can lead to high levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin coursing around our bodies. Endless scrolling through newsfeeds has been shown to have a negative impact on wellbeing.  What we do matters, which is why we need to be asking what they are up to. Use screens to inspire activity in the real world by all means, but the larger portion of each day must be spent in the real world.  If they are becoming anxious and stressed when separated from their gadgets then you know they are not getting the balance right.

A study conducted by Oxford University compared the wellbeing of 120,000 15-year-olds with their average screen use and found that overall use of screens had a positive impact.  Wellbeing peaked at 4hrs 17minute of computer use per day before starting to dip but they discovered that each activity has a Goldilocks Zone – not too much, not too little, but just right. For smartphones, it was two hours per day, and an hour and forty minutes for video games. Trying to police this can be a nightmare so I would suggest that if your child is taking daily exercise, meeting friends in real time, joining in with family activities, doing their fair share of the household chores, sleeping enough, engaging with real time activities and getting their schoolwork done, they have got it sorted. If this goes out of kilter then you need to step in with some rules and again the Schools Mobile app can help.

In conclusion:

  • Be engaged – ask what they are doing, who they are talking to and what they enjoy
  • Use technology to manage screen time and use – Schools Mobile offer
  • Educate them about online predators
  • Give them the tools to block, report and protect themselves
  • Do not allow yourself to become the enemy
  • Encourage them to be selective about what they are doing online
  • Help them recognise when they are using screens unhealthily
  • Have a family screen contract in place

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