Staying safe online during the lockdown is vitally important writes
They’re at home 24/7, and while parents and teachers are struggling to help them stay on top of their schoolwork, Covid-19 has meant our kids have more free time than ever before.
Parents are increasingly concerned about the amount of time their children are spending online during the lockdown, says Parentline CEO, Aileen Hickie. In fact, even before the crisis began, there was concern about the amount of time even young children were spending on social media.
Findings published last year by CyberSafeIreland, the children’s internet safety charity, found that 12% of eight-year-olds were spending more than four hours online each day, a figure which rose to 15% among 12-year-olds.
About 60% of children were signed up to social media sites, including 48% of eight-year-olds and 68% of 11-year-olds.
And, now they’re isolated from friends and schoolmates, many are using social media to stay in touch with their peer group.
That’s understandable, says Alex Cooney, CEO of CyberSafeIreland, who acknowledges the benefits of this for children.
Parentline is currently receiving an increased number of calls from parents concerned about the amount of time their kids are spending on social media, says Hickie.
While both experts emphasise the positives offered to children by social media and the online world during the pandemic — from keeping up with schoolwork to maintaining social connectivity with friends and relatives, not to mention the possibilities it offers for creative work such as art, music and videos — they emphasise that parents need to consciously strive for their children to enjoy a healthy balance of both on-screen and off-line activities in their day.
“I don’t know how we’d do without tech — Zoom, WhatsApp, Facetime —because it provides the opportunity to connect with another person or group of friends, which is very important,” says Cooney.
There are some gender differences in terms of online usage — CyberSafeIreland has found that girls are more likely to be engaged with social media apps while boys tend to game.
Both have their downsides. While apps such as Instagram, SnapChat and Tik-Tok help youngsters stay connected, says Cooney, there can be a lot of focus on comparison-making in terms of how other people look and what they are doing.
“There’s a lot of focus on how other people are looking which can impact on girls’ esteem — self-esteem is a bigger issue for girls than boys,” she says.
Cooney’s comments are underlined by a survey conducted in Britain by the Royal Society for Public Health, which found that Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were linked with increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image, and loneliness.
Its findings, published in May 2017, found that Instagram and Snapchat were the most detrimental social media platforms in terms of young peoples’ health and wellbeing.
However, gaming, which is very popular with boys, also has significant downsides.
“Parents should check out the games children want to play,” Cooney advises.
Her organisation has encountered children as young as six playing completely inappropriate games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty “which are very violent and very realistic, while GTA has very sexualised content with very realistic avatars.”
Children who spend significant time online may also be vulnerable to cyber-unpleasantness from peers, something which is a major cause of distress, says Philip Arneill, head of education and innovation at Cybersafe Ireland.
“It’s very easy to exclude people. You can block people. You can invite people to chat rooms they don’t want to be in — for example, chatrooms specifically set up to discuss that person,” he says.
Young people can be a target for nasty, sarcastic comments online. “We have heard of situations where kids get together and parody someone’s post and make fun of them. That can be really stressful,” says Arneill.
Arneill outlines how parents can deal with cyberbullying. To begin, reassure your child and make sure there is open dialogue between you and your child about his or her online life.
Next, block those who are doing the bullying and report the behaviour to the social media platform concerned.
Save the screenshot as evidence of bullying, as long as it is not to do with sexually explicit material. Currently, he says, while there are no official guidelines in terms of bullying around sexually explicit material, the advice is to approach the gardaí and get advice.
Concerns also revolve around over-sharing and the issue of privacy.
Children should be made aware of the potentially distressing implications of uploading potentially sensitive material which can be downloaded or screen-shotted by others. Distress can also result from a child’s failure to implement the appropriate privacy settings.
“Ensure that profiles are private. We find that children who set their profile to public may be sharing with an audience they don’t know and can be contacted for targeted advertising,” he says, adding that the dangers of sharing images cannot be underestimated.
“Encourage children to think about their digital footprint. Once you put something out there, it is almost impossible to retrieve it.”
“Put routines in place for the day which encompass both time online and time offline. Emphasise that time spent online should not have to be social media — children can listen to audiobooks, music, or exercise with Joe Wicks,” says Alex Cooney.
Hold conversations about your reasons for limiting time on social media or online, and understand parents must lead by example, Cooney suggests.
Take regular outdoor exercise as a family — encourage kicking a ball around, taking a spin on the bikes or going for a walk to the park, advises Cooney.
Ensure when younger children are on-screen it is in public areas of the house, and regularly check in with what they are doing, advises Aileen Hickie of Parentline. “Do not allow children on their devices in their bedrooms with their doors shut, for example.”
The level of communication and effort you put into guiding your children to protect themselves online — and enforcing the house rules — are crucial, says Hickie.
“Boundaries, a routine and structures are very important. Set the boundaries as to where and when screens may be used,” she says.
Ensure children and teenagers have appropriate privacy settings on their social media accounts, advises Cooney.
Check social media platforms to see if they’re appropriate and teach your children to navigate them safely, counsels Hickie.
If you’re working from home, accept that you’re needed at your desk and that you cannot watch the kids all the time, so age-appropriate restrictions need to be agreed — for example, that younger children need to check with you before going online, Cooney advises.