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With thanks to Andrea Lindsay HDIH, SQHP, S.A.C. Dip, for writing this article.
We must all face the fact that we are now in a digital age. Although there may be many benefits to being born into a digital world, for parents it can be a minefield! So, how do we protect our children?
Digital resilience is acquired through spending time online, facing the challenges of a digital world, being able to assess when you are at risk and knowing what to do about it. In general, building resilience in children helps them to overcome obstacles more easily and reduces the chances of them suffering from anxiety or other stress-related disorders. A digitally resilient child is more likely to stay safe when confronted with inappropriate material, by seeking help and advice, or, taking steps to protect themselves from being exposed to such material.
What can adults do to help children and adolescents acquire digital resilience and protect them from exposure to damaging material or being subjected to cyber bullying?
Setting boundaries is probably the key in promoting digital resilience. It avoids friction by agreeing expectations at the outset. Discussion and understanding on both sides, creates a platform for success. Too often, these discussions take place after inappropriate behaviour or exposure to inappropriate material has taken place. This can cause extreme emotional trauma for the child or adolescent, their family, and friends. In serious cases, such as cyber bullying or online grooming, the police or other authorities may need to be involved.
Helping children understand what they can and can’t do and when they can and can’t do it, is the first place to start. Making yourself familiar with the different platforms they use is crucial to your understanding of what they are accessing and how the information they see, or share, can be used. You cannot police what you don’t understand! Most devices have their own parental control settings that can set up with a code only known to you, to ensure your child only has access to age-appropriate material. There are also many apps, such as OurPact, that are now available to enable you to have real-time access to any apps your child has installed on their device. You can schedule screen time and/or messaging time, block or allow access to apps, use a web filter, and use a family locator. By enabling your child to have ‘safe’ access, they can explore and develop their digital skills and you can have ‘peace of mind’.
As you familiarise yourself with the apps your child or adolescent uses, you can explore with them how they ‘report’ on the different apps, how to keep themselves safe and what to look out for in terms of inappropriate contact or content from others. Sometimes a child is scared to tell their parent about something they have come across, or something that has been sent to them. Reassure your child that it is OK for them to talk to you if they come across something that has made them feel worried, upset, or uncomfortable. Reduce the likelihood of your child receiving messages or contact from unknown users by ensuring that social media accounts are set to private. Ensure that location services are turned off within each app so that bullies, or other unwelcome individuals can’t track your child’s location.
Body image and the pressure to look a certain way or have a certain life, is another issue that can affect users of social media, especially teenagers. People tend to post the ‘best’ images of themselves and their lives. This results in social media becoming a tool for comparison with others, which can lead to self-esteem and self-worth issues. There are so many different apps available to ‘touch up’ images and create a ‘perfect self’. However, these images are not a ‘true ‘reflection, and set a standard that cannot be achieved in ‘real life’. Hash tags that focus on perceived ‘perfection’, can encourage unhealthy behaviours. The need to ‘invite’ comments about posts can lead to young people feeling unsure about their value and vulnerable to negative comments, which further erodes their self-esteem. It is important that children and young people understand that what they see is an ‘edited’ version of people’s lives and not necessarily a reality, so comparison is a fruitless task. How can anyone compete with an ‘edited’ version of someone else’s life?
Finally, constant ‘connection’ can have an adverse effect on both mental and physical health i.e. poor sleep, lack of exercise, lack of socialisation, unrealistic expectations, behavioural problems. It can also be part of what can lead to more serious problems such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm. So, help to keep your child safe by; being aware of and being able to use the apps they use, set up parental controls on their devices, agree boundaries and limitations of use, have access to their devices, ensure their profiles are set to private and turn off location services within the apps. Help your child stay safe!