The statistics are clear: our environment and that of our children is changing, as technology becomes a necessary part of daily life. A study by Jonathan Douglas, Director of The National Literacy Trust in the United States, shows that “more children today own cell phones than books”.
While we may be surprised and sad to witness the end of childhood as we know it, we can neither ban our children from having a cell phone, nor ignore the dangers it poses. Taking on the cyber world may feel intimidating to most of us, yet it is our responsibility as parents to equip our children to be safe in the world. So how do we ensure their virtual well being?
We install free safety features on their mobile devices, and we talk to our children in the same way we would educate them about appropriate touching, being safe around strangers, and sex. Communicating openly about cell phones is essential in empowering our children to protect themselves, bearing in mind that despite our best efforts they can always have access to illicit material through their friends.
Research shows that parents who communicate honestly with their children, have youngsters who are closer and more connected to their parents. They feel respected, consult with their parents when making decisions, and are less likely to engage in high risk behaviour. Open communication is more than a list of rules the parents enforce, it is a two way dialogue of explanations, discussions and debates between the parent and the child.
Here are some tips to begin talking about cell phones even before your children request one:
In age appropriate language talk about the fact that there are ‘good and bad’ people in the world, and we need to be wary of making friends with strangers, even if they say they are a child.
Explain that in the same way we do not give out personal information when someone phones our landline, we must keep our name, age and address private on our cell phone. Encourage your children always to ask you if they are unsure.
Make it clear to your youngsters that they should only use their real name when texting friends and should always use a fake name when playing online games. Also discourage them from joining chat rooms, and clicking on links.
Educate your child as to what a chat room is, and that should they feel the need to go into an online chat room, they should be wary of revealing who they are and where they are from. In fact, you might take the stance that your child never reveals their identity to anyone they might have met in a chat room.
Tell your children that viewing pictures of naked people might seem funny, but that most people that appear naked in pictures have been abused. Depending on the age of the child you would give them more information about the pornographic industry, informing them that it is against the law for children to be viewing sexually explicit material, or for anyone to send children nude pictures.
Inform them that once we send a text or a picture, it is stored in cyber space where anyone can access it, even if we delete it. State that before we send anything, we must STOP, THINK, and question: would I be happy to see that on the front page of a newspaper? If we are not sure, we should delete it.
Cyber bullying is unacceptable and it is essential to teach your children to tell you or another trusted adult the moment someone starts bothering them. If necessary the number of the mobile device should be changed or shut down to prevent further abuse.
Be a part of your children’s social networks without involving yourself in their discussions online. By all means discuss anything you’re concerned about online, with your child later, offline.
Maintain a strong connection with your youngsters by sending them messages of love and support.
Encourage them to contact you if they feel uncomfortable in a situation, so you can act immediately, and always be available when they phone you.
Take an interest in their online games, and share interesting information with them.
Sustaining a strong connection with your children will ensure that they do not seek the attention of another adult. As James Humes says. “The art of communication is the language of leadership”.
By Claire Marketos