Challenge of parenting

GROWING UP ON THE INTERNET: Restoring childhood safety

Nowadays generations of children and youth are growing up immersed in the virtual world. Their constant connection to the Internet has been confirmed by a recent study conducted by the Brave Phone and the Child Protection Centre of Zagreb. It shows that 99% of the youth have an access to the Internet, and that as many of them as 84% access the Internet via their mobile phones. High percentage (93) of children have a profile on Facebook, and 68% of them opened a profile before they were 13.

In European countries an increase in the number of children younger than 9 have been found to be using the Internet. Children use various contents at an earlier age. Children below 9, with the support of their parents, use the Internet for a series of activities, like watching videos, playing games, browsing through information, learning and socialising. For example, one of the studies indicates that almost half of Austrian children aged 3 to 6 regularly use the Internet. Despite this increase, due to a lack of research into risks and benefits of so young population using the Internet, we do not know how it will affect their development.

The Internet, as a platform for education, development of interest and identity, connecting with peers, provides many opportunities. At the same time, it is important to be aware that the Internet brings certain risks. One of the more serious risks is cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying includes various individual or group behaviours on the Internet, mobile phones and other electronic devices which have an intention of harming someone. Cyberbullying can include spreading unpleasant information (true or false) about individuals, their families and/or friends, spreading confidential information which was intended only for the one who is spreading it, spreading photos or video materials recorded without the victim’s consent, or those recorded for a private circle of persons. It also includes attempts to ostracise someone.

Our study results show how rampant these behaviours are. One in five teenagers was exposed to abusive messages and comments on Facebook, and one in six was exposed to threats. A significant number of children and youth experienced their profile being hacked (16%), spreading lies about them (11%), being blocked or banned from a group (11%), but also encouraging others to denigrate them (7%). One in six received unwanted messages with sexual content. All these behaviours lead to many negative outcomes, which can often be more severe than the outcomes of real-world peer bullying.

Growing up on the Internet – Restoring childhood safety

Parents and other important adults are indispensable allies in coping with the challenges of growing up in the virtual world. However, have got an impression that adults are often not ready to get involved in children’s online lives, claiming that they are much better at understanding modern technologies, adults not being sure how they can contribute to their children’s safety. Therefore, the result is that 78% of children and youth in the above mentioned study conducted by the Brave Phone and the Child Protection Centre of Zagreb, reported that there were no rules set for using social networks.

Indeed, children today know much more about using technology. However, knowing how to use the Internet, does not necessarily mean knowing how to use it safely and responsibly towards others.

These are the first generations of children growing up with information and communication technologies from their early age. It makes their attitude towards technology both intuitive and spontaneous, they deal with changes much faster, and there is much we can learn from them. At the same time, since they do not have the experience of growing up without modern technologies, they are not critical enough and they need guidance and support. Parents should show interest for their children’s online lives in a non-imposing and supporting manner. We need to take care of our children playing in the virtual world playground the same way we take care of them playing on the real-world playground.

Having in mind that the above mentioned research indicated that 84% of Croatian children access the Internet via their mobile phones, it is clear that children’s behaviour on the Internet is impossible to fully control. It is consistent with results of research indicating that guidance, i.e. directing children’s online behaviours through communication and setting rules, is more important. The basis of parenting in all aspects, including safety on the Interned, is a trusting and warm relationship between the parents and the child. Such relationship creates safe environment which increases the probability that the child will turn to his/her parent for advice and help. It is also important that parents are aware of signs which might indicate that the child is the victim of abuse or a perpetrator, ready to ask for help and support when worried.

Behaviour of children and youth on the Internet and on Facebook

• 34% of children and youth sometimes accept friendship requests sent by unknown persons

• 21% of children and youth might or would certainly meet the unknown person they got in contact via Facebook, and 8% of them have already done it

(The Brave Phone and the Child Protection Centre of Zagreb, 2013)

The most important tips about using the Internet safely and responsibly – parents can talk about it with their children

- Protect your profile on social networks and other web services so that it is visible only to the persons you trust.

- Do not reveal personal information to persons you do not know in real life, or those you do not trust (it is important to talk with your child about what is personal information)

- Do not reveal your passwords to anybody, not even to close friends.

- Do not share or send in private messages a content which you do not want wider audience, your friends, parents and teachers to see (especially photos or video materials).

- Be aware that some people do not tell the truth about themselves. Sometimes we cannot be sure who is behind the screen. Do not accept friendship requests sent by unknown people.

- A stranger on the internet is like a stranger in real life – be cautious, do not meet people you got to know via the Internet.

- Check periodically what is written on the Internet about you, by typing your name and surname into the Google search service.

- Think twice about what you publish – if you think that it might hurt someone in real life, do not do it online.

- Everybody can help to stop the abuse – if you see inappropriate online behaviours towards someone, inform an adult about it.

Written by: Gordana Buljan Flander, Psy.D., psychologist – psychotherapist and Tea Brezinšćak, psychologist