On the occasion of the Safer Internet Day, journalist Sanja Daić spoke with Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center’s psychologist Ana Raguž about the habits of children in using the Internet and how we as adults can encourage its safer use. The interview was published on the educational web portal Profil Klett:
“What do research on children’s and young people’s online activities say in general? How do they spend their time online? What content they consume the most?
Although we all notice this, research has also systematically shown that children and young people spend more and more of their time in front of screens. Research by the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center and Brave Phone from 2017 show that preschoolers already spend more than two and a half hours in front of screens, watching various entertaining activities. The older our pupils are, the more content they attach to the screen. According to a 2019 study by the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, one in three adolescents use social networks for 3 to 5 hours a day, and every fifth adolescent for more than 5 hours a day. Young people in front of the screen spend most of their time chatting with others, following posts and content on various social networks, listening to music. Among their favorites are Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.
What are the most risky behaviors in elementary and high school age children and young people related to Internet use?
From a young age, children are learning about the benefits of the Internet, learning about its benefits and charms, the availability of information, the amount and variety of content, and as they grow up, they become more open-minded and less and less critical about the potential dangers. Unlike us adults, who are at the other end and often critical, children interact without hesitation, maintain social relations, get to know others, etc. For example, 35% of young people went to meet a person they met online, every other the adolescent received messages of sexually challenging content, which is very serious information. These are just some of the data that show that children are more and more at risk, that they are increasingly online playgrounds, and the rules are learning from each other, from some others behind the screen. Since the development of technology is galloping and adults cannot keep up with the pace and keep up with technological advances, it is often the case that everything related to staying on social networks, apps and various other platforms is left to the hands of children and young people.
Often, the term cyberbullying is used in this context. What does research say about the incidence of this type of abuse? What difficulties do your children and parents most often encounter in practice?
The environment generally responds very quickly to physical injury, or visible signs of violence, but often fails to act in cases of electronic violence.
This type of violence is characterized by forms such as spreading false (and true) information, insulting, belittling, ignoring, isolating, and we know from clinical practice and the scientific literature that the consequences of electronic violence can sometimes be more severe than the effects of face-to-face violence. Victims usually delay the trust because they are convinced that nothing can be done and that there is no way to stop the violence. The perpetrator’s anonymity, unlimited audience, lack of oversight, victim insecurity, and a reduced sense of perpetrator’s responsibility all contribute to the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness of the child victim’s.
Sometimes, over time, parents or other close people may notice behavioral changes in their child, for example, a child who is happy to go to school starts refusing to leave, a great student starts getting worse grades, the social child withdraws and spends more and more time alone. These are some of the changes we need to pay attention to and talk to your child about. The consequences of child abuse are often manifested in the form of low self-esteem, severely impaired self-image, withdrawal, anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as frequent physical disabilities, headaches, abdominal pain, as well as self-destructive behaviors such as self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
Lately, more and more social networks are emerging, some of which are more likely to attract and gather younger children. According to research, what is the average age at which children and young people begin to engage on social networks? Which limit would you draw as a reasonable age to start using social networks?
According to our aforementioned 2019 survey, almost every fourth adolescent has opened their first profile on a social network at the age of 12, and about 30% of adolescents opened their first profile on a social network at 10 years or less. Although the age limit for most profiles on social networks is 13 years, every day we see the boundaries shift down. Years as a chronological determinant are less important as long as children do not think critically, they are not aware of the possibilities and the dangers.
How have social networks influenced the socialization of children and young people? What would you point out as advantages and / or disadvantages of using social networks in a socializing sense?
Children, young people and adults are use the media to learn and develop interests, to have fun, as a source of information and knowledge, as well as to facilitate communication with others, maintain closeness with peers, get to know others, but also develop identities. For example, children who are more withdrawn or do not have sufficiently developed social skills to interact more freely behind the screen, more easily confide in and establish a social support network. Undoubtedly, the Internet, as a world of opportunity, has enriched children growing up. In addition to the world with many opportunities, the Internet is also a world of risk, and its use is as good or as harmful as we use it responsibly.
Do you have any practical tips for teachers – what to do to prevent risky behavior on the Internet, or prevent cyberbullying?
When parents or teachers at the school notice that the child is not functioning or the child is showing some changes in the amount of time he or she spends on the internet or the content they use, then they should definitely talk to the child, and if the child confides in us, all steps should be taken ensure we protect him as soon as possible. Cyberbullying prevention is best, with education, showing a truly zero tolerance of violence and reaction, and the least inappropriate reactions to peers. Such behaviors of persons involved in the upbringing and education of children, in addition to reducing the likelihood of violence, also increase the likelihood that our child will be trusted if he or she experiences violence.
What can teachers do if their child complains about cyberbullying or hear about it? How to talk about cyberbullying? What is important to do and whom to address?
It is important to keep in mind that children hesitate before confiding, have many fears that they will not be trusted, that they will be blamed, ashamed because they feel they are not good enough and strong to defend themselves, and if the abuse lasts for a long time, they feel helpless. The literature shows that every third child does not know who the perpetrator is behind the screen, which further fosters a sense of insecurity and uncertainty.
The person to whom the child is entrusted by no means should not promise that it will not tell anyone. It is important to remind yourself that a child would not be trusted to not feel that he or she needed help. Often, children are afraid that it will be worse, but as adults we have to take responsibility and make it easier for the child to explain to him what the process will look like. The person to whom the child is entrusted (parent, teacher, professional associate) is obliged to inform the competent center for social welfare and police, who will take all further steps in stopping the violence. The child should also be taught not to delete messages and the like, but to record them by taking a screenshot because they later serve as evidence in proceedings. Of course, the notification to the competent institutions serves just as a notice that something is going on with the child and to the child, and only the police carry out investigation and checking, i.e. investigative actions that will determine the circumstances. Sending notifications is just one wheel in the whole system. We believe – better false alarm than questioning whether a child is a victim of abuse. The wheel system must be started. Also, in addition to the child victim, the system’s response also helps child perpetrators that not become adult offenders. Information that a child commits violence is an alarm that we must respond to. Specifically, it is known that there is almost twice the risk that a child victim of cyberbullying will attempt suicide, but child offenders are also 1.7 times more likely to attempt suicide. The greatest emotional repercussions have on children who are, at the same time, victims and perpetrators, respectively reactive victims. ”