Safer Internet Day 2020: Let’s start with priorities

We adults often wonder, discuss, and debate how much possibilities the modern world of technology has brought to us, and how much risk. Discussions always end with the conclusion that we have good and bad sides, just as many as we can find. Although we can oppose the internet, screens and technologies, their impact on children and young people, we can strongly advocate that generations without cell phones and internet access have lived much better and healthier lives, but despite numerous arguments we cannot dispute the fact that we continue to live in a world where screens exist, in which it takes less than a second for a message on one of the social networks to reach a friend who lives on the other end of the globe. For children and young people, screens have become companions on the road to growing up. Preschoolers are about two and a half hours a day on screens, older children and adolescents 3 to 5 hours a day, and every fifth adolescent is more than 5 hours a day – that is a fact that even relentless statistics fail to cover up.

Bearing in mind that our arguments for or against contemporary achievements do not amnesty the responsibilities we have in our upbringing, we have little left to do but accept that the circumstances of growing up are changing and the best we can do is to learn the magic of technology. We can choose to become those who are ready to understand what the world behind the screen brings to us, to become familiar with it and to do everything we can to help protect our children.

Just as we went to the playground ten years ago, to investigate is it safe, what it looks like,  which of child’s peers were playing there, what was being played, assesed the potential risks, and made decisions about how we would allow the child to reside on that playground, at this age we also need to take our child by hand to explore all the expanses of online playgrounds together. It is our adult’s responsibility to learn about  the many opportunities, offer them to the child and take advantage of them if we wish, but also to know the risks, not to close our eyes to them. Only by knowing the potential dangers can we know how we will face them if they are intercepted on our child’s journey of growing up. Keep in mind that knowledge can be our great wise friend.

And no, we really do not need to know as the best computer scientists every possible feature of a program and application, just as if our child does not play football or some social game we do not know all the rules. Despite knowing all the technical requirements of playground games, we will not allow the child to stay up late at night, we will not leave him or her to play alone unattended with peers we consider to have bad habits. It remains for us to conclude that parents know the rules of life, have the experience of identifying possible dangerous and risky situations.

At the same time, not knowing all the rules of the game, not knowing the core of all his interests, we will advise the children day by day, make every effort to protect them, we will be available if they needs us, we will leave them the door to help. And that is why children will come to us from the playground and tell us what they played, whom they met, what they liked, what they did not. Our children will tell with open confidence what they has experienced and whether they expects our help.

It is exactly the same analogy – a child or young person behind the screen stays every day for hours, sees contents, meets new people, shares the same or similar interests, acquires friendships, finds new hobbies, discovers new music genres. Children and young people create experiences and adventure which are beautiful or the less so. Do we want to not know what partly or to a greater extent forms our children as individuals as they grow up? It is our adult responsibility to ask them, to get to know almost half of their free time.

No parent would be at peace with the idea that he doesn’t know at which playground or activity their children spends several hours a day, what people they meets, what they experiences there, whether they arranges meetings with strangers alone. We seem to have given up on the experience on the other side of the screen because we feel helpless, it seems to us that this world behind the screen light is developing faster than what we can follow. At the same time, we let children and young people play on the playgrounds themselves and wonder if they are safe, fearful of what they are experiencing and whether they are in danger. And yes, our children, children from our streets and from our schools are experiencing dangers. According to a 2019 Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center’s survey, 35% of young people went to meet a person they did not know, more than 60% received sexually explicit content, 100 young people in the sample exchanged such content with a significantly older person, and almost every fifth adolescent in Croatia sexting under exhortation or coercion. Knowing this information, we have to ask ourselves whether our children, children from the neighborhood class, are among these children, knowing this we can no longer say that the danger is elsewhere.

According to the mentioned 2019 survey, children generally do not talk about their experiences with anyone, and if they do, they generally do so with their peers. Children learn the rules of each other, when they experience some of the behaviors on the internet, do not know if they are appropriate or inappropriate, observe the reactions and attitudes of other peers and make their own judgment. It seems that the relationship in which they and us adults do not understand is mutual. We can only tackle this thought by truly being available to child if something goes wrong, by directing and guiding child. 

Let’s educate children, ask them what they do on social networks, let’s talk about possible steps in case of some negative experiences. Let us show them that we are available if they experience something unpleasant; do not allow children and young people to experience abusive behavior for months, before adequate intervention. Let’s prevent such behaviors if we can, and given that we, like no one, have absolute control over the flow of information on the Internet, let us do our best to entrust our child immediately after an isolated situation before he or she is truly experiencing violence. For the emotional world and the consequences for mental health, it makes a big difference was it one insult or one spread of false information from receiving many insults on a daily basis, for months.

With all possible tips on how to protect children, let’s start with priorities – developing a relationship, investing in all its aspects and actively engaging in a child’s life.

Written by: Ana Raguž, MSc. psych. and Mia Roje Đapić, MSc. psych.

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