• The internet is an exciting and liberating place for a young person still learning about the world. With unrestricted access, however, the online world can be dangerous. How can you safely introduce your child to all the wonders of the internet … and protect them from the risks?

    There are a vast number of resources and technology designed to keep your child safe online. With mainstream media often painting the worst-case scenarios of bullying, scams, and predators online, it can be overwhelming for parents of young children to find practical advice. Taking a balanced approach is crucial to helping your child navigate their way through healthy online interactions.

    What trends should parents look out for right now?

    In a rapidly-changing technology landscape, most parents are optimistic about digital media, with 90% of parents saying their child benefits from being onlinei. Like, post, share, a recent report by the ACMA, highlights two key trends for parents to be aware of when helping their children to navigate their way safely and positively online:

    Digital media is designed to be more visual and intuitive than ever

    Platforms are increasingly designed to be more tactile and appealing to children, so finding the right ones for your child can be a fantastic way to introduce them to safe online behaviour. For very young children, videos and images are some of the first entry points to the digital world — via short, accessible content on YouTube, interactive image and music apps, and literacy and numeracy games on portals like ABC Splash.

    Mobile use is on the rise

    As digital media becomes less desktop-based and more mobile, many parents feel they don’t have the same eye on their children’s behaviour. In developing countries across the world, huge numbers of children are coming online (via mobile technology) at a much faster rate than adults. Parents should be aware of this growing trend and help their children to understand both the opportunities and risks associated with having such easy access to the world – often literally in their pocket.

    How to create a safe online environment for your child

    1. Consider different ‘rules’ for different times

    In the 1970s and 1980s, the American Paediatric Association set very specific guidelines around screen time and TV. In the current online environment, however, those rules no longer make sense in an age of mobile media.

    Amanda Third, Associate Professor in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, says that understanding that children do not readily see the distinction between ‘going on or offline’ helps parents see how different the context is today.

    “The flexibility of platforms means that children can be physically present with one group of peers and virtually present with another at the same time – but this is not something necessarily to worry about,” she says.

    Amanda suggests creating new ‘rules’ around this new context: “You need to go back to their own practices. For example, you might say, ‘You need to do physical exercise to stay healthy’. Then you can establish rules around that – which can take the emphasis off turning off the internet.”

    2. Approach online safety as a family

    Generating an environment of safety involves everyone in the household. This extends to parents educating their older children about potentially harmful content to younger siblings, as well as modelling good online behaviour. Spending quality time together ensures that the internet is used in a way that’s appropriate to the stage of development: the under-six’s enjoying simple games and apps with limited internet use, and children moving towards engaging more with social platforms by ages 8-11.

    “Just like TV was for adults, we need to be aware of not treating the iPad or smartphone as a babysitter,” says Amanda. “Try not to just let them sit back passively and consume. Mix it up a bit, work together and help them interact with the media. This is also a great way to boost parents’ own understandings of how different platforms work, what your children like to do online, and why.”

    3. Embed these conversations early

    Online media can be an opportunity for talking with your children about the world and your values. One of the best things you can do to protect your children online is to have those important conversations early and often. Creating the right kind of environment helps your child navigate risky or harmful situations and ensure they draw on your family’s values when they’re online.

    “Lessons learned offline translate to online behaviour,” says Amanda. “With the right support, children can respond and react to situations online as well as they do off it.

    “If you work hard to regularly get the conversation flowing about the online world, it becomes a subject embedded in your family. As well as specific issues around children, you could discuss broader ideas about how technology works and can change society.”

    4. Take opportunities to learn about the digital world

    The technological world is changing fast and, with it, so are our everyday lives. Information about algorithms, artificial intelligence, automated content production, virtual reality, and augmented reality is constantly changing. “As a parent, one of the best things you can do is to learn about these changes and their implications so that you can make informed decisions,” says Amanda. “This helps ensure your child can minimise the risks they encounter online and maximise their opportunities”.

    Why is it so important we listen to our children about online safety?

    For most parents, ideas of ‘risks’ and ‘safety’ for their children carry an overlay of personal cultural baggage that can be hard to shake.

    “When thinking about risk, we need to deeply reflect on what we’re trying to do as parents, too,” says Amanda. “Your children’s ideas about dangers online are sometimes far different to our own. So always ask yourself: what’s in the best interest of this child at this moment?”

    Central to this approach is trust. In the report Children’s Rights in the Digital Age, children from different language and cultural groups around the world said the same thing: We just want our parents to trust us. Trust come from taking risks, but in a measured way, and with the understanding that children are not trying to hurt each other; they’re trying to engage with each other.

    “When we were kids, we rode outside on a bike, played with kids in the park and came home again, all on our own,” says Amanda. “Children just don’t do that anymore. So they are just looking for that social connection to figure out where they belong.

    “While adults worry about predators online or cyberbullying, as children get older it’s more about social and emotional risks. They want to find out, ‘How do I find my place in the pack?’ As a parent, there are many healthy ways to guide them through that.”

    Further resources for keeping your children safe online:

    iOffice of the eSafety Commissioner, survey of parents in Australia with children aged 8-17 who access the internet, June 2016.