Internet safety and online bullying are frequently discussed hot topics in school these days. Like many parents, despite the fact that we believe we are quite resourceful, my husband and I often feel a bit overwhelmed and unprepared to help our kids manage their online social lives and stay safe. This would probably be in part due to the fact that we did not grow up with the types of technology used today (or any technology really…unless Pac Man and home phones with a party line count) so it’s not engrained into our brains like it is for our kids. Despite our best efforts, our kids will always be one step ahead of us, even if we use social media in our own lives.
One of the reasons why it is so hard to keep on top of social media is that it is often hard to find the time to keep up with rapidly changing apps. And even when you have the time, you need to have the ability. For example, I just mastered Instagram so I could follow my daughter and see what she and her friends were up to (although I almost lost the “privilege” of following her when I called out a boy in her school for making nasty comments to another child. But I did get a “Sorry Mrs. Charland” from him, and he removed his comments). Now she is asking me if she can download other related applications that will help her keep track of the people who have unfollowed her, among other things. I went from being confidently on top of situation, to losing it with one download.
Another significant reason why keeping up with our kid’s online social lives and use of social media is challenging is the fact that we have little to no influence over the kids they are interacting with. We don’t know if, as parents, we are all on the same page (assuming your kids are interacting with people they know. Strangers are a whole other kettle of fish). Different families have different rules; some kid’s online behaviours may be monitored, other kid’s activities may not and what one parent deems to be a harsh or inappropriate comment, another may shrug off as meaningless. Last year, my daughter ran into trouble with group Hangouts on Google+; a number of classmates got swept up in a group like mentality situation and were being very cruel to a few others. After we talked her through it, my daughter made the decision to stop participating in group chats and to text her friends individually when she wanted to talk with them. Interestingly enough, I mentioned the Google+ issue to a number of other parents. They did not think their kids were not on Google+ so were not concerned. I suggested they check anyway and as it turned out, their kids were using Hangouts too.
What is a parent to do? Aside from the obvious fact that you need to make an effort to learn and understand what your kids are doing online, you need to have house rules in place that you strictly adhere to. Then you need to seek out support or back up for those rules from the the other place where your kids spend the majority of their time – school. Even that may not help though. Our children’s school has made several attempts to educate the students and parent body on internet safety. Last year, all of the students at my children’s school attended a talk given by an expert in the field. In comparison, very few parents turned out for the nighttime version of the talk tailored to them and because of this, there was no common ground established and the message may have been lost between school and home. While my husband did attend and learned a few things he did not know before, the over all take home message he gained was “danger – be afraid and avoid”. My daughter got that same message when she listened to the talk. But being told to be afraid and avoid is not going to deter kids from going online – just like it doesn’t for teaching sex education. I wonder if teaching abstinence ever works?
This school year, we were quite pleased to discover that the Ottawa Carleton District School Board came out with guidelines for computer usage that will hopefully positively impact online behaviours both on and off the school property. These guidelines should make it easier for parents to keep up to date and on the same page with other parents and with all the students. The “Appropriate use of Technology Agreement“, tailored specifically to each age group, was sent home to be discussed and signed by both parents and their kids. For the first time since our kids were in school, I felt we were given an effective tool to manage technology usage. My husband and I had some really interesting and important conversations with our kids about the content of the agreement – conversations that I hope were happening at kitchen tables across the neighbourhood. While this one document is not going to solve all the world’s problems, at least it is a start.
The important message to take away from this is that parents need to be proactive and understand what is going on with their kid’s social lives online, before there is a problem. They need to be informed and talk to their kids about the apps they are using, even if it takes them out of their knowledge comfort zone. Most importantly, they need to teach their kids to be as kind and respectful online as they would teach them to be offline. We are all in this together.