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Cyber Safety Parenting: Understanding the Online Risks

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The internet can be a wonderful place for young people; not only does it help increase learning opportunities and build digital skills, and it is also great for communicating and connecting with other children.

However, we are too aware of the potential dangers of cyberbullying, the presence of ‘strangers’ and having access to offensive material. Here, Psychotherapist Noel McDermott looks at how parents can help keep their children safe in our digital world.

Noel comments: ‘Child protection should be proactive, not retroactive, and this is in all areas of life. There is a problem with the internet and with online social media platforms that they don’t genuinely wish to address, probably because it would cut into their profits and would tarnish their image.’

‘These platforms behave like schools that argue they don’t need anti-bullying policies because they don’t have bullying. We all know those schools are unsafe because of the denial, not because of the bullying necessarily, and it’s the same about platforms that allow children to use them and then proceed to deny there are any risks until forced to concede there are, often through litigation or government action imposed upon them.’

What are the risks online for kids?

The biggest one is a profound denial of risk and an almost complete lack of a proper risk assessment with the attendant risk management processes. The recent case of Molly Russell is just one of these tragedies.

A coroner ruled the ‘negative effects of online content’ contributed to the 14-year-old’s death; social media’s powerful algorithms blasted her with terrifying images and suicidal videos, which begs the question can our children be truly safe online?

From a psychological perspective and from a child protection perspective, the risks fall into several categories.

  • Damage to self-image 
  • Online bullying
  • Exposure to inappropriate adult sexual or violent content 
  • Encouragement through peer pressure to engage in risky behaviour 
  • Exposure to predatory behaviours of adults 

Stranger grooming

Let’s take the one that gives the most chills to parents, grooming from a stranger online. Firstly, it’s axiomatic that the risk to children from stranger abuse in real life is minuscule; children are abused, sadly, by people they know, usually family members.

But that can be encompassed to include trusted adults in other situations, though much less so in the UK since we have background checks to work with children. Online the situation is less dangerous, and research indicates that in most cases, kids online interact with people they already know.

Only 17% of children reported having contact with people online they hadn’t previously met, only 2% experienced online contact, someone had lied about their age, and only 5% had gone on to meet someone IRL who they had only met online initially. these online contacts didn’t lead to harm.

Setting online boundaries

Most parents and families already have good boundaries about virtual usage and contact, and establishing simple guidelines for your kids will suffice to keep them safe.

The two main ones when it comes to stranger abuse are 1) don’t talk to strangers and don’t meet up with them and especially never do that alone, 2) if your kids feel uncomfortable about something that happens online, they should talk to a trusted adult (you, another family member, a teacher etc.) and that trusted adult should never blame the child.

Only ever provide positive affirmation for their help-seeking behaviour; your child should always feel able to seek help without victim blaming from you or another adult.

Open parental attitudes to gaming

Additionally, if you have an open attitude to their gaming and other online behaviours, they are more likely to talk to you about their activities and raise concerns. Take the time to find out what your children are doing online and try to get inside their heads. 

Don’t be a dinosaur about technology and virtual spaces; try to imagine going through the pandemic without being able to go online; how horrible would that have been for all?  This is probably the cardinal rule of child safety, ensuring your child feels it’s okay to talk to you or another trusted adult about their life, activities, worries, and mistakes.

Encouraging what we call ‘help-seeking behaviour’ is the most important skill to teach your child ever. This applies as a child and adult and is your number one life skill! If you have a censorious or overly controlling attitude to your child’s activities, they will hide them from you, they won’t stop doing what they find fun, and they will carry on without the safeguard of, you know. 

Exposure to explicit content

Exposure to online violence and explicit images is potentially more of a risk due to being psychologically damaging. Most platforms are very careful about this type of content, though, as it is such obvious risk, and mostly younger kids are not that interested in this.

Older kids will be, and it’s a twofold issue; firstly, these images depict very unrealistic views of sex and ‘relationships’, and it’s vital that schools and parents proactively challenge this. Most sexual content is misogynistic, promoting dreadful roles for women and girls and unipolar power dynamics.

Secondly, certain forms, like explicit images, are directly problematic for girls and young women and effectively create a climate of control and lack of consent. 16% of girls reported unwanted sexual content compared to 6% of boys. 

This content can be used to control young women, and if they share sexual content (sexting), this can be used in very damaging ways by boys and men. Boys need to be taught that this type of sexual violence, as that, is what it is unacceptable. Girls need to be taught that this is control and violence for which they should seek help and that it is not sex, and they should be taught that consent.

Modelling good behaviour

As a parent, it is vital that your model good behaviour around these issues: talk openly about sex, relationships, explicit images, and sexting to help your kids overcome their embarrassment and especially for girls and young women to help them not ‘freeze’ if they are confronted by these dreadful behaviours.

Consent cannot be coerced or forced, boys need to be taught to stop doing these things, and girls need to seek help if it happens to them. 

Online bullying

Online bullying is in the same category as the issues about unwanted sexual imagery etc. It is behaviour rife through the internet and many social media platforms, and it has been given names such as trolling etc.

Online spaces often remove the types of breaks in face-to-face behaviour. We get immediate visual behavioural feedback if we hurt someone’s feelings, which helps us pitch our communications better.

The use of video chat has improved this situation immensely as the natural herd and pro-social behaviours kick in. Favouring these ways of communicating is a very good idea with your kids and moving away from dealing with complex issues via chat, WhatsApp etc.

It’s better to keep written forms of communication, such as email, text etc., to practical arrangements, not emotional material. Get your children to talk about complex emotional issues rather than text about them. When bullying occurs, identify the victim and support them.

Another issue about online bullying is that it is public and often involves group and gang-type dynamics, such as the bystander effect, which encourage others to not help when in other settings they might. 

Noel comments: ‘Kids need to learn about trolling and online bullying behaviours and how to withdraw to safety, blocking people, for example. It’s vital that victims feel able to ask for help, and it’s also vital that folk caught up in the moment as bystanders who then realise what they witnessed was wrong feel able to come forward to apologise and repair.’

‘We need to proactively teach our kids how to have ‘manners’ online in the same way we do in all their relationships, asking them if their behaviours are kind etc. and proactively intervening if we see aggression, for example, and not letting it go because it doesn’t involve someone punching someone else. It is not fun, and nor is it harmless.’

Gender differences

There are gender differences in the risks that exist for kids online, and girls can be exposed to images etc., that can create body image issues and worsen eating disorders, for example. Boys are exposed to unipolar images of masculinity, setting them up for perpetrator roles.

Again, the solution is to involve schools and parents in these conversations with our kids. Helping them open up about what they are seeing and the beliefs it leaves them with, helping them have more complex, muddy, compassionate views of themselves and others. 

Online peer pressure

Kids egging each other on to take greater risks is, of course, not new, but what is new is the level of peer pressure, the public exposure and the ease with which challenges are shared. Also, what happens is akin to a disassociation because it is video.

Many of the tips above will help with these issues so prominent in the tragic deaths of some young people. But we also need to push for legislation as this is a risk issue that needs the equivalent of putting markings in the road outside of schools to stop cars from using the space.

There is clear evidence of unique harm around dangerous risk-taking from online platforms, which is increased because of the nature of those platforms. There are complex algorithms available to these platforms to identify behaviour which they use to sell data to advertisers.

There is a need for legislation to force these platforms to deal with this and ensure their algorithms identify and stop these risky behaviours, alerting authorities. 

Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years of experience in health, social care, and education. He has created unique mental health services in the independent sector. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual –  

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