Shortly after Snapchat became popular, I found my daughter using it. Snapchat already had a reputation as an app on which sexting was prolific. I was concerned and asked my daughter to delete the app. She did not want to. At that point, I had a choice. Force the issue, or find an alternative solution. I chose the latter.
My daughter and I discussed my concerns. She described how she used the app and why it was important to her. (Fortunately she had not done anything foolish there.)
She then told me how deleting the app would be like sending her to play in the park while her friends went to the shops or the beach. We brainstormed ways that she could use the app in a safe way that I could feel good about. With a commitment to only connect with known, trustworthy friends, and an agreement that I could check-in randomly to ensure she was safe, we agreed that the app could be appropriate to use.
Since the arrival of Facebook in 2004, youth (and adults) have used apps in foolish and dangerous ways. Reputations have been harmed. Lives have even been lost. Tinder, Kik, Snapchat, Ask.fm, as well as old favourites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all offer more than enough risk to give any parent grey hair, and to cause endless family conflict.
According to Intel Security’s Tweens, Teens, and Technology 2014 report, over 67% of tweens and teens have social media accounts. Sharing personal information online is ubiquitous. 20% of our children have talked online with a stranger, and 6% have actually met that stranger in person. Other research indicates that about 28% of teens admit to sexting. Close to 50% of teens have been cyber-bullied with one-third having received threatening texts or messages.
The old-school approach is that we ban children’s access to things of which we disapprove, or that we don’t understand. “Just take their phone away! Be the parent!”
Yet research compellingly indicates that such an approach will only generate resistance and broken-down relationships, particularly in parenting teens. Moreover, banning apps is essentially impossible. Children will simply use the apps on devices we can’t access, or download them when we’re not around, deleting them when we are. Banning technology only drives unwanted behaviour underground.
Yet in the same way that we don’t allow children to drink, or to drive (or both!), responsible and thoughtful parents seek ways to keep their children safe from the significant dangers of the online world.
Parents need help in navigating both the online social world, and their children’s relationship to it. Many feel under-equipped, if not entirely ignorant and impotent. Force and power are ineffective. Instead education and conversations are key.
The tech industry is aware of this challenge, and initiatives are being developed to keep our children safe. With yesterday being Safer Internet Day globally, it is timely that Google has announced a $1.2m contribution to a “digital licence” program developed by the Alannah and Madeline Foundation with an aim that all of Australia’s Year 6 students (approximately 300,000) will learn, with their parents, responsible and safe digital citizenship.
Such initiatives are to be applauded, and they are certain to make some difference. However, it is not up to Google to teach our children online safety and civility. Similarly, obtaining a digital licence is no guarantee that our children will be protected. The best filter for our children to access is the one between their ears. It is up to us, as parents, to utilise these types of products, and to spend time teaching our children to become discerning digital citizens.