Recently there has been a great deal in the media about disturbing hacks into children’s programs online. There are reports that confronting clips (for example, those describing in graphic detail how to commit suicide) are being embedded into children’s shows. There are haunting images such as Momo and its ghastly challenges circulating on social media. I have seen first hand cute character animations on YouTube that at a glance looked harmless enough, yet upon closer inspection were filled with themes of bullying, suicide and domestic violence (and that was just the three I watched). This type of material has been described as haunting, vulgar, scary and distressing, for children and parents alike.
After I shared a news report about Momo on my Enliven, Enrich, Engage Facebook page a few of weeks ago, I was told that Momo was believed to be a hoax, merely an urban myth. I hesitated then to write about it, considering whether sharing such information would be fear mongering. However, the fact that reports like that are continuing to do the rounds and that 8 year olds at my children’s school are talking about it (and are frightened by it) seems sufficient enough to warrant concern.
Whether or not claims such as these are true, they play on both parents’ worst fears and children’s innocence.
And whether or not these claims are true, they highlight the need to revisit yet again the question of how parents keep children safe in an online culture. How do we safeguard our kids from online predators, social media bullies and the infiltration of apps, programs and platforms with disturbing content?
When the images are subtly hidden at times and blatantly in their face at others, it seems impossible to shield them without putting a blanket ban on certain Apps and sites or at a minimum, watching programs alongside children (and who has time to watch another ‘how to make slime’ or ‘repair a squishy’ video?). Whilst I jest, it is a serious issue and believe me, my first instinct when I saw Momo was to ban my children from any kind of screen, forever! That is reactive and impractical, I know, however it is a reflection of a universal Mamma Bear desire to protect our offspring and preserve their innocence.
The reality though is that screens and being online is part of our world, and an even bigger part of our children’s worlds. So, rather than pulling the boat out of the ocean, we need to navigate these unchartered waters with our children.
In general, I place high value on children developing their own instincts about what is appropriate to watch, what causes them to feel squirmy and to develop their own judgment about when to turn social media or a program off. And I believe that the values of self-responsibility and internal judgment apply as much to other issues such as drugs, alcohol, friends, relationships and sex, as they do to screens.
In a few short years, my children will be independently making choices about these things. Whether I like it or not, I won’t be there to protect or defend them as they find their way in this world, with all its rights and wrongs and shades of grey. They will have to make up their own minds, about so many things, from what subjects to choose in high school, what to wear to a job interview and what kind of health and lifestyle they would like to pursue. Not to mention the hundreds of of day-to-day decisions they’ll need to make. It is not my job to make those choices for them but rather to guide them and equip them to make those choices for themselves. My desire is that they are motivated to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because they will receive a reward or punishment.
Therefore the best chance I have of being able to share my values with them and in turn have the opportunity to influence them, is not by banning them from screens or using force. Yes, setting clear limits is paramount, but using power and threats alone is fraught with problems. For one, children who want badly enough to do or see something online are likely to become sneaky if they do not have sufficient freedom and space to explore. On the flip side, another child’s temperament may see them becoming submissive, not learning the skills necessary to be autonomous in their decisions, leaving them vulnerable to the negative influences of others.
Having a close, connected and respectful relationship with their children gives parents the best chance of sharing their values and concerns with them. It keeps the lines of communication open rather than sending behaviour underground. With this ideal in mind, it is paramount that parents foster an atmosphere in which their children can feel comfortable and confident to tell them anything, without fear of judgment or worries about getting into trouble. This encourages them to make decisions for themselves, yet have the confidence and comfort of knowing that they can come to their parents when things are tough.
This type of relationship requires our acceptance and trust. However I am not talking about blind trust. I am talking about building trust over time.
How do we do that? How do we develop that kind of relationship?
The trust we earn from our children so that they share the big stuff with us is built by listening to the little stuff along the way. In other words we can’t expect our children to suddenly tell us they’ve amassed a credit card debt, when we haven’t listened to the disappointment of not having enough coins in their money box to buy the cute toy they saw at the shops.
Nor can we expect honesty, openness and trust to develop if we dismiss or minimize children’s concerns. We have to be available. We have to be fully present, which may mean turning off our own technology. We have to make time, often when we don’t have it, because these conversations do not necessarily arise at convenient moments. Bedtime is frequently when children’s troubling thoughts surface as they process their day, exactly the time we’re tired and all we want is for them to go to sleep so that we can have some much-needed time to ourselves. So as well as creating time to talk, we need to be ready to grab opportunities to listen when they arise.
In the same way, learning to make decisions and be responsible for those choices doesn't start when your child is confronted with whether or not to get into a car with a drunken friend, or is deciding whether to leave a nightclub with the boy they’ve just met. It begins when we allow them to make decisions about what to wear to the school picnic or which friends to invite for a play date.
Another thing that builds this type of relationship is connection. Connection looks different for each parent and child combination but usually includes conversation, acceptance and fun. Never underestimate the power of playing with your children. Research shows that adults need play as much as children so everyone will benefit. Spend time with your children, listen to them and try to see things from their perspective. They are living in a world different from the one we grew up in so trying to understand their experiences and viewpoint is necessary for us to be able to support them.
I may appear to have wandered off track from keeping our children safe online, but there is plenty of information about how to do that, from installing content filters, setting up and signing contracts for computer usage, keeping devices out of bedrooms to knowing and watching what our kids are doing online.
There is a delicate balance to be struck between providing children with the firm, clear boundaries to keep them safe, allowing them to make decisions for themselves, and fostering relationships which encourage open discussion, acceptance and sharing of values.
At the end of the day the most powerful tool we have in parenting is the relationship we build with our children.
If you'd like to know more about developing connected relationships with your children, contact Melissa or check out the programs on the Enjoy Parenting website.