With digital technology and the Internet being a part of almost every home, a common concern for most parents is on how to manage their child’s use of the Internet and how to make it a safer experience for them.
Mr Nicholas Gabriel Lim, a father of three and Developmental Psychologist, Children- at-Risk Empowerment Association (CARE) Singapore and Chairperson, Youth Sub-Committee, Media Literacy Council, shared his views:
Q1. What makes the Internet dangerous for children? What should parents do?
The Internet is like the real world that we live in. There are all kinds of people in the cyber world. One can never be certain who we are going to meet. One can pretend to be someone else on the Internet just as in real life. Who is to know? Anything that happens in the real world, can also happen on the Internet – from playing games, to bullying and to even having sex! So what kind of dangers are we talking about?
We should be talking about the misuse and the excessive use of the Internet. As we all know, anything done excessively, not just the Internet, is likely to lead to some form of hurt or danger to oneself. As parents, you need to educate your child on the appropriate use of the Internet and the importance of managing the amount of time spent on it.
Parents should gradually expose their children to age-appropriate materials online, and guide their learning along the way. The younger the child, the more involved parents need to be when the child is on the Internet. As children grow older, parents must maintain a presence when their child is on the Internet to foster bonding, dialogue, and, more importantly, empowerment. Parents should, therefore, try to organize time together with their children online. This could be to have fun, to get to know each other better and to encourage healthy behaviour. A strong sense of empowerment can be forged during such times of recognition and being together. Eventually, the child will know what behaviour is appropriate and healthy when using the Internet, even without adult supervision.
I have two house rules at home: watching television can only be for an hour after dinner and Internet usage is confined to educational YouTube videos. Even for the latter, a maximum of three videos can be viewed at each session with an adult present. My wife and I enforce these rules at all times.
Q2. Why is it difficult to keep track of a child’s online activity?
Typically, the difficulty lies in the child’s rate of learning. One activity often leads to another very quickly because the child learns to move from one lesson to another very quickly, too. This is significantly accelerated when the activity is fun: when it makes the child feel good about himself or herself; when it’s new and interesting; and when he or she has the opportunity to later show someone else how the activity was completed or how a challenge was overcome. By this time, the child would be way ahead of the parent in terms of understanding the activity or the challenge. The parent is then likely to have little or no idea as to what the child has gone through.
Two things can happen here:
- If the parent engages the child positively, the child could share with the parent about the journey he went through; the lessons he had learnt; or and even how the challenges were overcome. Through consistent positive engagement, the child will be honest and open in his sharing with his parents.
- If the parent engages the child negatively, the child will hesitate to share and over time, associate sharing with getting himself into trouble. Thus, the child will have reason to not share about his or her online activities.
From young, children tend to want to share with their parents everything that they do. They only start lying or hiding when their sense of security is at stake. If parents can help them feel safe to share, keeping track of their children’s activities will no longer be a concern, regardless of them being online or off-line.
Q3. What are some practical tips for parents to make exploring the Internet a safer experience for their children?
Installing a child lock and monitoring software is one of the easiest things to do. These programs are easily (and cheaply) available. This would, no doubt, keep parents informed on how and what to look out for. Another tip would be to set boundaries on Internet usage. These boundaries can be re-set as the child grows up and is best done in discussion between the child and his parents.
Having said this, the key question remains: Would all these enhance the relationship between a parent and the child? Would the child openly and honestly share their life or online activities with the parent? If the answer is no, then these tips may not be helpful. The focus should always be about the best interest of the child and how the relationship can be built and strengthened at every step of the way, even if a website monitoring software is installed on the computer.
Q4. What can parents do to teach responsible and safe Internet use to teens?
This is not that difficult to do if we understand what matters to our children when they are at different ages. Typically, a teenager’s ability to understand the social and emotional complexities are similar to those of adults neurologically. Therefore, to teach responsible and safe Internet use, a parent has to relate it to their teen’s social life or emotional state more, to help them understand.
Here is a simple example: John took pictures at his friend’s 16th birthday celebration and decided to post them on Facebook. His parents could ask him if he had considered whether his friends would mind him posting their pictures online. Or he could be asked if he liked the idea of his friends posting pictures of him online without his permission, especially if the pictures could embarrass him. Such questions facilitate consideration for others and help build an understanding of how one would feel under circumstances that one would otherwise have not considered.