Dublin - As our children and teenagers have grown up we have tried to show them how to behave, at home, in school, at their friends’ houses, in their grannies’ houses, at the shops, on buses and so on.
We take an active interest in both demonstrating and explaining what is okay and not okay in each of these kinds of situations. Naturally, for all of our teaching, they will sometimes get it wrong and will occasionally be deliberate in misbehaving.
According to research data from the US, 95 percent of all youngsters aged 12 to 17 are now online and 80 percent of those online teenagers are users of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
The online world is a completely new environment where our children and teenagers are interacting with others. But because we perhaps aren’t so familiar with that environment, we don’t usually give them the same steer in terms of their behaviour.
Often we just assume that they will act the same online as they do in real life. We hope that our values (like respect, honesty, kindness, trust, thoughtfulness and responsibility) will automatically go with them into an online world.
Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.
If we look at an average sample of what gets said and shared by teenagers on social networking sites, we find the same pattern of “passing the time” banter as they use in person, spiced up with exactly the same flirting, teasing, boasting and so on.
What is different, however, is that social networks can be much broader, with youngsters potentially connected to several different groups. They may not even know some of their online “friends”. Equally, then, they cannot be so confident about how their “banter” will be perceived more broadly.
So we do need to discuss with them some of the key differences between the online world and the real world.
Firstly they need to realise that they may only be giving partial information in their online communication.
Face-to-face verbal communication relies heavily on things like tone of voice, or facial expression or eye contact, to add emotional meaning to what we say and what we hear. That is all absent in text or digital communication.
It is very easy to misinterpret what is communicated in text format, by phone or computer, because there is so much emotional context missing. Think how hard you may have worked to frame certain emails so that someone didn’t accidentally take offence or misunderstand your intention.
Teenagers are notoriously flippant or quick in their responses by text or instant message. They may not think through their responses to others, in the context of how they will be understood. We need to remind them to slow down and think about what they type.
Doing this may also help them to avoid ending up as an aggressor online. Even youngsters who may not consider bullying in person can be tempted to either join in online bullying or to deliberately target someone in their own right.
Taunting or teasing is made easier by the emotional remove that is created by facing a screen and not the person. Communicating online seems to remove some of the protective social inhibitions we have.
For example, we don’t have to face the emotional response of the person to a cutting remark we might make; we can feel braver and more insulated in being aggressive. We parents might need to remind our sons and daughters not to say online what they wouldn’t say in person.
Another crucial area of online life that children and teenagers seem not to consider is the longevity of their internet postings and commentaries. In fairness, teenagers don’t usually plan much past their next meal so it might be a bit much to expect them to think about what will happen to all this information in years to come.
But we know that some employers are seeking access to employees’ or potential employees’ Facebook or social media accounts and trawl the internet for additional information about job applicants.
So we have to alert our children to the fact that their behaviour and attitudes, as displayed in their photos and postings online, may be perceived differently when they are older.
It may seem okay to them as part of their current peer group to express racist, homophobic or sexist attitudes. But they may well be called to account for those views later.
Raunchy, drunken or stoned photos of themselves or others may seem hilarious at the time they are uploaded. But hindsight can demonstrate the huge harm, distress or embarrassment that can be caused.
Also we need to teach our children and teenagers about the many predators (usually, but not exclusively, men) who target girls and boys online for abuse – teenagers may not think through the level of exposure that their Facebook page allows, for example.
They may believe and trust the bona fides of befrienders online and may disclose information that can make them vulnerable. Even if they are not targeted, youngsters rarely think about the potential recipients of naked or semi-naked photos of themselves that they flirtatiously send to genuine friends, boyfriends or girlfriends.
Once information is shared online you can never unshare it. This is a painful lesson that some teenagers will learn at great cost.
I don’t think that there can be one single recommended approach to how we let children and teenagers engage with the internet. Given the speed at which media and the internet are developing, there are so many issues for which we don’t have our own moral blueprint.
We can get no pointers or guidance from our parents about internet-related issues since it didn’t exist in our childhoods. So we are making this up as we go along, basing our approach on our wider value system.
The more we talk about our values and the more we live them out in our daily lives, the more chance that our children will be influenced by them. Perhaps it is as simple as telling them: “If you don’t do it in the real world then don’t do it on the internet either.”
That said, I also think there are some basic rules that, if taught early, will definitely help.
* Set ground rules about acceptable time limits for being online in any one sitting.
* Set an absolute nightly cut-off time for all media to make it easier for their brains to wind down for sleep.
* For younger children especially, supervise all of their time online so that you can be available to help, direct and instruct. (You can reduce this as they get older, wiser and more clued in to keeping themselves safe.)
* Use filtering software to minimise or eliminate the likelihood of unwanted pornography being available.
* Set ground rules about not clicking on pop-up windows (these are common portals to pornography and to computer viruses).
* Set ground rules about not sharing their personal details online.
* Remind older children and teenagers of the potential permanency of any online posts they make.
* Establish an understanding that you will make random parental checks of internet use and social network use (even if teenagers have the skill to clear their online tracks).
* Pool information as a family, since older children or teenagers may know more than us and can share their experience with their younger siblings.
* Have occasional discussions about the internet (it benefits and dangers), as a family, to show that you are willing to engage with the issues.
* Set expectations about treating people with dignity and respect online. – Irish Independent