This week, South Africa is marking Child Protection Week. One of the less understood aspects of children’s safety is how best to ensure that they are protected in their navigation of the online world.
As children and adults spend more time online, it appears that the two worlds have become intertwined.
Many argue that the divide between online and offline is in fact artificial, so integral has technology and the online world become in everyday life.
As sophisticated technologies become more widely available, accessible and affordable, the result is a narrowing of the socio-economic gap between who can and who can’t afford these technologies.
A recent study by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) explores how parents use the internet, what knowledge they have of their children’s online activity, and how they engage with their children on issues relating to their online activities.
Understanding this is the first step in ensuring that caregivers are in a position to facilitate safe online experiences for their children.
One of the key findings of the study reveals that while most parents are engaged with their children’s well-being in most aspects of their offline life, when it comes to their use of digital technologies, their interaction is limited, and often non-existent.
This is especially true of parents who do not use the internet themselves.
This is not to say that parents are not concerned about their children’s online activity; rather parents are unsure of how best to engage with their children on this.
The greatest challenges lie in the parents’ knowledge of the technology itself, and the purposes for which they use it and it is these challenges that result in a lack of confidence in talking to their children about what they do online.
Discussions with children suggest that parents’ lack of engagement on this issue may not be a result of the lack of trying.
Rather, children describe themselves as skilled in adopting strategies to ensure that their parents cannot check up on them, such as clearing their internet history or putting passwords on their smartphones.
While South African parents may not always have the technical skills to support their children, this is not what their children necessarily need from them.
Parenting in the digital age is less about providing technical advice and protection, and more about ensuring that a child grows into a skilled and empathetic digital citizen.
In this instance, skilled not only refers to developing the knowledge to use these complex technologies in an efficient and beneficial way, but also about obtaining the skills to navigate the responsibilities, social situations and dangers children can be exposed to online.
Developing these skills is essential to any internet user, and where parents may be lacking in technical skills they make up for it in the way they handle distressing situations.
Parents have a role to play in ensuring that children learn to be empathetic online, use their devices responsibly and provide emotional support if their child is exposed to content that distresses them.
This does not require that parents have a deep technical knowledge, although learning more about these technologies can certainly benefit them and their children.
Parents need to facilitate open channels of communication with their children and use their experience, which their children are lacking, to assist them in navigating the complex social arena of the digital world.
We are only starting to understand what is happening in the world of digital parenting within our South African context, and while this makes it hard to know how best to deal with these challenges, it can be said that the desired outcome is finding a balance, where parents are able to support their children in their online use in such a way that they can maximise the benefits it offers, while providing adequate support and protection to help keep these children safe from potential online risks.
Open relationships and channels of communication are important factors in encouraging children to seek assistance, advice and support from their parents.
* Cara Le Mottee and Joanne Phyfer are researchers at the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention.