Making the Internet Safer for Our Children

September 17, 2013
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, Internet usersThe world reacted with horror as 14-year-old Briton, Hannah Smith committed suicide some days ago, after putting up with incessant bullying on ask.fm, a Latvia- based social networking site with millions of adolescents around the globe amongst its about 60 million registered users.

The outrage is quite understandable as it is the 4th death attributed to cyber bullying on ask.fm alone in less than 3 years. The website allows users to post anonymous comments about other users.

Research estimates that in Britain alone, over 3 out of every 10 teenagers experience cyber-bullying.

While many advertisers have hurriedly pulled out of ask.fm (as usual to maintain their “brand name”), many teenagers defend the website. Some users say that they like the anonymous nature of posts as it allows them get honest and candid feedback. Other teenagers simply delete offensive posts/comments.

However, like we have seen in these tragic examples, not all teenagers handle the pressures as optimally as others. How do you know which teen would deal with this in his/her stride? Do you know if your child is the bane of cruel jokes and harsh criticism online?

Why are teenagers particularly vulnerable? At this formative stage of life, teenagers are very impressionable. A good number are dealing with physical, emotional, sporting and intellectual challenges. They have to deal with issues of self-esteem and self-image. Many crave for acceptance among their peers. While in times past, abuse was limited to just the classmates, playmates or schoolmates, it is a different ball game altogether today.

The Internet has become the main playground. A typical teenager now has a network of hundreds and sometimes thousands of friends across social media sites. The identities of some of these “friends” cannot be verified.

Do you know who your child’s/ward’s/niece’s/nephew’s friends are on social media sites? Are you their friend on these sites? Do you even use social media? What is your strategy to prevent cyber bullying? Do you know what pressures your children face online? Do you know how to recognize the danger signs of potential abuse? How safe are they online and what are you doing about it?

Also teenagers are keen to want to belong to the “in crowd”. Many find criticism and rejection very hurtful. Even when they have a good relationship with their parents/guardians, issues of rejection are deeply personal and individuals react in different ways. Some become scared while others are ashamed. Some feel worthless, unattractive, unintelligent, inadequate, incapable or empty – setting the stage for a circle of low self-esteem and depression, which in some cases spiral out of control with tragic consequences. 

The Internet like many other things in life is subject to abuse. The world is full of evil people, criminal gangs and maladjusted individuals.

Another challenge children face online is the menace of child pornography. Child pornography is a multi-billion dollars business globally.

Paedophiles are having a field day creating a network of child sex slaves and child pornography sites. While some of these sites are known, perhaps more worrying is the increasing number of fake child profiles set up by paedophiles on mainstream social media sites. They pose as children, upload stolen photos of other children, lure and stalk their victims offline with sometimes fatal results.

While you may want to shrug off these incidents as extremely unlikely to happen to your children/ward, here are a few things you can do to make the internet safer for them:

Improve Your Knowledge and Use of Social Media

3 year olds have been known to use Ipads and other tablets. I know 8 year olds with pages on some popular social networking sites. It would therefore be foolhardy to assume that your teenager is not using social media. Even if they are not, their friends are. Their use of social media is expected to rise exponentially. It is time to improve your understanding of and participation in social networking sites.

Don’t stand afar – get into the action. Find out what social media sites your child/ward is on, as much as possible join these platforms (if you are not already on them), become their friends on these platforms and engage them offline and online (without necessarily embarrassing them).

Communicate Heart to Heart

How close are you to your children? If you have not established a great relationship with them offline, it is very unlikely that they would want you to be part of their social media community. For most teenagers, their parents are “old school” and are the very last people they want to have as friends online. “Who wants dad or mum snooping around my profile?

Can you as a matter of urgency have some honest discussions with your children about your relationship, their friendships, the Internet, their personal views of themselves, challenges and struggles in school, interests, etc? Can you approach it not just as the “all knowing” parent, but also as a kind and gentle “uncle” or “aunty” figure that is supportive and empathetic?

Is it not time to heal that broken relationship and build trust? If your child encounters bullying (offline or online), would they inform you? If uncle X makes them pose for seductive photos and uploads same online, would you get to find out?

Many parents often realize albeit too late just how much they underestimated not just the size and scale of these challenges but also the ability of the children to cope. Make no mistake, he/she may be over 6 foot tall, but they are as vulnerable as any skinny child with braces.

Look Out for Early Warning Signs

As an active stakeholder in your child’s/ward’s life, you need to take steps to identify the early warning signs of abuse. You need to provide unflinching emotional support when these occur. Become an anti-internet abuse campaigner in their schools and places of worship, etc. But most importantly, help to build their self-esteem. They can be anything – absolutely anything they want to be in life.

I would like to know what your views are!

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