Your child has grown up surrounded by technology both at home and at school. Their friends, family, teachers and the key adults in their life, like you, are using the internet, TVs, mobile phones, computers and tablets daily, and technology is certainly a big part of their everyday life.
In 2019, research by OFCOM showed that half of ten-year olds already own their own smart phone, and those who didn’t still often had access to some form of internet device. Children are naturally curious and want to explore so may want to spend lots of time on their phones, watching videos and playing games! They know that the internet allows them to play, connect, learn, create and do lots of fun stuff – and at this age it might feel like they want more and more access to the internet, whilst you may not be so sure.
If this sounds familiar, then you are certainly not alone.
There are lots of mixed messages about children and the internet and it can be hard to sift fact from fiction. We spoke to parents of 6 – 12 year olds who told us about the reasons their children love the internet, and also about the things which caused them headaches about their children and their internet use.
Reasons why kids love the internet
Playing together - number one on the list of things that their children loved about the internet was playing games. It’s fun, challenging and exciting and children can really enjoy you playing along with them – just like in any type of game. Online games can be a way of connecting with other internet users, including friends, family and other children from school. This can also include other players from all around the world in some games.
Learning new stuff – from learning new dance crazes, the words to their favourite songs, creating videos and images as well as doing school work, learning about world history, social issues and about people from different walks of life: the internet gives children potential to learn new skills and knowledge about the world.
Connecting – never before has there been more of a need for us to stay connected and this is just as true for children. At this young age, children can enjoy video calling, instant messaging and sending photos to stay in touch and to experience a sense of belonging with their family and friends, whether from miles away or with the new friend at school.
Getting Help – for some children, the internet is a way of finding out information, advice and help on topics that they don’t feel able to talk to an adult about. This might be about a problem at home or at school for example like bullying and helping them understand their rights and how to identify adults who can help.
The headaches for Parents
"Are they ready for their own device?" – What we learnt from parents is that every family is different. There was no general agreement on how old a child should be before they are ‘ready to have their own device’.
Some parents had practical concerns about the cost of the device or were worried that their child would lose or break it. Some felt that their child was ‘ready’ as they approached secondary school and were growing in independence, whereas others thought it was more important to try and understand the different things children could do on a device and try and predict what might happen. There were no right answers, but certainly parents made decisions based on knowing their child best.
"It’s always on" – parents were worried about how much time their children spent online and recognised it ‘was always on’. Most of the parents of the younger children admitted that they had told their children that the battery had worn out or the device was broken just in order to get the child to put the device away, and for the parents with older children this trick was no longer working!
"I can’t control it 24/7" – parents said that it was just not realistic to control or monitor their child’s internet use 24/7. The apps and platforms their children were using were confusing and complicated and things like privacy settings all worked differently. Parents also gave examples of being sat in the same room as their child whilst they were using a device only for something unexpected to happen. These included contact by an unwanted person, pop-ups that showed explicit images, cyber-bullying and sexual messages sent by adults.
Child Safety and the Internet
For many, it can be tempting to think that we can educate children into being able to ‘keep themselves safe’ whilst using the internet, but the truth is that even adults cannot always predict when harm is going to happen on the internet. Online fraud, cyber-scams and malware virus attacks successfully target adults from all walks of life on a regular basis. For children, it is the same.
What we know about online abuse and exploitation is that the abusers’ behaviour means that most children will not be able to understand they’ve been abused until long after it has happened. This is because of the huge power imbalance abusers create. When children do realise, they often feel it is their fault and try to keep it secret out of fear that they will be blamed, punished and have their device taken away.
Just Keep Talking
Children have told us that having conversations about their online life is really important, and that keeping it as part of the day-to-day things that you talk to your child about is often better than having just one ‘Big Talk’ about the internet. Letting children know that you are interested and want to support their online life is a way of:
Finding out what’s going on, what’s going well, what they are enjoying, seeing and experiencing
- What they feel funny about, not quite right or concerned about
- Letting them know that they can talk to you if something isn’t ok or if something has upset or worried them online
- Letting them know they won’t be blamed or punished if they have seen something unpleasant, but rather that they can talk to you about it
It can also help children to know that they can talk to other adults too – not just you. Are there other parents, relatives or friends in your network who you can encourage to listen to your child about their online life?
Tips on Talking about Online Life
Try joining in – find out about the games that your child enjoys, join in if you can and let them show you how to play.
Talk about feelings – your child might not have the words to explain exactly if there is something wrong online but may be able to let you know how something made them feel for you to understand.
Let them know you want to help – remind them that they can talk to you about anything which is difficult online. Filters, blocks and privacy settings don’t stop everything so try to keep the conversations going.
Your reactions are normal - if your child tells you something that worries you, or if you see something on your child’s device which concerns you there are a range of normal reactions. You may feel angry with yourself, and/or your child. You may also, want to take away a device immediately, which may feel like a punishment to your child and lead to arguments. These reactions are all normal and stem from your desire to protect your child and make them safe. But remember, it isn’t your fault and you are not to blame. Go easy on yourself.
Be reassuring – if trying to deal with a difficult subject and not sure how to respond, always let children know that they aren’t in trouble, what has happened is not their fault and reassure them that you can work anything out together.
Seek support - Don’t be worried about talking to other parents - they are probably going through similar worries and questions and you won’t be alone. You can also seek support from your child’s teacher, their school nurse or use helplines like Kidscape if you are concerned.
As your child starts to become more engrossed in online life it might feel impossible to become an expert in every platform and app. That’s OK, the key to supporting them to navigate the online world is the relationship and conversations you, and other trusted adults, have with your child. You’ve got this!