In the season of giving, our children can’t wait to open their beautifully wrapped Christmas presents. They look at every shape under the tree and play guessing games about the contents. When we wrap our children’s gifts, it takes careful planning.
Buying a remote-controlled car? We include the batteries.
Got them the roller-skates? We make sure to add the elbow and knee guards.
Wrapping the bicycle? We definitely include the safety gear, and especially the helmet. If this is their first bicycle, we may even add the training wheels to ensure that their first experience is good.
This year, as the years before, many of our children will be unwrapping a smartphone or a tablet. We want them to participate in and experience the digital world, but how will we adequately prepare them for this new online journey? In the same way we would’ve done if we had to teach them to ride their new bicycle?
Comparing our own learning to ride a bike with teaching our children to be safer online is difficult. Growing up, our parents taught us what to look out for when we first got onto our bikes. Their parents taught them. Generations of advice being passed down. As parents though, we did not grow up in the same online world that our children need to navigate. Our parents may not have even known about smartphones when we were born. We need to consider the online road they are traveling on, the type of device they are driving, how your child is equipped to deal with potential danger, and the type of protection we need to offer.
The online road they’re traveling on
Different roads have different rules. Our children know that, when they ride their bicycle in the park, they have to look out for pedestrians and perhaps some smaller children crossing their path unexpectedly. In contrast, when they’re riding their bike to school, they have to be more aware of traffic and follow all the road signs, be aware of traffic lights and obey the rules. They also know that not following these rules has consequences and that they can get badly hurt.
When they’re traveling on their digital road, they have to understand the “look left, look right, look left again” basics, but they also have to know that different apps have different rules. When chatting in an online game’s chatroom, they should apply the same rules as a simple chat app like WhatsApp: don’t give out personal information, don’t talk to strangers. But using apps like Snapchat or Tik Tok where photos or videos are exchanged, they will be expected to follow a different rulebook.
The device they are driving
With their first bicycle, we would check that the training wheels are screwed on tight and that the brakes of the bike work, right?
Whether they are using a child-friendly phone that was manufactured with online safety in mind, an Apple or an Android-based device (such as Samsung or Huawei), the starting point is always to ensure that the device-specific settings are set in the most protective way. This can include screen time management, some parental controls, and content filters.
Our children are in the driving seat
We spend hours teaching our children how to ride their bikes. Holding on to the bicycle at first, then only to the seat and eventually giving them the freedom to go at it alone.
In cyberspace, we are going on a road trip, but sometimes we won’t be sitting next to them.
Fact is, with your child in the driver’s seat of his or her phone, we have to ensure that they can go some distances on their own. Talk openly to them about what they see, how they experience their online worlds, and how to dodge the potholes on the way.
Have fun online, but play it safe
Keeping them safer in this world means reinventing the way we educate them about cyber safety and, even then, monitoring what they are exposed to, but in a way that also protects their privacy.
As parents, we have to use the full ecosystem of protection. Education from parents and teachers and online resources from experts in cyber safety can go a long way. Making sure that the correct screen time and parental controls are applied is an essential layer and the free solutions are as good as some of the paid versions – give it a try.
So when equipping them with their arm and knee guards, ensure they always wear their cyber safety helmet – FYI play it safe. FYI play it safe is not a parental control app, but rather a complementary layer of added security where parents are kept informed of potentially harmful situations like cyberbullying, talking to strangers/predators, depression, self-harm, suicide, or when they engage in adult content such as pornography, sexting or anything drug-related.
Cyber-smart parenting is about watching them mountain biking on a single-track downhill at a ridiculous speed, but with the certainty that they are protected and are less likely to get hurt if they fall.
It is about building better relationships with our children, where we have the information to discuss actual difficult situations they encounter, rather than hypothetical scenarios. Where our guidance actively influences the content they search for, post, and like on social media. Where we have the opportunity to guide them on who they accept as friends or which messages on chats they react to and more importantly, how they respond.
Safety, whether physical, emotional, psychological, or in cyberspace isn’t expensive. It’s priceless.