June 14, 2024
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June 14, 2024
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Talk to your children regularly about their online lives. Internet safety should be treated like only crossing on the green and caution with strangers, as new studies show the frequency of exposure to inappropriate subject matter including violence, hatred, sexual content, bullying and other unsuitable material when using the internet.

It’s normal to have conversations about crossing the road, bullying and talking to strangers, but with the digital world changing all the time, it can be hard to have conversations about staying safe online. In a recent survey, two-thirds of children admitted to using apps while under the age limit. Popular sites such as YouTube, Facebook, SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, WhatsApp and Musically all have a minimum age of 13.

The survey found that a third had seen violence and hatred online; a fifth had seen sexual content and bullying. In every category, live-streaming sites were the worst offenders, with content relating to suicide and self-harm, bullying and violence reported by 18 percent, 31 percent and 46 percent of reviewers, respectively. More than a third of the children surveyed had added a stranger to their contacts in the past six months, and quarter said they were likely or very likely to add someone they didn’t know in the future.

As soon as children have devices they should learn to be “share aware.” They need to know how to think about the images they are sharing; the types of information they share, such as their location; and whom they are speaking to. You wouldn’t want them to talk to strangers in real life, but when they’re on Minecraft, do you know who’s messaging them? A lot of the chat has moved to Snapchat, which is like the magically disappearing piece of paper we used to pass round when we were kids.

By having regular conversations as soon as children go online, parents can keep up to date with the apps and games their children like and the safety issues they may present. Most children, like all of us, are on their devices every day. Having frequent conversations will help parents spot any problems, but will also encourage children to talk when they are worried about anything.

It would be nice if online social networks were regulated, so firms can be held accountable if they fail to protect children. If there were regulations, safeguarding standards and strict privacy and filter settings as a default, that too would be helpful. However, parents often find themselves baffled by online safety measures, and are unable to go through devices and change the settings if necessary.

Children may or may not want their parents to be part of their online life and to talk to them about it just as they do about their day at school. However, to children, online friends are real friends. Online life is real life. There is no distinction. Just like in real life, children need our help to stay safe online.

Another issue concerns children addicted to online games. Some spend hours on gaming sessions. It is an enormous and growing problem for youngsters. Medical and addiction experts, and parents, are becoming increasingly concerned about the amount of time children are spending playing online games such as League of Legends, World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto. Some doctors are reporting that parents were asking for sleeping pills for their children since parents rank their children’s screen time, and how to control it, as their greatest challenge—bigger than the traditional issues of homework or healthy eating.

Gaming gives children a lot of satisfaction and positive reinforcement, and it can build their confidence. But that can make it become addictive. Said one such addict: “When I’m playing I know every hour I could be doing something else with my life, but it gives you a weird sense of fulfilment, like you’re achieving something.” The gaming industry is reluctant to acknowledge any social responsibility, but brands are cashing in on the growing demand. It has been calculated that spending on games will top 10 times more than what households spend on traditional board games such as Monopoly or Scrabble.

These games are designed to keep you playing, and parents have few places to turn to if they are worried about their children’s gaming. There is no telephone helpline, and pediatricians and schools, while are increasingly aware of the problem, have limited expertise in dealing with it.

Most experts agree that the escapism and socialization aspects of online gaming are a big part of the appeal. In League of Legends, for example, there is a clan system whereby players can invite others on to their list of friends, and then play as a group against other teams. But it is not necessarily a friendly environment. If you’re playing and make a mistake, you can have four people on your own team screaming at you, wishing malevolence to you and your family. People take it so seriously, they lose touch with reality.

Children losing touch with reality is a major concern for parents. But gaming dependency—unlike gambling dependency, for example—is yet to be recognized with a formal diagnosis, and there is limited funding for research. We’re under-aware of it, and we’re therefore minimizing what the potential problems are. Child psychologists report that children as young as 11 are becoming hooked on pornography. Technology pulls children away from their most developmentally important places: family and school.

Even in Silicon Valley, parents struggle to navigate the online risks and opportunities for their children. The internet might be the first place to turn for homework and entertainment, but how much should parents intervene to protect their children from adult content, cyberbullying and being contacted by dangerous strangers?

Trying to control access is massively complex. The kids have got smartphones, laptops, iPads and game boxes, and every one of them is connected to the internet. Trying to control all that access across a mishmash of platforms and devices is extremely difficult. The tools we use to try and restrict access to certain types of sites are ineffective and block content needed for them to do their homework. The only method for control is training. Teach them about the internet just like you’ve got to teach them about sex, drugs and car safety.

Parents are all working very long hours in stressful jobs and don’t have as much time to be with their kids [fodder for another article]. We must drill into them what is appropriate and what is legal, and that if they get caught sending stuff online it’s a legal document and will be used against them in a way that whispering something mean can’t be.

We shouldn’t spy on our kids—unless we have to. It’s crazy that parents think they should have their passwords and use tracking tools. Before these things existed were you bugging your kids? It’s absurd that this should be the norm these days. We might also ask them not to take their phones or laptops into their bedrooms at night because it affects their quality of sleep.

If you binge on anything too much—TV, computer, phone, candy, fatty food, salt, whatever—it’s bad for your body and mind. If you are constantly playing games for hours every day it will erode your interests in other things.

You can’t shelter your kids from the world. The internet is accessible everywhere and they know how to use private browsing. If you are worried about a particular website check with Commonsense Media to see what age rating they give it. You can’t watch over your children or be with them 100 percent of the time, so we need to teach them how to make good decisions and know when things might be dangerous. Ironically, most people in the tech world restrict their kids’ tech usage, while friends outside tech are much more liberal.

No matter how good the technology is, it’s a parenting problem as much as a tech problem. Your kid will run into content that’s too mature and it creates the need for difficult conversations. The internet is messy and filled with a lot of different stuff so you need to have those conversations early—at 8, 9 or 10, rather than when they are 12, 13 or 14.

We as a society believe that when kids hit their teens or preteens they should be engaging with peers and technology. That’s a modern fabrication. Kids have always needed family first, and kids who spend more than two hours a day on a social network have high levels of psychological distress.

Our main concern with social media and gaming is that they are developed by psychologists and user researchers who focus on making sure that the product is not put down. It’s nearly impossible to use just a little bit.

By Wallace Greene

 Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene remembers wistfully the days when children would come home from school, get a snack, play outdoors, or maybe watch a half hour of TV, and then do homework.


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