As I talked about in last week’s column, there are many risks inherent in the online world for children and adolescents. We are all too familiar with numerous stories about bullying and harassment that occurs through social media, and as parents and those who work with this age group, most of us wish to do whatever we can to minimize harm that comes from online sources, and encourage its healthy use as much as possible. Without question, one of the most dangerous threats comes from the easy access to pornography that the internet provides, and the temptation it can have for children and adolescents alike.
When I have talked to parents about this issue, it has become apparent that there are two general methods with which to respond to it. The first method involves using technology to assist in understanding exactly what our children are accessing online, especially (but not limited to) in the home. From Norton Family software, to numerous different apps that can be downloaded onto phones and tablets, there are many options in terms of finding different ways to monitor internet usage. Parents have the ability to see which websites have been accessed using the home wireless network, or going further and finding exactly where and when their children are located in the local area, as well as monitoring Facebook and Twitter activity. Truly, the means available with which to monitor young people has never been as developed and far-reaching as it is today.
The second method relies far less upon using the latest technology to monitor, well, technology – and far more upon maintaining a healthy connection with one’s children. This includes conducting conversations about the fact that any information posted online is almost irreversible, and any damage done to others (or ourselves) can last for a very long time. In other words, creating awareness of the advantages and dangers of the online world becomes the means of parental supervision of its use. This can also involve some very frank conversations about the dangers of accessing pornography online, including its ease and far-reaching effects that are not easily undone.
So which method has been proven more effective in reducing exposure to potentially harmful risks found online? Seldom is any answer ever truly black and white, and such is the case here as well. However, the best answer for any parent may come from answering this question: “To what degree am I prepared to conduct surveillance upon my children and/or teens, and am I doing it instead of or in addition to maintaining a healthy, nurturing connection with them?” I would suggest that keeping children at arms’ length while probing deeply into their online world has little value without a willingness to have safe, nonthreatening, yet pointed conversations about their internet habits.
Without a healthy sense of trust and caring that can only come from developing and maintaining a strong relationship with our children, young people have an amazing ability to simply circumvent any efforts we make at monitoring and keeping them accountable. If a parent finds that inappropriate materials have been accessed from a home laptop, for example, the young person may simply connect with another wireless network or borrow a friend’s computer, rather than face the perceived wrath of an upset and disappointed parent. Surveillance, while potentially helpful on a certain level, tends to reduce the degree of trust between parents and children, particularly those in their teen years.
From what I have seen and heard, the healthiest results to responsibly parenting children and teens in the online world come from sharing concerns honestly and clearly, and helping them to understand the pitfalls. Let them know you wish to be aware of what they are doing online, and from time-to-time may check in on them simply because you care and want to protect them. Depending on the age, it may then be appropriate to encourage them to use their own best judgment, and with structures in place, let them explore online; younger children will need more structure and guidance as they learn, teens less. When trust is maintained, and a young person knows that mom and dad are there to “watch their back” rather than catch them “red-handed”, healthy online behavior is usually more likely to be created.