In her book Left to Their Own Devices?, the UK director of Care for the Family, Katharine Hill, aims to help parents feel confident about raising their children in the digital age.
She tells me about the concerns that led her to write it: ‘Smartphones and online devices are good in that we use them to keep connected with our family, we have access to information at the touch of a screen and there are games and resources which are great for children – but there are also massive dangers. Even if our children don’t have a smartphone, their friends will. Young people are facing problems with pornography, internet addiction, sexting, grooming, cyberbullying and the struggle to find their worth and identity on social media. As parents, our job is to teach them how to be safe in a digital world, just as we teach them how to be safe when crossing the road.’
Katharine explains that before parents can help their offspring navigate the digital age effectively, they need to recognise the difference in how adults and children approach digital technology.
‘By and large, most parents are digital visitors,’ she says. ‘They visit the internet to do a task, such as online shopping or sending an email. Once the task is done, they log off. But the younger generation are more likely to be digital residents. They have grown up with digital technology and 24/7 access to the internet, so their whole life becomes caught up in it. It’s possible to be a digital resident safely, but the worry for parents occurs when they fall behind their children and fail to keep up with their digital knowledge.’
When it comes to problems such a sexting, porn and internet addiction, Katharine believes that there are two main reasons why some young people end up making unwise choices.
‘Scientists have discovered that, in a teenager’s brain, the prefrontal cortex is still developing – and that’s the part that enables a person to defer instant gratification for long-term gain. It’s sometimes called the “moral policeman”, because it helps us to make sensible decisions.
The younger generation are more likely to be digital residents
‘So, a parent might fail to understand why their teenage daughter is Facetiming her boyfriend till 3am on the night before a GCSE exam, but the reality is that the daughter probably hasn’t thought through the consequences. Her brain isn’t fully developed yet.
‘Secondly, peer pressure is a huge factor influencing young people. If there’s a group of lads gathered round a computer looking at porn, it’s going to be very difficult for one of them to say no. The need for a young person to fit in and be accepted is massive.’
What, then, can parents do to help protect their children from digital dangers?
‘When it comes to porn and sexting, it’s important for families to sit down together and have age-appropriate conversations about healthy relationships and boundaries,’ says Katharine. ‘Parents need to make it clear that porn isn’t real – that there is something better for their children to aim for in their personal relationships.
‘It’s worth talking about the fact that once something is online, it’s online. If the family is having a conversation about sexting, for example, a parent could try to set out the scenario in its most basic terms, saying: “You would never stand up topless in front of your math class – so why would you send a topless photo to a boy at school, who could send it on to someone else?” We want to give our young people the confidence to say no.
‘A good idea is to create a family internet or media agreement. That means setting out some clear rules about what is and isn’t allowed in the home. Some questions worth considering are: Where and when do we use our devices? In our bedrooms? Only after homework? Where do we charge our phones – downstairs overnight? It’s important that the rules are age-appropriate and reflect our family’s values, not the values of our children’s friends.’
Despite the best efforts of parents to ensure the online safety of their children, there are still times when young people make mistakes. In such cases, Katharine urges parents to stay as calm as possible.
The need to fit in and be accepted is massive
‘Let’s say our child has been sexting. Our initial reaction is to be mad – but that’s not helpful,’ she says. ‘We need to listen, keep calm and reassure them that we will help them to deal with any consequences. We all make mistakes – but they need to know that we will be there to support them, whatever happens.
‘Navigating a digital world as a parent can be a bit of a minefield, but it’s not hopeless – we have everything to play for. No one knows our children as we do. We are the greatest influence on our child’s life. It’s down to us to equip our children so that in a world of unlimited possibilities, they have the strength of character to make good choices.’
This article was originally published in The War Cry UK, November 2018