I want to outline some disturbing statistics before I reflect on some aspects.
Who of us are experts in education? Many of us are. Who of us are experts in children’s learning? Many of us are.
Who of us are experts in pornography or sexting? Therefore, how well prepared are we to support children with these challenges?
Now, have you ever reflected on the fact that you, and we all, let your/our children play online without supervision, but you/we don’t let them play outside on their own anymore. How can this be acceptable? Which is more dangerous in today’s society? Should online supervision not be equally important? Which holds the greatest risks; the park, or the online world?
Childhood has changed. Some of us grew up with TV that finished by 6pm, and with a handful of channels available to us. Today, children’s media is 24/7 and today our children are not just watching on one screen, but on many, often at the same time. Their access to information on screens is no longer bounded. It’s limitless, at any time of the day or night.
How much bias are we bringing from our memories, and how often are we actually bringing current evidence-based approaches when we discuss or review what our children are doing online? If we bring our memories from our own experiences to the discussion, we are fundamentally and conclusively using outdated information and knowledge. How often do you actually, as a parent, read the latest evidence and research on such matters? If you do not have the relevant, most up-to-date knowledge, can you really help your child stay safe (or safer…see below) online?
Now, children use and explore sexual aspects online and via mobile phones or tablets. Years ago, children also explored sexual aspects. It was done much more overtly (behind the proverbial bike shed), but they still did it. Now their sexual exploration is hidden as it is online – and subject to millions of differing viewpoints.
The same applies to bullying. Playground bullies left the school at the end of the day and had no influence after that time on the person they were bullying overnight. Therefore, the victim had many hours to “recover” and “have some peace”, in the safety of their home. Today the bully still leaves the site, but they still have 24/7 access to the child they are bullying, so they continue it online. The victim is no longer safe in their own home. Today there is no escape, but even more importantly, today the bullying is public…everyone can see it online or join in on the bullying online. So, the victim now is not only, as in years gone by, bullied by one bully…they are being bullied by everyone who is online.
Research shows that peer on peer abuse is far more prevalent than grooming. Therefore, your child has substantially greater risk of being a victim of peer-on-peer abuse. However, what will really shock you all, is that the highest prevalence of peer-on-peer abuse is now, in 2022, in the age group 8 – 10 year olds. Yes, Years 3 to 6 have the highest prevalence of peer-on-peer abuse.
Children take risks very differently these days. And they will, as all children do, take risks online too. I am frequently amazed by how many parents and adults don’t recognise this. The belief that online activities mean no risk taking, that is a dangerous belief. Even more worrying is how many parents report that they believe that their children are safe online as they have strict filters in their home. However, how many parents know if their children’s friends’ or family members’ houses have similar filters? If you have not checked, why have you not? When your child visits another home, they may be accessing online content that you are not comfortable with.
In today’s world there is a very uncomfortable tension between a child’s right to participate and their right to protection; then added to this dilemma under legislation they also have the right to privacy. So is “safer” online safety a better concept and ambition that “safe” online safety. Safer rather than totally safe; totally safe is unrealistic.
We seem surprised that children are curious about sex. They always have been. They used to research sex in books in the library. Now they simply google sex. We need to keep it in context, children are and have always been naturally curious. We should reflect on our childhood and teenage years.
Technology has changed, and so has society. In previous decades, sex shops were hidden on the outskirts of the towns, often blacked out with “adults only” signposts. Now Ann Summers, by way of example, is in the high street. Music videos and lyrics today are highly sexualised. It is naïve then for us to assume or expect our children to be oblivious to sexual issues. We also need to realise that pornography is not illegal in the UK. Some of course is, but much is not. This is critical to understand.
Years ago, parents who were nervous about having the “birds and bees” talk with their children often just left an appropriate book on the child’s bed. Now parents often tell the child to look it up online. Do they have any idea what children will find if the google the word “sex”? I encourage you to google it, find out for yourself.
Let’s consider video games and do check out the figures I have given on these. How many parents have actually played the games they are allowing their children to play? If you have not, why not? What would responsible parenting look like in this regard?
Restricting screen time is also not the answer. Ten minutes playing a sexually violent game is far worse than three hours on a milder game. So never use screen time restrictions as a riposte when asked if you are effectively monitoring what your child is doing online.
Note too that children today are often going online to get answers as they are not able to get these offline. If the family home is not a place where open and frank discussions are commonplace or where any members of the household can openly ask and discuss any aspects and talk about their feelings, then it is safe to expect that the child will search for the information they want online. Research into children who self-harm report that these children openly state that they go online for advice as they can’t find the information offline i.e. from people in their homes and other places with whom they can discuss or ask questions.
TikTok is seen by many researchers as the most toxic threat to our children. We are aware that very few parental online controls work and that children as young as 5 and 6 know how to override these. Researchers believe that the only way to support safe online activity is through:
Now, in closing, I challenge all parents:
As ever, we need to listen to our children, and not judge them.