Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

Digital Parenting – Keeping our kids safe online

Our children are growing up in an increasingly digital world.

They live in a world of constant access. They carry a device around in their pockets which allows everyone from friends to advertisers to those who mean them harm to reach them in a millisecond.

It almost seems like a century ago when kids played out in the street – as opposed to online elaborate worlds of adventure – and conversed with real life friends, not avatars in virtual worlds.

As parents we may well feel uncomfortable with it. We may nag them to go outside and get some fresh air and exercise. We may feel it is unnatural to communicate over headsets, but the reality for children growing up in 2018 is that this is their ‘normal’.

And as they navigate their young years through the realms of social media, online gaming and YouTube, placing their whole lives online for the world to see, we need to take our heads from the sand and embrace the digital world ourselves.

kids safety online

Educate ourselves on technology

We need to educate ourselves on the pitfalls, be aware of the dangers and also the great possibilities that are brought forth from being technologically savvy from a young age. And we need to take advantage of the vast array of software out there which will make the virtual policing of our teen’s world a little easier.

In the last 15 years our world has changed beyond recognition. Everything is now at our fingertips. We can shop, we can socialise and we can see far off distant places without ever having to leave the comfort of our sofas.

Because of technology, the world has become a much smaller place and we can talk face to face with someone half way across the world with the mere touch of a button.

Our children can stay connected with their friends, and make new friends online. They can explore virtual worlds, become superheroes and save the world after doing their homework.

kids using the internet

Gaming is encroaching into our classrooms, with Minecraft now being used to bolster the curriculum and many schools use iPads instead of books. The technological tide is too strong to hold back at this stage.

There are many, many benefits associated with these digital developments. But there are also darker elements.

Kids, teens and social media

Our teens live their lives, whether we like it or not, on WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and Messenger. And with their devices perpetually in their pockets, our kids have hours of unsupervised access to the internet daily. Without guidance, they have a free run.

Social media in particular can be a cesspit of toxic and negative jibes and a cyber-bullying is fuelling record levels of anxiety and depression in our kids. There is much to worry about.

We might feel we have lost our kids to these virtual worlds and that we have no control over them, but knowledge, understanding and boundaries are all key to steering them in an often uncharted virtual world. Communication is key.

Impressing upon them the significance of their digital footprint – that those silly pictures with their friends, opinions flavoured by youth and inexperience, rants or arguments with friends will stick around in the ether forever and then some.

We need to warn them that their future employer, future partner, future mother-in-law and even their children will be able to view all of their adventures – in glorious technicolour, and even video – so they should be mindful of what picture they are painting.

Discussing firm limits with your children is the right way to go. The mantra ‘if you wouldn’t do, it, watch it or say it with me watching, then it’s probably not okay’ is a good one to get your kids to live by.

Parental controls – software and tools that you can install online – will give you peace of mind with regards what your kids are viewing online.

There is some amazing software out there that allows you to block age inappropriate material and even the length of time they spend online. Discussing this with your teens and setting the time limits together, so that they feel involved, will work for them.

Befriend your kids on social media. This will be the least popular tip as far as your teen is concerned, however if they know ‘big brother’ or indeed ‘big mother’ is watching they might be a tad more careful about what they are posting.

Don’t let your kids keep their phones in their rooms at night. Social media in particular can be nasty after nightfall. Text messages often get darker and teens could be cajoled into sending inappropriate pictures in the middle of the night by unsavoury elements.

Take all devices from rooms after dark to charge in one place so that their life line is there, fully charged, in the morning.

Kids will do as you do, not necessarily what you say, so be a good role model. Don’t spend your existence with your face in your phone. Put your devices away at meal times and pay attention to those in the real world around you.

Kids should be technology-savvy. They need to be, for that is the future and if they are not familiar with it they will be set adrift in a digital world that is completely alien to them.

But keeping our teens safe in this modern era means understanding what tools we have at our disposal, taking advantage of technology and software but also backing it up with some good old-fashioned parenting.

For more cyber security tips check out our blog on The Need for Life Long Learning in Cyber Security