What I wish parents knew about cyber safety
DIGITAL technologies provide considerable opportunities and benefits for our lives, especially in the education sphere, and there's no denying that using technologies is both enjoyable and productive for most people.
While we all love our devices, the fact that we can be connected personally 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to a vast world of information and people has been a game changer.
It also brings with it the very real risk of harm, especially to young people.
As a school principal, I have witnessed firsthand the dangers of technology for students. Unfortunately, too many parents are blissfully unaware of the threats that are just a click away.
We all need take charge and be proactive when it comes to our children's use of technology.
Most people use some form of anti-virus, malware and phishing software on their home devices to guard against well-understood threats, but far fewer use web filtering software to protect family users from exposure to pornography and inappropriate content.
It is astonishing the number of children and young people who have completely unrestricted access to the internet at home, especially on tablets and phones.
There are many great products on the market which can offer at least some degree of protection, but these are not failsafe and there is no substitute for effective supervision.
One of the biggest challenges is the sense of shame children feel when they stumble across inappropriate content or perhaps go looking for it out of curiosity.
The crippling nature of shame means that too often children are unlikely to approach a parent or trusted adult about what has happened for fear of judgment or consequences.
Parents need to undertake difficult-to-have conversations ahead of time with their children about what they should do when (and not if) they come across this stuff.
Kids must know that it will always be safe to talk to mum or dad about it.
Parents should know how to use the in-built parental controls of the devices their kids use and should make use of filtering and web-control tools such as ContentWatch Net Nanny for PC and Mac and OurPact for iOS and Android.
Even with this kind of software, it is recommended that a child should never have unsupervised access to the Internet behind closed doors in the privacy of their bedroom.
What parents need to understand is that children do not even need to go looking for explicitly sexual or violent material on the internet - in many cases it just comes to them through the power of social media via their news feed.
ADVICE FOR SOCIAL MEDIA USE
• Check privacy settings
• Check who their friends are
• Cull "Friends" who don't share your values
• Talk about the ways they represent themselves online
• Challenge them about their "likes", comments and language
Imagine that a young person has 500 friends on social media (a very low number by some standards) and that those friends also have 500 friends.
Every time one of those people "likes" or shares something it then pops up in the news feeds of all their friends where it may be "liked" and shared again and again, all in a very short space of time.
All it takes is just one person in these networks to "like" or share something explicit or just plain vile for it to spread and appear in everyone's news feeds.
I know what is blocked by our college's web filter from social media pages and it is shocking. While this material may be blocked on campus and on the school device, it will be viewable on any unfiltered connection the child uses.
It is sickening to think that many young people are exposed to highly explicit and damaging content, including violent sexual practices.
It is not how we want children and young people to learn about sex and sexuality.
GOLDEN RULES FOR STUDENTS
1. It's never okay to discuss others online
2. If you'd be embarrassed to say it face to face, don't say it online
3. It's never okay to start or continue an argument online
4. Never, ever respond to negative comments from others about yourself or others online.
5. Don't tolerate these behaviours from your friends.
Many kids are not good at limiting the friend requests they accept to their actual friends, nor are they adept at using the inbuilt tools of social media to filter out undesirable content.
We need parents help to supervise and get involved in their children's use of social media to protect them.
A difficult reality to come to terms with is that there are people out there who will go to any lengths to use the internet to prey on children.
Don't think this is something that just happens on the news and to other families.
It is so easy for predators to pose as young people, join social media networks, establish rapport and over time to build up enough trust to then start sending and requesting explicit photos.
This can happen in the dead of night via an unfiltered internet connection from the child's bedroom while the parents are sound asleep.
Some children and teens, craving acceptance and affection, will agree to exchange intimate photos of themselves with strangers.
We have to help protect these vulnerable young people from themselves. All devices including mobile phones should be removed from children's bedrooms at night.
A relatively new danger is technology addiction.
Brain research indicates that we should be worried about this and ought to be taking steps to avoid serious problems.
Technology can be addictive because of the release of the pleasure hormone dopamine which occurs when people engage in activities like gaming, Facebooking, texting and simply trawling sites.
Anytime people "like" and comment favourably on our social media posts, we get a little dopamine rush, it feels good and we want more.
It's very easy to lose track of time or fail to be in the moment with our friends or family because we are distracted by our devices.
• 45 minutes per day for gaming and/or social media activities; more than an hour and the brain starts to build the defence barrier.
• Discourage multi-tasking
• Stop all dopamine related technology 60 minutes before bedtime.
• Turn off social media during term time.
• Take a regular technology detox or reset, and have technology free holidays
• Parents lead by example in the home
When we spend hours doing these activities the brain is saturated with dopamine for extended periods of time and it needs to build a chemical barrier to protect itself.
Scientists tell us this occurs after just one hour which is why over time people need more of the activity to experience the same degree of pleasure.
Chronic time wasting and social isolation, anxiety and mood swings are just some of the emerging consequences of technology addiction.
Many young people also show signs of sleep deprivation, which is disastrous for mental health, because they are getting dopamine hits right up to bedtime and may even be on their devices throughout the night.
Time limits on devices
The guidelines for safe use are clear - these activities should be restricted to an hour a day and cease an hour before bedtime.
Devices should be removed from bedrooms overnight, especially considering the impact of blue light emissions from screens which is known to throw the body's biological clock-the circadian rhythm-out of whack.
The good news is that the effects of technology addiction are reversible by going cold turkey thanks to the brain's neuroplasticity.
Having a regular technology fast or detox is a great idea for everyone.
Technology is an important, integral and enjoyable part of our lives.
But it comes with very real threats.
The worst thing we can do is to trust that everything with be okay if we simply do nothing.
As parents, we must be proactive, set boundaries and put things in place to make it safe for children and teens.
There's no doubt it is challenging to have conversations with children about some of these things, but it is absolutely necessary that children are alert to the risks and know what to do if the need arises.
Young people have to know that no stranger is safe and to guard their privacy at all costs.
MAKING CHANGES AT HOME
• Have a clear plan and be united as parents
• Put it in writing for your children
• Announce the changes, explaining the reasons and values behind your decisions
• Give your child a week's take up time
• Expect the worst
• Have another meeting before the plan goes live
• Stay the course.
There are some absolutes - no unsupervised use of unfiltered internet, no devices in the bedroom overnight and firm time limits are needed for gaming and social media.
Remember that it's good to take technology free holidays and fasts at regular intervals - put them on the calendar.
And lastly, it is powerful when the adults in a child's life model healthy technology habits and practices.
Greg Mattiske is principal of Suncoast Christian College and has had more than two decades in education, including involvement in English curriculum development and the introduction of laptop program back at the college in 2009.