As a school, one thing that is on our radar as a concern is the potential for children to use technology in an inappropriate way. Sometimes this may be deliberate on their part, but often it is as a result of stumbling across a website or video game that is unsuitable. As a school we spend a lot of time looking at our systems and ways in which we can keep children safe, but how realistic is it to do this at home?
This term we have been running talks for parents regarding the potential dangers of technology and media use. Following this, our IT Director led a session on ways in which we can monitor our young people when they are online.
Our initial question was ‘Would you let your child walk down a dark alley, alone, at night?’. The overwhelming feeling in the room was ‘No!’. Would we know who was down the dark alley? Would we know what was down the alley? And would we know what our children were doing in the alley?
This analogy reflects the internet, which is increasingly becoming a place of mystery and concern for the adults in children’s lives. Who is on the internet? We don’t know. What can our children access on video games/the internet/music videos? We’re not completely sure, but we know some of it is unhelpful and even harmful. What are our children doing? While we’d like to hope they are doing something innocent, again, we don’t know.
First, let’s explore the ‘Who?’ of the internet. Here are some facts:
- 48% of Secondary School children have talked to a stranger online (internetmatters.org)
- Games consoles allow children to talk to and interact with strangers online. There is also the opportunity for these strangers to use ‘fake’ profiles; if speaking live, they can even change the sound of their voice! So, your child could be talking to someone that they think is a 10 year old boy when it’s actually a 57 year old man.
- If a child does not have ‘location services’ turned off on their device, they can be tracked by a stranger. This is especially likely if they do not really know who they are friends with on Social Media.
- 50% of children say someone has been nasty online (internetmatters.org).
- 25% of children experience cyberbullying (internetmatters.org).
As children, we were taught all about stranger danger. The fear of a parent was that a stranger may approach their child in a playground and something terrible may happen. With this in mind, parents watched young children and made sure they knew not to go away with anyone they didn’t know. The problem with the internet today, is it’s almost like taking care of children in a dark playground; we can’t see who is approaching them and we have to hope our children will do the right thing when a stranger does talk to them. Add to that the issue of strangers being able to ‘disguise’ themselves as a friend or another child and things get even more complicated. Educating and communicating with our children is becoming ever more important.
The second area of the internet ‘alley’ is ‘What?’ can our children access?
Here are some quotes from Net Children Go Mobile. They asked young people what they had come across online and did not like:
‘Dead bodies, blood, sexual images/videos. Dying people (Girl aged 13)
‘Porn. Websites showing people doing suicide.’ (Boy aged 12)
‘Porn websites, Information on how to be anorexic, kill yourself, get drugs’ (Girl aged 15)
‘Fighting. People being cruel to animals and hitting them’ (Girl aged 11)
We would not let our children go down an alley or to a party where we knew they would come into contact with some of the above. However, with the internet, our children could stumble over any of this one morning as they eat breakfast. It’s a worrying thought.
Lastly, what are our children doing on technology and online?
- Nearly 40% of all teenagers have posted or sent sexually suggestive messages, but this practice is more common among boys than girls. (dosomething.org)
- 61% of all sexters who have sent nude images admit that they were pressured to do it at least once (do something.org)
- The average age for children to view porn is 11 (internetmatters.org)
- While some games have educational content, many of the most popular games emphasize negative themes and promote:
- The killing of people or animals
- The use and abuse of drugs and alcohol
- Criminal behavior, disrespect for authority and the law
- Sexual exploitation and violence toward women
- Racial, sexual, and gender stereotypes
- Foul language and obscene gestures
Studies of children exposed to violent media have shown that they may become numb to violence, imitate the violence, and show more aggressive behavior. Younger children and those with emotional, behavioral or learning problems may be more influenced by violent images. (www.aacap.org)
Essentially, it is difficult for us to know what our children are up to. As mentioned earlier, not all children deliberately aim to flout our rules. Often these things are advertised or found when children ‘search’ for something seemingly innocent.
In our most recent talk to parents, we looked at ways in which to keep our children as safe as possible.
The number one suggestion is to head ‘down the alley’ with the child. Try to make sure you are friends with them on Social Media (but do be aware that they could set up an alternative profile that you are not aware of).
Talk to your child – if you give your child time to explain how they are using the internet and any fears they may have, there is more chance of recognising that there is a problem before it is too late. However, bear in mind that if your child feels you are going to be angry or take away their technology if they admit to making a mistake, they may be dishonest. Where possible, try to work through any mistakes with them. While they may not admit it, the power and influence of the internet, when it goes wrong, can be scary; children need support.
In the next couple of days we will be emailing parents with two powerpoints. These reflect what was spoken about in each of the parent talks that the Deputy Heads ran. During these talks, our IT Director spoke about what we are doing to try to protect children in school. He also made suggestions as to what we could do at home. One of the powerpoints contains information about parental locks that can be put on technical gadgets. Another suggests companies that can be used to monitor and, if needed, limit internet use. These are definitely worth taking a look at. Technology use is something we need to be monitoring and adjusting all the time as young people get more computer savvy. When children in Prep and Senior School were asked how they get around systems put in place by adults, this is what they had to say:
- Hiding apps in the Calculator + app (it looks like a calculator but is a front to other apps that children may not want us to see).
- Deleting browsing history
- Hiding pictures
- Restrictions – relying on the fact that adults don’t know age restrictions put on certain games, music, films and social media apps.
How unlimited internet access affected people in Prep School:
- Violence and blood made some of them feel aggressive and paranoid
- Sexual content made them feel disgusted and they could not get it out of their head. Made them feel awkward with the other gender.
- Bad language heard influenced their language.
In Senior School, ways of getting around the systems included:
- Using incognito browser
- Using Google to bypass security
- Turning computers away from the door (so an adult couldn’t see what they were looking at when they came in),
- Keeping two screens open all the time (so they could minimise the one they didn’t want an adult to see, when they approached the computer)
- Deleting browsing history
- Changing search words (if a computer blocks an inappropriate word, it is possible to bypass this by slightly misspelling it when searching).
Most of our children are good and honest. Much of the time they use technology in a positive way. However, if we do not follow them and support them as they explore the online ‘dark alley ‘ we are putting them at unnecessary risk.