Kids! Internet! These two words together can strike fear into the hearts of many an adult. This post will summarise my three decades of accumulated knowledge and signpost you to resources that will help you further your knowledge.
I’ve been using the internet since it was non-commercial and text-based. I’ve studied Computing to MSc level and my first degree was about how I.T. affects society. I have worked in youth services and have taught I.T. to young people and adults. I home educate my son and technology plays a central role in both our learning and entertainment. I follow technology trends and run an online business, promoting it using social media. I am a victim of online stalking and abuse. I am talking as a parent of a nine year old.
And yet, I “allow” my son unlimited screen time, and don’t use parental or age-related filters on our devices. I can tell that some of you reading this might feel those cold fingers of horror creeping up your spine as you read that. “But what if?”, and “how do you stop him seeing…?”, so, let me explain.
“But they would play on it all day if I let them!”, is no doubt a common response. Not true. If you ban something, or restrict it in some way, it makes it more attractive. So, when the young person is allowed access, then sure, they will binge on it and protest if you take it away. Of course they would! You are imposing arbitrary rules, based on your own fears. Would you restrict their book reading hours? If they loved drawing, would you restrict their paper time to one hour a day? Why is it admirable to be a bookworm but atrocious to be a gamer?
We have grown up in a completely different world. It’s natural to have fear of new things. When books first came out, they were seen as frivolous and contributing to the degeneration of young people. TV too. But games are different. They are a mentally stimulating, visually rich environment that offer steadily more challenging levels of intellectual challenges. If your kid was into carpentry, you’d probably buy them some tools, because you can see the future real world application of such skills. So why would you not similarly encourage your computer-mad kid to develop their passions? If you cannot see the real-life application of gaming skills, let me help you. Game development is incredibly well-paid. Game playing is a sport. Look up “e-sports”. It’s massive and growing. Then there’s web development, 3d modelling and animation, and these are just the directly game-related future career opportunities.
Still can’t see it? Then I come onto my number one child safety tip: play WITH them. Sure, it might not be your cup of tea. But you don’t know unless you try. Join them in their worlds. Ask them, let them take the lead and show you how to play. Don’t be embarrassed to fail. Gamers fail a hundred times before each epic win. If you are getting mad and feel like giving up, try a little mindfulness meditation. Games will create new neural pathways in your brain and keep you from mental decline. Don’t take my word for it, go have a little look for yourself.
Dr Jane McGonigal’s website, public talks and books come highly recommended for solid, well researched and easy to read facts about the potential of games and gamers for a positive personal and social change in the world. Start at her website.
The difference between having a healthy gamer and an addict is YOUR attitude towards it. If your young person sees their passion as wrong, time wasting and harmful, they will more likely go down the route of addiction. If you take time to play with them, research the benefits of gaming and understand these amazing digital worlds, if you join them and talk to them about it, if you take genuine interest in the worlds they love, it will strengthen your bond and improve your mind and emotional resilience.
“But they are so violent”. Yes, some of them are. But so is Tom and Jerry. There is no evidence that violent video games make more violent people. So what do I do? Number one: talk. So your kid sees a game, they want to play it and you’re just not sure. Our first stop is:
I am not saying break the law by letting your kid buy any old game. Common sense media gives you and your child a sensible overview of the game (or film) and ratings are given by kids and adults too. The official rating scores might not tally with your ideas about what is appropriate. For example the age rating might be high because of language, whereas you know that your child would be upset by people being mean to each other or seeing blood. Youtubers show gameplay, so you could watch some of these together and decide whether your child feels that the game is appropriate for their level of maturity.
Again, the key thing here is talk. Be open about why you may not like the idea of a particular game or movie. Let your child give their opinion. Decide together. Some things that I thought my son might like he has not, and he feels free enough to talk to me and tell me if something is too real for him and makes him feel uncomfortable. For example, he is fine with dinosaurs killing each other (they are extinct) but does not like to see humans hurting other humans.
“But sitting still is not good for you”. I agree. I have an indoor rebounder trampoline and trapeze rings indoors, and a basketball net and trampoline in the garden for when the weather improves. My son knows to take eye and body breaks. He wriggles and jiggles and jumps here there and everywhere. He knows that I am not going to switch his screen off if he leaves it alone for a while. I also know that arbitrary switch-offs are not kind, because if hes invested time and skill into a level, then he has to reach a certain point before it saves. You wouldn’t just snatch a book out of someone’s hand and say “that’s enough now”.
Let’s talk Roblox, Fortnite and gaming with others. This is where things get more risky. As in the real world, there are mean people, bullies and sadly even people who want to take your child and do unspeakable things to them. One incredible resource that I would direct all adults to is Ineque.
The next stage of this guide is written in conjunction with my nine year old. His main advice to you is to play with your young people. Get involved in the online games. Teach your kid how to block and report people. Let them know, in an age-appropriate way, that not everybody is kind and some people want to hurt kids online and that not everybody is who they say they are. My child’s response to people being mean is to switch servers, or play a different game. Sometimes people will evoke strong feelings of anger and as a parent this is difficult to see. His advice in such situations is to keep a distance and be there for him in a non-judgemental way when he needs me. Every child is different. Talk to the child ahead of such events and learn to respond as your child would like you to. Make sure you both know how to block, mute and report people. Ineque has plenty of digestible sensible advice about online gaming.
Never use your real name or real life image. Never share your location, hobbies, place of work (or school) or any clubs you might go to. Learn how to report and block people, and what might warrant such measures. My son has had more aggravation from face to face kids than online ones. So tempting though it might be to ban a young person from a certain game, it is healthier to be there to help them resolve the difficulty in a healthy sand safe manner.
You probably use Facebook at the very least, but do you know how to stay safe? When was the last time you reviewed your privacy settings? Model healthy online behaviour and teach yourself how to modify your settings to maximise your privacy. Ask for your child’s permission before taking and sharing pictures of them online.
A great summary of necessary safety measures can be found here: https://www.getsafeonline.org/social-networking/social-networking-sites/
Ineque also has videos about how to manipulate the settings of popular social media apps and websites here: https://www.youtube.com/user/Ineqe/videos.
This might vary from parent to parent in terms of tolerance. The only rule we have is to be kind, but other parents might object to curse words, for example. My kid – like others his age – watch more YouTube than TV. It drives me nuts! I yearn some days for a nice bit of CBeebies, or even something with a decent storyline. But, it’s what he likes, so I try to watch it with him and engage in conversation about it. This is my personal choice but I let him watch on the big TV, not on a smaller device, and there’s a reason for this. Yes, part of me thinks – in an old-fashioned authoritarian way – that I paid for the TV so I should have control of what is viewed on it. But, I breathe, smile, and think about how much I will miss him when he’s off doing his own thing in a few years time. Now, I am happy to let him hog the big screen.
However, it has two massive benefits. One, that it tests my calmness and tolerance levels and helps me to be mindful in the face of videos that I cannot always enjoy. Two, I get to see what he sees, unavoidably, in glorious technicolour. This opens up conversations about his favourite YouTubers but also about people who exhibit online behaviour that deserves analysis. We have discussed, sexism, racism, homophobia, environmental destruction, Donald Trump and the wall, bullying and trolling on the back of some of his video choices. This list will no doubt expand as he gets older.
Like other online channels, we both know that personal preference is not a reason to block and report but that if we see something that is harmful, then we know what to do. His advice to parents is to watch videos with your kids (groan!) and that if your young people are very small, to use the YouTube Kids app. I suggest that you preemptively let your young people know that sometimes there are things online that are scary, and if they see something3 like that to come to you straight away.
Youtube is a fantastic resource for entertainment and education, from Peekaboo kids to Ted-ed talks and Khan Academy. Here’s a cool list of channels for young people by the sensible Commonsense Media folks: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/12-best-youtube-channels-for-kids-and-teens#Minute
This is where I’m at from the 9 years experience that I have of parenting GamerKid. Be aware that this is what has worked for us. You and your child are individuals, with unique needs and tolerances. Technology changes all the time and new hacks and hoaxes appear. Stay safe online, don’t share personal details, always make sure you have the latest updates on your devices. Use an antivirus and scan with malwarebytes. Check https://www.snopes.com/ before panicking about any new virus or rumour.
Have I missed anything? I shall update it if I think of anything else.
Here are a few more websites about child safety online. Be informed, keep communication channels open, and enjoy the amazing, vast digital world that we are all a part of.
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