Wake up call to supervise kids’ online usage



The storyline in my latest whodunnit read was sinister. A rogue online site asks boys to post pictures of their teenage female classmates on a particular site. The titillating images are posted on social media where they attract suggestive comments and bullying. One girl commits suicide as a result ..or does she? A deadly tale of revenge porn unfolds.

Last week reality chillingly mirrored Angela Clarke’s novel Watch Me with the publication of CyberSafeKids’ latest report. The survey found that more than a quarter of primary school children aged 8-12, and 40 % of secondary school children aged 12-16, experienced cyberbullying during the last school year.

What would you do as a parent if you knew that your daughter was posting hate mail about a fellow classmate on line or if your son was posting images of girls taken without consent on a social media site?

The answer worryingly is that if you are the parent involved you probably have absolutely no clue about what your offspring have been up to. The report, based on a survey of 5,000 pupils, found that 75% of parents didn’t supervise their teens’ online use.

Trying to stop the use of phones use among school children is like trying to stop Niagara Falls. There are many positives to having the world at your fingertips but there are dangers too with online platforms. As many as 84% of primary schoolers have their own social media or messaging accounts, some of which have a minimum age of 13 for users, underage use for 12-year-olds rises to more than 80%. This is where the threat posed by the dark side of the web lurks.

Children posting pictures or videos of themselves on line, (22% do at primary level and 40% of 12-16-year-olds do) are vulnerable to contact or grooming by adults , and they may also be exposed to disturbing adult material.

The other big concern is cyber bullying, where girls are 50% more likely to be the victims than boys. Going on-line suits bullies where the toxic behaviour is remote with less risk of reprisal and the bully may resort to hiding behind a fake profile. Schools and media companies have a responsibility to do more but surely parents need to wake up to what their children may be up to with their phones and smart devices.

A generation or two back parents warned their children about ‘stranger danger’ and were prepared to ration time spent watching TV. Now it seems as though smart devices have opened a generation gap where parents no longer supervise – the report found that 73% of 12-16-year-olds could go on line whenever they want. It seems hardly likely in this scenario that risks and behaviour in the cyber world are addressed at home.

Children and young teens need to know that bullying can have a devastating effect on victims and at very worst it may be a factor in suicide. But it says a lot about the perpetrators too. The motivation may be to make the bully feel powerful by putting someone else down; it may be cowardice; it may be due to some unresolved issue or abuse the bully has suffered; and at worst it may be sadistic.

Following a cluster of teen deaths by suicide linked to online harassment a decade ago, an Oireachtas committee was set up to examine the issue. And in a submission to the committee, St Patrick’s Hospital commented on the negative effect of social media on teen mental health: “In terms of cyber-bullying, exposure to unsuitable violent and sexual material, as well as excessive use of social media websites instead of actual social interaction.”

Cyber bulling comes up in schools with nearly two thirds of teachers having dealt with online safety problems according to the report and 74% saying that online safety is an issue in the classroom. It seems from the report that children are more likely to turn to their teachers than parents with their online concerns and it’s the kind of topic that should be covered in the classroom in Social Personal and Health Education.

But it’s at home that young people can access and do whatever they want on line and in the great majority of cases without any oversight.

While schools and tech firms have a responsibility to do more to ensure children’s safety online, surely it’s up to parents too to take care that the blessing of technology doesn’t become a curse for their children.

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