Helping parents and teachers to empower their children to protect themselves online

Dr Grainne Kirwan – Cyber Psychologist Specialist – On Internet Safety

Online interactions today may sometimes seem to be a minefield, especially for young people and their parents who are concerned about Internet safety. The temptation might be to prevent children from accessing online technologies entirely, in what may be a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to protect them from the various dangers online. Nevertheless, without the opportunity to explore the benefits of Internet technologies, young people today may find themselves seriously disadvantaged both socially and educationally, and a lack of appropriate skills may result in reduced career options as they grow older. Online activities such as social media and gaming have been found to have many benefits for young people, including enhancement of interpersonal relationships and social interaction, expression of identity, enhanced self-esteem, self-affirmation, leadership skills, cognitive benefits, and many more. The solution is not to prevent young people from accessing the Internet, but rather to help them to learn how to use the technologies in the best possible way, so that they can grow and develop the skills required for living in a world where the Internet is no longer a new and unusual space, but rather an integrated element of many aspects of daily life. Preventing young people from accessing online resources because of the potential dangers involved is equivalent to banning them from ever travelling in a motor vehicle or crossing the road because of the potential dangers inherent in those activities. A complete ban on internet activity might reduce the possibility of negative consequences from online sources, but it will definitely impair their ability to develop and reach their potential in educational, occupational and social settings. Instead of attempting to ban young people from the internet, a far more preferable approach is to recognise the similarity between road safety and internet safety – guide children on how to behave in online environments to reduce risk, and provide support for their problems and questions, in the same way that we teach them how to cross the road safely and, eventually, how to drive.

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The Zeeko Internet Safety Guide provides tangible and specific advice on how parents, teachers, and others can protect children online, without unnecessarily impairing children’s development. Indeed, the authors recognise the dangers in imposing bans on using technologies, as children can easily access the Internet through other means, and if anything does go wrong, they may then be considerably less likely to seek the help and support that they need as they fear the punishment that may occur if they tell their parents that they have been online without permission. A child who has been banned from Internet use is doubly at risk – they lack the knowledge and skills to use the resources in the safest and best way, and they are more limited in who they can seek help from. The Zeeko Guide advocates a more appropriate response – aiding parents to encourage appropriate online use and clear communication, as well as providing guidance and suggestions that are easy for young people to understand and follow. The step-by-step instructions with screenshots included in the Guide will help parents and teachers to feel more confident as they configure devices to improve safety and privacy, while also removing some of the potential confusion which may arise as adults try to navigate the online resources and media that are used extensively by young people. This has the added benefit of increasing the likelihood that young people will approach their parents, teachers, or other appropriate adults for advice if anything does go amiss online – the guide advocates an open and honest channel of communication, and provides specific suggestions on how to achieve this. I believe that any parent who is concerned about their child’s online safety should read this guide, and that it will be an invaluable source of advice and suggestions which can be consulted over and over again.

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