Learning to Be an E-Parent

Once upon a time, parents could think their children safe when they got home after class. Schoolyard bullying ended when a child stepped through the front door. Home was a safe zone: safe from insults, intimidation and beatings. But the digital age has changed all that.

Now, students can be harassed in their own bedrooms. A child can live a 24-hour life of terror, from the classroom to the recess yard to their smartphone. The tragic victims of cyberbullying often feature on the evening news. Everyone’s heard of dramatic, tragic cases of young suicides resulting from online harassment. So the fight against bullying can’t be left to teachers anymore, if it ever could. Parents have no choice but to wrestle with the awful problem of intimidation in the digital age.

Éléonore Genolhac      Files Internet, Bullying

Martine is the mother of an adorable, blonde-haired 6-year-old boy, Arthur. Like so many kids, once his classes are over his world revolves around the family’s home computer. Arthur is part of the digital generation, a “numeric native,” to use the term coined by sociologist Mark Prensky.  At age 3, Arthur was adept at operating his mom’s iPhone, his videogame console, and the family’s home computer.

The Canadian Pediatric Association recommends that kids less than 7 years old be left in front of a computer screen for no longer than 30 minutes a day. Many parents follow this advice. But many more parents use their home computer as a babysitter/nanny. The dancing pixilated screen works magic in keeping children quiet and docile. The solution isn’t in banning your kid from using the computer, but in educating them on the dangers of the online world, says Thierry Plante, media education specialist at Habilo Medias. A balance must be struck between computer time and family time.

From birth to age 11-12, kids see parents as role models, he explains. How parents use the Internet will influence their children immensely. If kids understand that there are rules and limits to computer use, that you can’t say or write anything at all over the web and expect the fact you’re behind a keyboard to protect you, then they’re more likely to watch their cyber-behavior as they get older.

Plante confirms that there exists a “positive correlation between establishing rules concerning Internet
use and kids’ behavior when they surf the net.” It’s a lot easier to be nasty when you’re hiding behind a screen.  Text technologies prevent the transmission of the 70% of our communication that is non-verbal: gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. What is left is the dry, less empathetic 30%, consisting entirely of letters and words and symbols. Which can be very cutting, especially to a vulnerable teen.

Anyone who thinks that they can fully control their child’s use of communication technology is dreaming in technicolor. Smart phones and tablets are especially easy to hide from parents – and these new portable devices have replaced the standing computer in the lives of youths. You can’t follow your child around all day. They are going to connect to the cyberworld when they want. So it’s important to influence and support your cyberchild from a very early age, even if they are independent-minded.

A multitude of platforms are out there for kids to use, and they will always know them better than you as a parent. New social media crop up every week, gaining popularity, burning bright then ebbing away like fireflies around a campfire. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace… The most important thing a parent can do is to stay interested and engaged, says Gaston Rioux, president of the Quebec Parents’ Federation. A good parent doesn’t try to pass judgment, but instead makes an effort to understand how their children spend their online time.

Not all social media are created equal. Some are scarier and more dangerous than others. ask.fm is a prime example. Based in Latvia, users field questions from other often anonymous users… And ask.fm has come under criticism because of its frequent use by cyberbullies. Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain called for the site to be boycotted after it was blamed for the suicides of 4 British teenagers in 2013.

For Thierry Plante, the solution isn’t always in laying down the law at home, even if there are dangers present. Insist on having regular discussions with your youngster about his or her web-surfing habits. Ask what’s up. “If you as a parent shadow your child and try to be too tough, that can have heavy consequences for your relationship when your child loses trust in you,” Plante recommends. However, he thinks it essential that children share their passwords with their parents, with the child’s understanding that they are to be used by the parent only in case of an emergency.

No parent can keep track of everything their child is up to. But any pre-teen or teen who knows their parent or parents care will be better protected psychologically from the nasty things that can happen online. If your child feels they can come to you and talk about online pitfalls, a lot of dismal situations can be avoided. Self-esteem and love breed respect for oneself, and for others.

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