Getting a first smartphone has become the major milestone of modern childhood, and many families are starting off the year with a new connected user in their midst. Children are getting phones younger than ever, and parents need to be well-prepared. Much like a teen getting their first car, the first smartphone brings greater freedom, but also more danger.
Just like you wouldn’t hand over the keys to a first car without making sure your child can safely and legally drive, parents need to lay the groundwork for their child’s secure and responsible use of a device that opens up to them an infinite digital realm with an abundance of dodgy alleyways and dark corners.
Safety is rooted in open parent-child communications
If you haven’t yet started to have hard conversations with your child, then expect their first smartphone to be a catalyst for this change in your relationship. Their safety, as they navigate the internet and an array of digital platforms, should from now on be an open and ongoing conversation. Amongst many, and endlessly emerging topics, you’re going to need to have discussions around online pornography, depictions of violence, sexting, grooming by online predators, catfishing, cyber harassment and cyberbullying, suicide-related content, disclosure of personal information and the Law.
Rachelle Best, the CEO and Founder of FYI play it safe, an AI-powered monitoring app says, “Some parents think that if they use a parental control app, they can side-step conversations with their child that they will find awkward. It’s important to realise that a parental control app is just one measure in a family’s internet security ecosystem, it can not and does not do it all. Conversations about threats, safety measures and digital behaviour should start even before the handing over of a first phone, and then continue as a norm of family conversation. Establishing a trusted practice of talking about threats, dangers and staying safe, means that when your child is facing a challenge, they will come to you to talk about how to handle the situation.”
Best’s advice here underscores an important point – your goal in keeping your child safe on the internet should not be to police every site they visit or pore over every chat they have with their friends. What’s important is to help your child develop digital literacy and gain the skills they need to become responsible digital citizens capable of handling problems on their own.
So, what do parents need to know and do about internet safety?
Be aware – You can’t help your child navigate risks and threats that you don’t know about. Take an ongoing interest in internet safety issues and keep up to date when it comes to the latest and emerging threats. Be the trusted source of important online safety information for your child.
Raise a responsible digital citizen – Your parenting extends from the real-world into the digital realm. Educate yourself about South Africa’s recently promulgated Cybercrimes Act and keep abreast of digital etiquette and required standards of behaviour.
Promote your family’s digital literacy – Encourage critical thinking and the rigorous verification of sources of information. Help your children understand propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation, as well as the commercial incentives driving social media influencers and technologies enabling falsifications such as deep-fake videos.
Understand the impacts of harmful content – In a significant development last year, a UK coroner’s inquest report identified that a 14-year-old UK girl’s viewing of online content via social media was a factor in her death by suicide. At the hearing, it was reported that she binge-consumed suicide and depression content, and Pinterest and Instagram were highlighted. Some of the content she engaged with wasn’t what she searched for but what algorithms served up for her. Parents need to know that social media age limits do not work, and that there is harmful content across all social media platforms, which remain unregulated.
Establish and maintain a family online safety ecosystem – A parental control app should be part of an online safety ecosystem, not the be-all and end-all of keeping your children safer online. Some parents institute ‘device checks’ to periodically review their children’s online activity, however these types of inspections are time-consuming and often have a negative impact on the parent-child bond, especially for teens with their increasing needs for privacy and parental trust. In addition, many instant messaging platforms now have a ‘disappearing messages’ feature that can be enabled to protect privacy. This means that parents who inspect their children’s devices will not always see everything anyway. Advanced solutions such as the FYI play it safe app draw on AI and ML to monitor the content of children’s online activity across mobile devices in real-time, and in a non-intrusive way to provide parents with proactive alerts.
Best explains, “FYI play it safe monitors all apps and online interactions, including in-game chats. New accounts and apps are included by default without the need for your child’s account credentials. Yet, the app is not spyware, and it is not clandestine. Instead, it provides parents and children with the opportunity to mutually agree on the best way to stay safe in the digital world, similar to providing your child with a helmet when they start riding a bike. Parental alerts open the door to having important conversations about the content your child is engaging with or about the chats they are having with strangers online. This is a solution that supports the goal of having open, trusting conversations about threats and dangers, and empowering your child to make responsible and smart decisions about their online activity.”
Getting a first smartphone is an exciting and fun milestone for your child. There are so many benefits for a connected child, from the boost of safety in the real-world to the discovery of new information, interests and connections that can enrich their lives. Opening up communications, setting reasonable ground rules and establishing a family online safety ecosystem are the basics for your child to be able to enjoy the many advantages of being connected and becoming a responsible digital citizen.