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Parenting in a digital age: Privacy and parents - the digital disconnect

Image of Parenting in a digital age: Privacy and parents - the digital disconnect

by Alan Earl

03 May 2017

Alan is a police officer working with the UK Safer Internet Centre, currently on secondment to the South West Grid for Learning from the Avon and Somerset Constabulary’s Internet Child Abuse Team.

Rarely these days should we be surprised by human behaviour online. The media covers enough of a variety of behaviours to know that the best and worst of human life is reflected online. However I was struck recently by the comments of a number of young people about privacy online at an online youth conference. The group were made up of a youth club, school and some young people in care.

All had produced in their groups small projects on online safety, which they presented to a mixed audience made up of young people and adults. They were all very good and the debate which ensued afterwards got me thinking.

Privacy

The group aged 12 to 16 made some very strong remarks on their view of personal privacy in the online world.  I was particularly captured by a young boy (I think 12 years old) who was a little shy and reluctant to speak, so whispered his thoughts to one of his older peers who voiced them to the group. As far as he was concerned, what he did online was his business and not his parents. He was vehemently opposed to any viewing of his online life by any adult.

When asked to explain why, he struggled to voice this, but he did admit that he didn’t think his parents would like his behaviour. Was this just his online gaming language or did it relate to bullying or other unsavoury behaviour? Was this just a desire to build his own resilience and move away from adults towards a more unsupervised world? I guess I will never know.   

The desire for privacy and space to develop is nothing new. The older a child becomes, the more important privacy becomes. Allowing space and time to learn from mistakes and triumphs is vital in any struggle to become a well-rounded and content individual.

In the past I have questioned how this came about. At different times in my life I have depended on my parents for support and advice. Where is this advice in the online world, a lot of our children spend so much time in? Is the dialogue and support there?

Parental involvement

Often, my conversations with groups of young people begin with questions on how much they love technology. I also question them on their own perceived competence online. Most of all age groups will state they know more about the internet than their parents. Does this ‘competence’, whether real or not, skew their opinion on adult involvement in their online lives?

I was surprised by the uncompromising nature of the response to parental involvement in what they do. None of the group appeared to acquiesce to any form of monitoring or contribution from their parents.

Vulnerability

For me this raises questions of vulnerability. Young people often depend on peer groups and friends for advice. Although the majority will find the advice they seek, and build their own resilience to the risks, I am concerned that the lack of connection with parents and carers I saw in this group is reflected wider. This is not simply about online predators. Many questions need to be asked around the wellbeing of the child. The variety of online issues are wide and continue to develop.

Andy Phippen, Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at Plymouth Graduate School of Management & Plymouth Business School (Faculty of Business) has been involved with SWGfL in gathering data on wellbeing issues from over 18,000 children and young people in Primary and Secondary sectors.

Questions in the survey reflect growing issues. 18% of young people (mostly primary age) state that they sometimes can’t sleep because of worrying about things they have seen online. A recently added question suggests that 31% turn to the internet when they are lonely.

This coupled with increased screen time across the board (Ofcom – Children and Parents Media use and attitudes report 2016) exacerbates a seemingly growing gap between children and the adult influences that help and support them.

Education

Education is, and always will be, the key in helping children and young people understand the risks and benefits of technology and the online world. Socialisation and digital literacy are hard-won skills, and skills that can be helped and nurtured through good parenting and engagement.

Schools who run parents’ evenings often bemoan the fact that the attendance at Internet safety awareness sessions is poorly attended. This is sometimes the case, but certainly not always and SWGfL has seen an increase in attendances recently. This is great news, especially as, of more than 18,000 young people who said their parents looked at what they do online (33% of the whole group), only 40% said they didn’t know any way of bypassing this monitoring.

I hope that this increase in attendance indicates a realisation from parents that the time has come to have a conversation with their children about their online behaviour.