The Malta Independent 25 August 2019, Sunday

FIRST: Safeguarding our children in the digital age

First Magazine Wednesday, 20 February 2019, 12:00 Last update: about 7 months ago

In the light of Safer Internet Day – celebrated this year on 5 February by over 140 countries worldwide to raise awareness about emerging online issues – First spoke to leading clinical psychologist Dr Bernard Caruana about how parents can successfully deal with the online threats that their children are facing. Words by Martin Calleja Urry.

With the lines between physical and digital reality continuing to blur, children today are becoming increasingly exposed to a limitless online landscape, a double-edged sword that has endless potential to build or destroy.

Managing children's online habits is now a priority for every family across the nation, with 97.5 per cent of children in Malta reportedly having regular access to internet at home or at school.

As the primary educators, parents bear the brunt of the responsibility to teach their children about internet safety, since inexperienced and unsupervised users can often fall victim to the web's many pitfalls. Threats come in many shapes and forms, including scammers, cyber-bullies, predators, the loss of private information and exposure to indecent material and malicious software.

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 "The internet is as fascinating and marvellous as life itself: you have the world in your hands to explore. Like real life, however, the internet has its challenges, risks and dangers," said Dr Caruana. Our discussion begins to pick up steam as we discuss the implications of allowing a child to browse the internet freely without a chaperone.

"In certain ways, the potential threats would be similar to leaving a child alone to roam the streets or playing fields: they could meet anyone or come across anything! The internet is an open field of information, some of which is educational and some of which may be deceptive, or placed there with devious intentions. Due to their young age and impressionability, a lot of content online is simply not suitable for kids. Then there are the chats where a child might not know who the person they're chatting to really is. Leaving a child unsupervised on the net is as irresponsible as leaving them unsupervised outdoors," he said.

So, what steps can parents take to make their child's experience with the internet an enjoyable, educational and safe one?

"It largely depends on the age and the emotional/intellectual maturity of the child" said Dr Caruana. "Most importantly, we need to ensure that our children don't over-use the internet or electronic devices, because this can facilitate dependence later on in life. We need to make use of parental controls in the form of software that can be installed on laptops, phones and other devices, to help us monitor the situation and stay on top of things. Managing the content is the cornerstone of the issue."

In an ideal scenario, parents will become gatekeepers to the information their children are receiving, whether this is in the real world, or online. The web is a wonderful place, filled with eye-opening opinions and perspectives, but without the necessary mental framework to process the information, it could certainly confuse or mislead children. Therefore, having a responsible adult on standby is essential, particularly for younger children.

Hovering over your child's shoulders will only work for so long, however, especially as they reach their teenage years and expect a bit more privacy. Finding the right balance between monitoring their habits without being over-protective is the real challenge, since the last thing most teenagers want is their parents spying on them.

 "The problem then becomes helping them keep safe online without being overbearing. This is a skill that parents need to practice and use regularly. It applies both for internet safety and to other areas in life which can help them to grow into responsible adults," said Dr Caruana.

When it comes to freeing children of their parental shackles and allowing them to roam the web autonomously, age is not the best way of predicting when the time is right. Parents will have to gradually prepare them over the years, waiting for the right moment to help them take their first steps, gauging their emotional maturity along the way.

Unfortunately, a lot of this will be difficult if the parents themselves are not digital natives. Whether you are an absolute beginner on the web or a seasoned veteran, proactive parenting will go a long way. Being forewarned is forearmed, so if you are not familiar with the web, arm yourself with the necessary information to help safeguard your child's online life.

"Parents need to seek education in this field, just as they seek education in other areas such as caring for a child who is unwell. Parents do not know it all and when they are unsure about anything related to their child's wellbeing, they need to seek help and be willing to learn," said Dr Caruana.

Modern parents now have the new-found responsibility of juggling between a child's emotional, social and digital life, as staying up-to-date with technology is now a standard part of parenting. While keeping up with the multitude of online threats may seem like a daunting task, the benefits will far outweigh the cost of leaving your child in the line of fire.


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