Once upon a time your kids were home, and their activities and company were both transparent and predictable. But with social media and online gaming, those days are long gone. Now your kids can be having a virtual house party up in their bedrooms and you’d be none the wiser. So how can us parents think clearly about protecting our kids from a virtual world that we ourselves know very little about? While there are loads of online articles about protecting your kids from inappropriate content, this article will be tackling the issue in a different way. Because after implementing all the recommended silver bullets that would save my own child from social disaster, I still felt worried about her safety online. So I decided to think about it from a different perspective, and this helped me feel a whole lot better about it. 

They call it SOCIAL media for a reason

While social media seems to be about the latest game or coolest content, social media simply boils down to a dynamic where people are engaging with other people. And while tech baffles me… humans, I get. And so my advice to us ‘oldies’ is instead of tackling this issue as tech developers, let’s rather think like parents. We have a bunch of life experience, and are actually more equipped to handle this anomaly than we think we are. 

What are we really worried about when it comes to social media?

There are things we like about social media, and things we don’t. We like that our kids can connect with friends, indulge in creativity and intellectual interests online. But then we also worry about cyberbullying, the permanence of dumb posts and stranger danger (all of which are real world threats). But behind these titles and categories, what this really boils down to is worrying about whether they’ll fit in, their vulnerabilities, their risky behaviours and the consequences of all the things we can’t control in their lives. But hang on… isn’t this what we’re already worried about anyway? Cool, so now we are back in our living rooms … and now we can think.

So let’s understand how online behaviour is actually linked to real world needs.

‘Privacy & Security’: This is really about a need for personal boundaries

General online security advice is to turn off geo-tags, put up firewalls, protect passwords and put security software in place. Useful advice. But really what we are talking about is personal boundaries.  Haven’t we been talking to our kids about their bodies and ‘private parts’ since they were old enough to understand. We have already drummed it into them that people can’t access them whenever they like. This is no different. Boundaries are like an emotional lock on your door. If you can talk to your child about emotional boundaries, the tech will stop the trolls and your child will block the rest.  

‘The permanence of posts’: This is really about consequences

We warn our kids that the internet can’t be erased and that harmful content lives online forever. What we’re  really worried about though, is that the things they say and do have real, lasting consequences. Sure, in the virtual world it can come down to losing a job opportunity in 10 years because they once posted a naked pic as a dare. But on an ordinary human level, why this rings true, is because the things people say and do to us can live on inside us for a lifetime. I have a 45 year old patient, for example, who can recall with pain and clarity what mean things were said to him when he was just 6 years old. So if you can talk to your kid about how others opinions live inside us, and how (like the internet) it’s very hard to remove these harmful messages, this may validate something important inside. Hopefully resonating so that next time, they will think before they post. 

‘Cyberbullying’: This is really about internal emotional conflicts

Kids can be victims or perpetrators of cyberbullying. It can happen through horrible comments, reposting inappropriate hurtful content or even simply leaving another child out of a chat. But whether a child is left out online or at lunch, it hurts the same. Bullying is a complex issue linked to conflicts around belonging, being noticed and unresolved anger which I’ll write more about another time. But simply put, bullying is an emotional transaction between the victim and the perpetrator. It cannot happen unless there are participants.  It is not random, is a far bigger issue and needs to be thought about beyond the screen.

Bottom line

While installing security software and implementing device limits is vital, our relationships with our kids is the most important safety app there is. We are the ones who provide context for their lives and their actions, both on and off-screen. By bringing these issues into the real world, and humanising the needs that this virtual world is tugging on, we can begin to protect them. It’s like putting internal emotional security measures in place. Which is a whole lot more powerful than any silicone valley firewall.

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