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Guest blog by Dr Karen Brookes on cyber activity and our young people

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Blog - Guest blog by Dr Karen Brookes on cyber activity and our young people

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Yesterday, as part of ‘Anti-bullying week’, I delivered an assembly to our year 7 and 8 students about bullying in general and cyber bullying in particular. Clearly, the technological advancements over recent years have led to an explosion in terms of access to information and means of entertainment for our children. There is also a downside to this activity, however, and I find myself spending an increasing amount of time trying to resolve a whole host of issues that arise from the misuse of technology.

For the first time, a study has found that children are facing more bullying on-line than face to face. Research suggests that at least 1 in 5 children have been subjected to cyber bullying. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter were found to be the most common places that they were picked on. Smartphones mean that children can be on the internet 24/7, leaving them unable to escape the bullies. Unlike traditional bullying, the cyber bully can access your child at home, even in their bedroom, and this can happen at any time of the day or night. We have all heard the tragic stories of the children, who just could not cope with this level of persistent abuse.

As a parent, I know the pressure we may feel to buy the latest device or to allow your child access to on-line gaming and social media sites. “All my friends have it” or “don’t you trust me” are familiar refrains heard in my house. It is easy to say that children should not have access to these sites but clearly technology has much to offer and the answer is not to stop all access but to ensure that our children are learning to use technology in a safe and responsible way.

We can all remember teaching our children to learn to ride a bike. We bought a small bike with stabilisers and protected our child with knee and elbow pads before placing a helmet on their head. Once the stabilisers could be removed, we held on to the back of the seat and ran along with them until they were stable enough for us to let go. Even then, we did not let them set off on the busy roads to journey on their own but ensured that they learnt the traffic rules designed to keep them safe and accompanied them on at least their first few journeys. We may feel that we are not equipped to ride this ‘technological bike’ but we need to take the same small steps approach whilst learning to ride alongside our children.

Kate Winslet strikes a chord when urging parents to “stay in touch” with their kids and insist on playing games that don’t involve a touch screen. “Take the device out of their hand. Don’t let them sleep with it. Play Monopoly. These things are not rocket science. Do drawing games. If we go to the pub we always take paper and pen. When they want to go up to their room for an hour to do whatever they’re doing, know what they’re doing. And put parental controls in place.”

As a busy parent, I know that it is easy to let a device become an electronic babysitter but we need to work hard to avoid this. The recent OECD ‘Students, computers and learning’ report shows that some computer use for learning is beneficial but the benefits do not continue to increase the more technology that is used – in fact, learning becomes less good when computer use goes beyond a particular point.  There is also a clear link between excessive use of computers and our children’s health and well-being. It is not surprising to read that students who spend more than 6 hours on line per day are particularly at risk of feeling lonely at school, arriving late and truanting.

It is not easy to combat the cultural pressures that our teenagers are under but there are some simple rules that can be put in place to help busy, working parents keep abreast of what is happening in your child’s on-line life. These include:

  • setting parental controls and time limits on devices
  • being on-line friends with your child. If this is really a step too far- can I really expect my daughter to be friends with Dr Brookes on Facebook?- then get a relative or other adult to befriend them
  • avoiding allowing children to use devices in private spaces
  • checking devices regularly
    allowing plenty of time for exercise and sleep

The most important part of all, however, is simply good communication. Take the time to sit around a table, talking at length with your child, teaching them the right values and protecting them from harmful outside influences. Your child works really hard at school every day. They will come home full of information and knowledge. If you talk to them regularly about what they have been doing and learning, it will also give you the opportunity to talk about what they are feeling, and maybe, whether they could do with some extra support or help from you, their family. And please, never accept just a shrug or a one word answer. We wouldn’t accept that in school and it is important to develop a culture where your child feels that they can talk and be listened to.