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Tweenager online safety

‘An exploration together’ – how to introduce your tweenager to online safety

Parents are understandably anxious about discussing complex issues like online bullying, screen time and the power of social media, but it’s a chat that can’t – and shouldn’t –be avoided.

Discussing the complications of being online is up there with the truth about Father Christmas and the birds and the bees on the list of conversations parents least look forward to having with their children, but it’s one that can’t be avoided.

The tweenage years (10-12) are a time when children naturally begin to take more risks. This bravado is vital to their development. Combine it with a smartphone that gives instant access to a world of games and all sorts of video content, however, and you have a potentially tricky cocktail.

With one recent report revealing that more than a quarter of all teenagers have received explicit texts or images via messaging apps, and another highlighting that three-quarters of 10-12 year olds in the UK already have a social media account (despite age limits), it’s no surprise that a Tesco Mobile survey of 1,000 parents found that 66.2% are concernedabout their child’s safety when giving them their first phone.

“The internet is an amazing place and a wonderful resource, but, like all things, it has its dark side and its dangers,” says children’s commissioner Anne Longfield.  “Parents have a vital role to play in making children aware of how to handle the challenges of being online.”

Parents are understandably anxious and reticent about discussing some of these issues, but learning and behaviour specialist Noel Janis-Norton, who also founded calrnerparenting.co.uk, is adamant they should tackle the subjects early. “Don’t wait until something goes wrong,” she says. “The conversation needs to start before tweenagers even have a phone, so clear rules can be put in place.”

It’s not a chat to be had on the fly either. “The more serious you can make the conversation feel, the more likely children will take it seriously,” she advises. “If there are two parents involved, both should sit down together, to make the message feel united.”

Taking the issues seriously is one thing, but it’s important not to let the conversation become emotional or dramatic. “As adults we can really set the tone,” says chartered educational psychologist Dan O’Hare. “Do you want a child to learn that when they talk about subjects like this they make Mum or Dad scared and angry, or do you want them to learn that you can talk about difficult things together?”

Dictating a list of how much screen time is allowed, or which apps are out-of­bounds, won’t work either. Instead, work together to agree a set of suitable guidelines or a contract – your children will be much more likely to stick to these rules. “Parents can learn a lot about the internet from their children, so it needn’t be a lecture or a telling off, but an exploration together,” says Longfield.

It’s a view endorsed by O’Hare, who recommends that parents draw on the tricky online situations they’ve experienced personally. “If an adult talks about an upsetting post they’ve seen on Facebook they can then involve the child in discussing ways to deal with it. That collaborative corning together gives the young person a sense of responsibility.”

How can parents know whether their messages and advice are truly getting through to their children? Janis-Norton recommends “think-throughs”, where a parent spends just a minute at a time encouraging a child to consider a situation and how they would respond to it. “Ask something like: ‘What can you tell a stranger online?’ or ‘How can you tell if somebody online is really a kid?’ to get your child thinking about things properly. Their brain will automatically start visualising what they should do, so it sticks in their mind much better.”

Having set these guidelines, it’s vital that parents praise their children when they abide by them, such as by turning off their phones at mealtimes. “Parents can be so preoccupied that they don’t say anything when things are going well, and only notice when something’s going wrong,” says Janis-Norton. “Praise helps a child associate following the rules with their parents being pleased and there being a relaxed, happy atmosphere at home.”

There’s a growing amount of practical tools that can help. Phone management apps like Monqi enable parents to monitor what their children are up to online, and tech expert Andy Robertson has created a phone behaviour contract for families, while Childline has created the Zipit app, which gives kids the tools to deflect unwanted online attention – with the help of downloadable gifs.

Parents can take an active practical role here too. “It’s all very well telling a child to block someone on lnstagrarm or report them on Facebook, but they need to know how to actually do it,” says O’Hare. “As adults we have a responsibility to learn how to do these things ourselves, so we can teach the children.”

Of course, the discussion about online safety doesn’t end there. New tech, new trends and even new friends all bring fresh challenges that will need to be talked about and agreed upon. But by establishing open, relaxed ways of communicating about tricky issues, parents can keep healthy conversations going throughout childhood, into adolescence and beyond.

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