On Safer Internet Day 2014, Local TD & Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald encourages parents and teachers to educate themselves and their children to make the right choices online – and notes that an increasing range of tools is becoming available to help them.
A recent study estimates that a fifth of Irish teenagers have accessed inappropriate content online that disturbed them. Even more alarmingly, the same study indicates that up to 10% of teenagers may have met up with someone they met online. These worrying trends - along with the well-documented increase in cyberbullying in Ireland - place new and ever greater pressures on parents and educators.
Today’s teenagers have grown up in a world of unprecedented technological advancement and connectivity. Indeed, they have been online almost from the age they could walk! In many cases, their technological know-how matches or outstrips that of their parents, meaning mothers and fathers may be ill-equipped to provide guidance and boundaries for online behaviour. Connectivity comes with a price.
Besides the more sinister dangers of cyberbullying and online predators, there are other less obvious dangers. A teenager may not be aware of their huge online footprint until the day they discover they have a huge online footprint. Each time your child posts a picture on Facebook or details their activities on social media, it might have negative consequences for future school, work or other life options.
However, it is vital for parents and educators to realise that a growing number of options are available to them to tackle these very serious risks. There needs to be a change in attitude, whereby parents don’t only ask their children “how did you get on in school today,” but discuss with them “how did you get on online today”.
We need to teach our kids about what it means to be responsible online. This government has committed to giving Ireland’s children the best possible opportunities from the earliest possible age, and that includes from an online point of view.
An ever-increasing number of guides and supports are now available to parents, teachers and children.
In Novermber 2013, along with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, I attended the launch of an Online Safety for Kids programme in Ireland.
Tomorrow (12th February), I will host a “Safer Internet Day” event in Adamstown Community College, aimed at teaching children about safe and responsible Internet usage. At this event I will launch ‘The Web We Want’ - an educational handbook written by children for children aged 13-16.
As Minister for Children I welcome any initiatives which engage children to think about their online actions and how to use the internet in a safe, productive way. The Web We Want’ handbook can be an important resource for children, teachers and parents alike. Details are available on www.webwewant.eu which may prove helpful to our young people as they navigate the online world. The Online Safety for Kids programme, meanwhile is accessible at http://www.mcafee.com/us/microsites/cybered/.
There are a number of other simple steps parents can take to engage with their children about their online activity. First and foremost, one-to-one communication is vital – take the time to understand how your children use the internet, and only then assess whether further intervention may be necessary.
If your child has “friends” on their social networks numbering in the high hundreds or even thousands, this may also be a warning bell. Teenagers often compete to see who has the most “friends”, sometimes oblivious to the fact that many of these may turn out to be the opposite of friends.
If your child has little or no evidence of browsing activity on their computer, tablet or smartphone, this is likely a sign that they are concealing most of their online activity.
Take the time to find out what parental controls may be available to you, and be honest with your teens about any monitoring systems you put in place.
As parents, we must challenge ourselves to keep up to speed with technological changes, so that we can do the best for our children both on and off-line.
Happy Safer Internet Day!