The Digital Birds And Bees: A Parents' Guide To Uncomfortable Online Safety Chats With Your Kids

21/03/2017 15:52

Last month culture secretary Karen Bradley announced plans to make Britain the 'safest place in the world' for children online - with the introduction of an Internet Safety Strategy.

And as we welcomed her plans to address "children's exposure to harmful sexualised content" by supporting companies to roll out family-friendly filters and age verification controls - she also issued some very important advice in a bid to tackle the issue at its root.

The MP suggested parents may need to start having uncomfortable conversations with their children about online issues such as sexting and pornography. It is the digital version of the birds and the bees.

These conversations might not just be uncomfortable because they surround sex, they are tricky because many parents themselves feel like they're out of their comfort zones on handling some of the complex issues children face online.

However there are new challenges that have arisen as a result of our ever-expanding digital world and parents need to accept that they should address the new dimension that our connected world brings when children begin to explore their sexuality as they grow up.

Ms Bradley's comments are backed up by statistics such as how one in four children have received an unwanted image on the subject of sex. And only this week an investigation by the BBC into explicit content on Facebook reinforced how vital it is that parents understand some of the risks children face, as well as talking to their children about what kind of information they are sharing online and who can see it.

Here are some simple tips for parents on having the conversation.

SEXTING
Sexting is the exchange of sexually explicit images, photos, messages or videos and it generally includes messages sent via email, text, messenger or social media.

Why would they want to get involved in sexting?
There's many reasons - exploring sex and relationships is a natural part of growing up as teenagers feel they love and trust their partner and it's good way of affirming their feelings.

It may be down to peer pressure - whether it be a demanding partner or friends have encouraged them to send something or even an adult they've met online.

When should I start talking to them about sexting?

As soon as your child starts using the internet or gets a mobile phone It is really important to talk about what images they share online and who they share them with. Whilst it can seem uncomfortable to discuss 'sexting' with young children, it's important they understand that they body is private and being asked to share explicit images is inappropriate.

Make sure they know they can come to you if anything they experience online upsets them.

What should I tell my child about sexting?
Sexting can have a long-lasting impact on a child's self-esteem and their reputation as sometimes images that were not intended for sharing beyond the recipient can spread incredibly quickly, causing them huge emotional distress.

So be honest with them. Explain that once an image has been sent, they can't get it back and they have no control over where it will end up.

Try and encourage them to think about everything they send and ask themselves 'would I want my family, teachers or future employer to see this?

If children understand this early - it can be applied to all sorts of digital issues including cyberbullying.

Talk about peer pressure - this isn't a new phenomenon and it's something most people face during their lives, but stress the importance of trust, respect and consent in healthy relationships.

Explain that you understand how easy it can be to be pushed into things that don't feel right and help them understand that bowing to peer pressure can often have disastrous effects. It's essential that your child feels comfortable talking to you about this, so try not to be embarrassed. If you appear embarrassed, it will embarrass them.

If you think your child might be under pressure to share sexual images, tell them about the ChildLine ZipIt app/ They have created an app for this very issue - allowing children to send witty responses when asked for images.

As a parent, be aware that both the creation of a sexual image of a child under 18 and the distribution of that image is actually a criminal offence. Importantly, ask your children not to share any images of this type they might receive.


ONLINE PORNOGRAPHY

The ease at which children are able to access pornography is a growing concern for many parents.

Do I really need to talk to them about pornography?

It's important that once they find get to a certain level of digital independence, that you have an open and frank conversation. They might intentionally search for it or accidentally stumble across it - either way, explain to them that it doesn't give a realistic picture of sex and relationships.

How do I go about it?

However unnatural it may feel, act natural so that your child is more likely to talk to you about whether or not they've been exposed to sexual images.

Perhaps a good option is to discuss it in the car or when walking home from school - make it comfortable for both of you.

Discussing pornography with young children isn't recommended but you can still discuss upsetting images and re-iterate they can come to you should they come across something they weren't expecting to see online.

Give them positive messages about loving sexual relationships and how to respect themselves and their partner.

But also be mindful that children are naturally curious about sex. If they've clicked on something accidentally that has left them confused, encourage them to discuss it with you and offer your reassurance and support don't berate them for it - that content is out there.

These conversations might seem uncomfortable but having an open channel with your child allows for less uncomfortable conversations down the line.

For more information and step-by-step advice on how to keep your children safe online visit www.internetmatters.org.

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