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A How Not to Guide on Teaching Children Internet Safety

19/08/2015 17:59

She said X was the closest park to her house

This is genuinely a line in a YouTube video called "The Dangers of Social Media" that claims to teach parents how easy it is for a 'paedophile' to groom a teenage girl: by identifying the neighbourhood she lives in to 30 million viewers.

In fact, the video reveals identifying details of three teenage girls, including street views of their homes and their parents' faces. Rather than giving any information to help parents actually teach their children how to navigate social media safely, the video invites us to participate in the public shaming of these girls. We are allowed to watch the parents shouting at the girls but not actually engaging in why these girls arranged to meet a stranger they met online. If the aim was to highlight their lack of skills in navigating the internet, a more pertinent question was why no one bothered to teach them any. Why isn't the focus on the parents rather than the children?

There are so many issues with this video that it's hard to know where to start. The language itself is incorrect - the term paedophile has a specific clinical definition. The vast majority of child rapists are normal men who make a choice to harm a child; they have no pre-existing psychological condition.

The video also reinforces the 'stranger danger' myth. Statistically, fathers form the majority of perpetrators of domestic violence - whether this is physical, emotional and sexual abuse of the children themselves or witnessing the abuse of their mothers. Fathers, brothers, cousins, grandfathers, uncles, and stepfathers are far more likely to sexually abuse a child than a stranger. If we focus on 'stranger danger', we ignore the majority of men, and most child sexual abusers are male, who are actually a danger to children. This isn't to say we pretend that strangers never harm a child; rather that we need to understand risk and help children develop the skills to keep themselves safe. Pretending that the only person who is a child rapist is a creepy man in a trench coat puts them at risk.

Rather than going for scare tactics like those in the video -having parents dress up in skeleton masks and drag their kids into a van- we need to teach children the skills to negotiate a world where a large number are at risk of experiencing domestic and sexual violence and abuse. We can start by using the appropriate words for body parts like vulva and penis.

Children also need to be taught about consent starting as toddlers. One easy way to do this is with tickling. If a child squeals no, stop and ask them if they want you to continue tickling. Then keep asking them. Another way is by telling children that they don't have to hug or kiss anyone anyone that they don't want to. Granny might want a hug but a child shouldn't feel pressured or obligated to do so. Doing this teaches children that they have the right to bodily integrity and that their boundaries should be respected.

Children need to learn the skills to negotiate social media, including online gaming safely. Banning social media until the age of 13, as Facebook does, and then expecting children to be safe online is simply ridiculous. How are children meant to differentiate between unsafe and safe adults when their parents have 900 'friends' on Facebook? If we depend on 'stranger danger' myths, do these 900 adults then become safe because their parents 'know' them? Equally, we give children mixed messages if we tell them not to talk to strangers but allow them uncontrolled access to X-Box Live. How are children meant to recognise that the older boy from down the road is a child rapist or that the really cool guy on Minecraft is a safe person if we don't give them the tools to do so.

More importantly, shaming is not an acceptable teaching technique. Publicly shaming your child will not encourage them to have open and honest dialogue with you. It teaches children that their parents are more interested in the performance of 'safety' than their actual safety. It makes it impossible for children to ask for help when being bullied at school, never mind when experiencing abuse by a family member or a stranger they've met online.

Parents, and schools, need to take more responsibility for helping children develop the skills to negotiate social media and gaming safely, but, as Lynn Schreiber, an expert in social media, says about the video:

Scaring parents will not protect children. Blaming victims will not protect children. This video also reduces the eSafety message to one (fairly rare) danger, while ignoring the far more commonly occurring issues of children viewing violent or sexual content, cyberbullying, going viral, reputation management, and public shaming. Our children are growing up with this technology and need to be taught how to use it in a positive and sensible way

The average age a child views porn online is between the ages of 9 - 12. Many children experience online bullying and harassment. Others live with domestic and sexual violence and abuse within the home. These conversations on personal safety, online and off, are very difficult but that is why they are necessary. We need to teach children the skills to deal with unsafe people and navigate the real world. In our global economy, the Internet is the real world.

This is what child protection should start with: teaching children their emotions are valid, that they have the right to say no, and that is completely unethical and unfair to publicly shame them on social media.

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