With so many of us resorting to screen-time to cope with social distancing during the lockdown, not to mention all the online home-schooling and FaceTime chats with friends and relatives, it can be hard to keep track of everything our kids are sending and receiving on their digital devices.
Even so, news that the number of ‘sexts’ tapped out by children using mobile phones or other digital devices has risen by an alarming rate in recent months will no doubt worry parents.
Data from safeguarding app SafeToNet found that ‘sexts’ typed out by children in the UK rose 183% during lockdown – with a 55% rise in inappropriate messages drafted during normal school hours.
Shockingly, children as young as six were found to have been sending ‘sexts’ to other kids. So, what do parents need to understand about the situation – and what can we do to make our kids safer?
HuffPost UK spoke to child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer, who says that it’s important to recognise why children might be sending messages like these – and believes that if parents are “more open” with their kids, it will help.
“We make sex a taboo,” she says. “If we were all a bit more open about it from the beginning then it wouldn’t be so underground and have a certain mystique.”
Dr Gummer says children always want to do what older boys and girls do; whether that’s riding a bike, dating, swearing, smoking – or sexting. And she says that while sending inappropriate messages or photos might sometimes be a more serious indicator of abuse, in the majority of cases it’s often more to do with kids enjoying attention, and a natural urge to “try stuff out”.
“First of all, you need to have a very honest look at whether you think this could be an indicator of something serious,” she says. “If you’re sure there isn’t, then it’s maybe coming from seeing something on TV, or hearing older kids talking about it.”
“If your eight-year-old is starting to use the “F” word, or sending inappropriate messages, you can use the same parenting techniques as you would to say, ‘you don’t steal, you don’t hit people’,” Dr Gummer suggests.
“You can also use role-play with dolls or action figures and let the kids lead, to see what comes up. The more you play and interact with your kids, the better your communication will be – and the more they’ll listen to you, and tell you.”
Sarah Castro, one of the UK’s leading child safety experts, who works with SafeToNet – agrees that open communication between parents and children is crucial to tackling threats such as cyberbullying, abuse and aggression.
Here are her top nine tips for parents.
Communication, communication, communication
“Research shows that parents spend, on average, just 46 minutes talking about online safety with their child – in a child’s entire childhood,” Castro says.
“Parents don’t know how to have that conversation, or they think, ‘this won’t happen to my child’, so they ignore it – and it’s those children who are most at risk. It can happen to any child.” Castro recommends the Thinkuknow website, which has age-appropriate tips on having the conversation, as well as videos and resources to help parents “have those chats, without scaring their kids”.
When to let your child have a phone
If your child isn’t old enough to go out alone, they’re not old enough to have a phone, Castro believes. “Parents often ask me, ‘When should my child be given a mobile phone?’ I say to them, ’until your child is able to go out by themselves, and to walk to school alone, they should not have a phone. A phone is the equivalent of going out. These devices are a portal to the outside world.”
Sexting comes in all different guises
“We have whole conversations in emojis,” Castro says. “A nine or 10-year-old may be sending emojis that look harmless, such as the peach emoji, the aubergine emoji, the water splash emoji, but actually have a whole different connotation. A six-year-old may respond to these kind of messages in the same way, and they – and their parents – might not even know what they mean. It’s important parents familiarise themselves with the risks.”
Know who your children’s friends are
“Do parents know who their child’s best friends are? Many don’t, because so many of those relationships are online,” Castro says. “So, make an effort to find out who they’re in contact with. Ask yourself if you can have their parents’ phone numbers, and if not, get them.”
Have a dedicated ‘Zoom space’
“Parents need to be really careful with the background of Zoom calls – are they dressed appropriately? Are their kids dressed appropriately?” Castro says. “One possible outcome of home schooling is an increase in bullying, because kids can see into each other’s homes during video calls, and tease each other about the type of TV they have, for example. So, make sure all video calls are made in a dedicated place in the home, against a plain background, and also think about what those on the call might be hearing in the background. Bedrooms and bathrooms are never appropriate places for them to be making these calls.”
Bring your child up to be a ‘good digital citizen’
“We are not educating our children to be good digital citizens,” Castro says. “That’s the crux of the problem. If a child is acting inappropriately, it can be tempting to blame the parents, but it’s not necessarily their fault. Kids could be in chat rooms where grooming or radicalisation occurs; they could be using bad language or hearing older siblings using racist slurs. Young people who are posting things online now might be applying for jobs, five years down the line – and suddenly realise that their digital footprint makes them inappropriate.”
Have a ‘family contract’
“Work out a family contract,” Castro advises. “It’s a great thing to do with teenagers – they love putting restrictions down, and holding their parents to account. Establish rules about how you’re going to act digitally in your home. You could set rules such as no mobile phones at dinner, or no mobile phones in the bedroom. You could have a basket and keep devices in there – parents, too! Work together to choose a designated area to do video calls; and agree that if people are gaming, they don’t use headphones while on those calls.”
Respect your child’s privacy
“You can take your child’s phone off them and demand to see what they’re saying, but that might have the opposite effect of teaching them to become more secretive,” Castro warns. “If you do that, your child will find ways around you. They might have secret folders on their phone – or ‘fake’ social media accounts that look fine, with real ones hidden for more risky behaviour.
“By opening up both communication and trust, you will allow your children to explore and be creative – and make mistakes they can talk to you about. Normalise the behaviour your child will carry on using as they get older.”
Think about using a safeguarding app
“Safeguarding apps use AI to notice if you’re doing something out of character – and when your child starts to behave in a slightly different way to normal it will flag it up,” Castro says of SafeToNet, which is free to download until September. “It looks at everything they’re typing. A red flag will pop up and say, ‘are you sure about this?’ It works in a reactive way, in the heat of the moment, to caution the child and help them make better decisions.”