How to protect children online without using tough rules and reprimands


Cultivating ‘cyber-wisdom’ could help children make smarter decisions online


Established the same year Facebook was founded (2004), Safer Internet Day has become a fixture in schools, teaching children how to safely navigate an increasingly complex online world. With much of the world in some form of lockdown, this year’s Safer Internet Day will be different. Parents must take it upon themselves to guide their children to wiser internet behaviour.

This is no easy task. As Rooha Foroohar argues in her book “Don’t Be Evil”, big tech firms such as Facebook have “lost their soul” since they rose to prominence a decade ago. Parents agree. A recent poll found that three-quarters of parents of children aged 13-17 think that social media companies put profit ahead of promoting social good.

And while the internet – now more than ever – is our children’s portal out into the wider world, the list of risks, such as cyberbullying, misrepresentation, inappropriate content, online abuse and grooming, is long and growing.

The way to help children stay vigilant against these risks, despite their using social media and internet technologies for many hours a day, is through helping them develop what I call cyber-wisdom. It involves cultivating confidence in your children in how to make smart choices at important moments online – without strict discipline or overbearing supervision.

Practical advice

Parenting in the digital age is challenging. Several years ago, I completed a PhD on the influence of the internet on children, and I continue researching in this field to this day. Yet when my daughter got her first smartphone last year, I felt as though I knew nothing. What I knew felt overly theoretical, when what I needed was practical advice and simple guidance. My journey to show how theory and research could inform simple parenting tips is the basis of my latest book, Thrive.

Given the challenges of researching the effects of the internet on children’s lives and wellbeing, I turned to moral theory. What does it take for kids to do the right thing online? I, and others, have found that rules are pretty much absent online – and, even when they are present, young people find ways to get around them. Likewise, young people find it hard to think about the consequences of their online interactions. So instead of carrot-and-stick parenting, try to cultivate cyber-wisdom to help children make better judgements about how to stay safe online.

Cyber-wisdom is the ability to do the right thing, at the right time, when no one is watching. A survey by Yonder Consulting with parents shows that wisdom is the virtue that parents are most keen for their children to show online, with 56% of parents choosing this as one of their two virtues when presented with a list of eight.

Five tips to cultivate cyber-wisdom

To encourage children to behave wisely online, I suggest parents follow the React model when introducing children to the internet.

R stands for ground rules. These include rules about when children can access the internet and for what purpose. Establishing rules about from the outset is recommended by child health experts, but you should aim to remove the rules as your children learn to self-police.

E stands for exemplar. Good behaviour is more likely to be observed and copied rather than taught. What we do matters because it shapes what our children do. We must model the character and wisdom that we hope our children will develop. Once you’ve created that exemplar, you’ll be able to grant your children greater freedom to experiment online themselves.

A stands for the role of adviser. An adviser is a form of teacher, but one that is a co-constructor and partner in learning – rather than dictating lessons. Reduce your role as a rule-maker and become more of a coach, mentor and supporter. Our children, in their experimentation, might not get everything right, which means we must find ways that help them learn from their online actions.

C stands for character. We need to ask our children about when they feel their character has been tested online – like when they witness cyberbullying on social media. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when your children make autonomous, critical judgements and choose the right character quality to show at the right time.

T stands for thrive. If we can successfully make and enforce ground rules, be an exemplar, be an adviser, and be a character champion, then we will help our children thrive online, making the most of our generation’s greatest tool.

In many ways, the internet has been the unsung hero of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s helped teachers and parents to provide an education for their children, even when they’ve been forced to learn remotely. At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the internet’s darker side.

On Safer Internet Day, it’s our responsibility as parents to be explicit, conscious and reflective in how we choose to usher our children onto the right path – both online and offline. And that starts with cultivating cyber-wisdom – carefully building trust and responsibility rather than placing the emphasis on rules and expecting our children to follow them.

Tom Harrison
Reader, School of Education,
University of Birmingham

* Published in print edition on 23 February 2021

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