The recently launched Google Family Link is an app that allows you to monitor your children’s online activity, set perimeters and even remotely lock their devices. But are apps needed to ensure our children’s online safety, or should we trust them enough to be able to make good digital decisions?
In September 2017, a Miss Teen SA Instagram account offered girls the chance of a lifetime: a modelling contract, fame and fantastic prize money. Girls entered and many received a message notifying them that it was believed they could win the contest. They were asked to send in more pics. First, of their hands. Then of themselves in a bikini. Then without a bikini.
Parents became involved and hired a forensic team who traced the account to a paedophile in Johannesburg, who now had pics of their daughters. Sun International, organisers of the real Miss South Africa contest, warned that this contest was fake. But online, fake and fact are hard to tell apart.
Predators and paedophiles may be every parents’ nightmare, but they are only the beginning of the minefields that may exist online.
“Kids are growing up in a digital era and there is stuff they are getting involved in that we will not understand, while they have a natural instinct for it,” says Hayley Walker, Chairperson of Protective Behaviours Southern Africa, an organisation dedicated to equipping children with the values-based skills they need to feel safe both online and in person.
“The minute they are networked, however, even via an online game, they are at risk. It may not only be a predator, but could even be a child on the other side introducing other children to pornography. And porn rewires the developing brain.”
“As the first generation of parents to raise an online generation of children, many of us are grappling to find our balance and rules; especially as such perimeters are pushed back faster than we can contend with.”
“It takes only two minutes to create an account,” says Sarah Hoffman, an attorney and Business Development Manager at The Digital Law Company, founded by well-known lawyer, speaker and author, Emma Sadleir. “People are often not who they say they are. And your digital footprint can be traced back to your location.”
The Digital Law Company is South Africa’s thought leader on matters relating to social media law and the law. As a legal consultancy, it provides consulting services and strategic advice on all matters to do with social media and the law. A large part of the business is educating parents, educators and children on the risks that may exist online.
“Many of the problems we see when it comes to long-term reputational and legal consequences of using social media could so easily have been prevented,” says Hoffman.
New generation, new needs
As the first generation of parents to raise an online generation of children, many of us are grappling to find our balance and rules, especially when such perimeters are pushed back faster than we can contend with. We are learning the rules as we go, and the terrain is often a minefield of contention between us and our tweens and teens.
“Parents of today are either Generation X or Generation Y – and who were raised by a generation of parents who were not exposed to the internet,” says Marc Hadwick, the developer of The Guardian, an app designed to reduce the crimes against children by allowing them to report abuse or risks anonymously. “I learned to engage with others from the way I saw my parents engage. I saw my father lock up and we had an alarm. But my father never had to safeguard me from an online predator.”
Hadwick has the kind of job that we all respect but appreciate that someone else is taking care of for us. “I catch paedophiles and throw them in jail,’ he says.
As founder of a company that is at the forefront of child protection from both a reactive and proactive perspective, Hadwick takes a common-sense approach to protecting children. “The same basic principles of safeguarding your child in the real world apply to the cyber world. Know where your children are. What are the risks if your daughter hops into a taxi alone and goes to the mall and spends three hours there compared to the risks if you take her yourself and engage with her? Now change the word mall for Instagram. When your child figuratively leaves the house for the cyber world, we do not know who they are talking to or that those people are who they say they are. If we apply the real-world rules to the cyber world, we will be 80% closer towards protecting our children.”
Sadleir, in her experience with advising clients who have either been the victims of social media abuse or who have used social media badly, confirms this. “Being popular on Instagram is the same as being rich in monopoly. If you would not have them in your house, why give them access to your private information?”
What about the right to privacy?
“If you come home and find your child is in the lounge having sex with a stranger, would you take control of the situation or say I am sorry for violating your privacy?” asks Hadwick. “If they do not want you in that world, they can’t have it. That is basic parenting. This information is not rocket science. By law, everything that belongs to them belongs to you, so own it.”
“Know what is going on over the phone; when your child wants the phone, they will jump through any hoop to get it. Tell your child, ‘if you want the phone, I will always be able to look at it. I will be friends on any group you are on’. Too many parents today have lowered their standards in an attempt to be buddies with their children. But if you are their friend, then who is their parent?”
While Hadwick’s views may seem harsh, his past experience as a policeman working in the child protection unit and currently as the developer of The Guardian, ensure that his views are backed by not only research but raw experience. “The only deterrent to an online predator is an involved parent.”
“As a parent, I believe I have two duties,” says Alida Engelbrecht, an admin manager working from home. “Firstly, is to love my children unconditionally; secondly, to keep them physically and spiritually safe until they are able to do it themselves. Social media falls under the second category.”
“I do not see it as invading their privacy because nothing you share on any social media page is private. If they want to be private, they can get a diary and hide it under their mattress; I will not read that. However, we have a policy of no social media secrets in our house.”
What apps to use
Our problem is not that there are no apps and filters to monitor content, but many of us struggle to know which ones to use and how to use them. We need to open the discussion about online safety as a community of parents.
“We use Kaspersky Safe Kids to filter as well as monitor,” says Elaine Palmer. “We don’t allow our kids to watch YouTube in their bedrooms, so I have used Kaspersky to disable YouTube on their phones, both the app and via the browsers. They have access to two laptops in our family area, which Kaspersky also filters for adult content, but it does not block Youtube. So, they have access to YouTube, just not in their bedrooms.”
“It also allows me to see what websites they visit, and it gives me an overview of how long they use their devices and what apps are used for what length of time. When I tell my son that he has overused Instagram today, I can show him exactly by how many hours or minutes he overused it. And if the problem persists, I can set it to block him after he’s used up the allotted time, or even block it entirely for a period of time.”
“This is not my chosen course of action as I would prefer them to self-monitor, but it is an option I like to be able to use from time to time. If they want to visit a website and Kaspersky blocks them, they can request permission and I get a notification on my phone, and can grant permission,” Palmer concludes.
“As homework and studies increasingly call for online research, not allowing any access to the internet may not be a viable, or wise, option. “Using Google Family Link, we can ensure that our children read websites we direct them to and we task them with reading at least one news article a day that then becomes dinnertime conversation,” says Shamilla Patel, a school teacher.
“My husband tracks their online activity regularly and should there be a little too much online activity on any one day or too much of social media time, then the device gets locked from wherever he is.”
Paranoid versus prepared parenting
“Having done the work that I have done and seen the devastation that can come from an abduction versus the damage that we do when we are paranoid, I would rather be the parent that people say is paranoid than the parent whose child is missing,” says Hadwick.
“Psychologists may say that there are consequences to helicopter parenting, but the dysfunction that comes from being a guarded parent pales in comparison to the dysfunction of having a missing child.”
“We take the view that a parent has the right to know what their children are doing on their phones,” says Sadleir. Her firm has prepared a well-through-out contract for teens regarding social media usage that could be a starting point for a partnership based on trust. “Nothing can replace good communication with your child, especially your teenager,” adds Hoffman.
“While apps can make it a safer and healthier experience online, there will always be a new app coming out. There is no measure you can take to ensure their safety than can replace good conversations and good discussions – and the safe space for children to speak to you especially if they have messed up or are being bullied. No algorithm can replace open communication.”