An adoptive father tells us about his shocking experience at a school Safer Internet day.
My two worlds collided after I recently spent the morning at my little one’s school for Safer Internet Day. As an adoptive father and a founder of a digital marketing agency, I wasn’t expecting how much this session would change me and how shocked I would feel at how a group of 10-year-olds view the internet. Here’s what I found and the lessons I learnt.
Alarmingly, at least one of the group had watched more than one 18-rated movie and more than half of the group had access to their parents’ accounts on Netflix, Amazon Prime and other places. And several other children in the room had been allowed by their parents to play Call of Duty – an 18-rated video game.
Now, I’m no Mary Whitehouse, but it does seem to me that it’s only a small step from having this unfettered access to streaming sites to being able to access anything (pornography?) on web browsers.
The teacher asked the kids to organise what they view as less of a problem to a big problem when it comes to the internet, giving them ten cards to rank. I was there to listen to their rationale and offer support where needed.
Child A, who was leading the group, put screen time as not a problem at all. Worrying, right? The teacher quickly pointed out that, in their view, screen time is, in fact, one of the biggest problems there is.
Worryingly, the children even started laughing and swapping stories about the violence they had seen online. One child was bragging about a scene recently in a PG film where one of the characters is punched in the face.
One message had sunk in, as all of the children put online bullying as the number one problem, but the cost of having that message land with the children was clearly that they felt less worried about violence, scams and other internet harms in comparison.
Walking away from the school, I worried about our kids. As an adoptive dad, my family is committed to keeping our child safe online. We’re cautious. We have restrictions already in place to reduce screen time, limit access, and our child isn’t allowed on social media because it would take a split second for them to trace their birth family if they did have access. But even though we have safeguards in place, the session gave me a wake-up call and made me think about my behaviours and the signals I’m sending to my child.
Of course, parents can put restrictions and limit access, but children (and teenagers especially) actively find ways of getting around them. This is why our signalling behaviours are so important as parents. Do as I say, not as I do, doesn’t cut it when the internet’s like a drug to our youngsters.
Once I got home, I downloaded an app which forces you to take a deep breath when you open social media apps. It tells you how much time you’ve saved if you close it. In just one 24-hour cycle, I learnt I’d opened the app 50 times – I was asleep for seven of those. But by taking a breath, I’m undoing the normalised behaviour of always being on the phone and getting a hit of dopamine.
Now, instead of reading on my phone, I make a point of picking up a book or the newspaper (remember those) so that my child can see me doing other things than looking at a screen. I’m pleased to report that even only after a few days, they have started to copy this change in behaviour.
The additional challenge as an adopted parent is to find the balance between giving our child the right amount of access to do things like homework or playing games like other kids, but then teaching them how to use the internet – without giving them hints on how they might use it. The constant fear is how close they are to finding their birth parents online and the severe safety concerns that would bring. If someone says to you that they don’t want their kids on social media, this may well be why.
It’s months until the next safer internet day, but please do make the time to try and attend your school’s session next year. And in the meantime, the NSPCC has some brilliant materials on keeping children safe online.