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Child Protection Week: Red Riding Hood and the big bad internet

  • JudithAncer
Once upon a time, there was a girl called Little Red Riding Hood. Or Lexi. Or Esther. She kissed her mother, who stood at the garden gate, or went shopping, or watched her favourite TV programme.
by JUDITH ANCER | May 30, 2019

“Be careful,” her mother said. “Look out for the big bad wolf.” Or words to that effect.

But the enthusiastic child soon forgot her well-meaning mother’s cautions.

Full of good intentions, she made her way through the forest on her own. Enticements popped up everywhere, and she became a little distracted. Entranced by her discoveries, she didn’t notice that wicked eyes were watching her every movement.

Children don’t see those red gleaming eyes, not when they’re tapping away at their iPhones, connecting on Instagram, or hooking up to the internet.

It’s a big bad world out there. Always has been, always will be. Not most of the time, and not in most places, but when bad things happen to children in our community, we don’t easily forget them. They stain our memories in red technicolour.

Of course, the dangers are never just “out there”, and they don’t have to resort to “huffing and puffing” to get into our houses. We invite them into our homes through social networks, via smart phones, tablets, and computers.

A Pew Research Centre study from 2018 reported that 45% of American teens say they use the internet “almost constantly”, a figure that has nearly doubled from the 24% who said this in the 2014-2015 survey. Another 44% say they go online several times a day. Ninety five percent of American teens own their own smart phones or have access to one. With apps being developed for toddlers, the iPad is the latest must-have for the wired generation and our offspring.

Social media connects us to the world, informs us, and sets up opportunities for learning, creating and sharing. We can’t – and shouldn’t – wish this away as there are important benefits to using social networks in a sensible way.

The trick, I believe, is to treat your child’s first exposure to social media the same way you would their first date. For the first date, you will probably feel comfortable discussing the possible risks and setting limits for behaviour. You probably will not think twice about checking up on what they’re getting up to, such as arriving a little early at the house party or keeping in touch with the hosting parents.

It’s the same with children’s flirtations with social media. Remind them there’s a reason why it’s called “social” – it’s not private and confidential. Tell them Google never forgets. A single inappropriate image or comment posted online could be around forever. Just one phone number or address given to a stranger disguised as a friend can set in motion a chain of events over which they have absolutely no control.

Just as it’s not prying to keep a careful eye on your children’s relationships, and what they’re doing while hanging out at the mall, it’s not intrusive to monitor their use (or misuse) of the internet and apps like Tik Tok and WhatsApp.

In checking up on what your child is doing in cyberspace, you will discover no more or less than the public knows.

Tell your child that if he or she wants privacy, then good old fashioned conversation and letter writing are the way to go. Anything else belongs as much to you as to the cyber world out there.

One way to set up clear rules with your child is to sign a cell phone or social-media contract with them. These are available on the internet, and make it very clear what your child’s responsibilities are as a user of social media, and what steps you are entitled to take to monitor and safeguard them.

Of course, your child is probably so desperate to have a cell phone that he/she will sign any document. But it’s a process. And this type of contract sets out clearly the limits you are prepared to place on time spent in cyberspace, what may or may not be downloaded, when phones may be used, and when they have to be turned off.

However, the most important way we can protect our children is by educating ourselves about the possibilities and probabilities lurking out there on the web. Not only should we check the websites that our children are visiting, but with younger children, we can dictate which sites they may visit, and use some of the technologies available to limit their access to content we deem inappropriate.

By the time our children reach adolescence, we have to rely more on building trust with them and a little less on monitoring. We need to have helped them navigate the realities of virtual communication and virtual relationships with their real possibilities for exploitation, bullying, and betrayal. We need to warn them about predators disguised as promises, and help them to manage the temptations of instant connection. Hopefully, then, they will be able to travel more safely down the digital pathways of their social networks.

  • Judith Ancer is a Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist.
  • A version of this piece originally appeared in the Sunday Times.


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