Strangers and friends
Children spend a considerable amount of time on their computers and on the internet, but many parents do not know what their children do when online. The answer undoubtedly varies depending on age, but it can be roughly summarised with these words: games and social media.
There are many different kinds of games, from simple, free phone games to complex and expensive computer or console games. There are many problems associated with games, including an overabundance of screen time, the potential of spending money, and endless advertisements, while many games also allow players to communicate with each other, even with complete strangers. This is only one part of a larger trend – children constantly encounter strangers online.
I visited schools all over Estonia in October, speaking to children about cyber security and the internet. By the third grade, most children have already received messages and phone calls from strangers. The messages are sent to their phones, communication apps, and via in-game chats. A lot of these messages are unintentional – people call a number just to see who picks up. However, some people also look to contact children in games specifically intended for children. Therefore, it is essential to tell children what to do if that occurs: do not answer, exit the chat room, and talk to an adult if it happens again. These types of situations are similar to the old doctrine: do not talk to strangers!
The internet has evolved
Children today are spending increasing amounts of time on social media. While Facebook and Twitter are of little interest to them, and even Instagram is often considered to be more so the domain of older people, children watch a lot of videos on YouTube and TikTok. The internet is littered with different stories of how children have learned stupid things from videos or tried to copy dangerous trends, but one aspect is frequently unacknowledged: the internet is meaner than ever before. When you have a discussion with children about bullying, most stories are not about classmates insulting each other; children notice bullying at an early age, primarily in comments posted on social media. In current times, it is common for children to see content and comments that are inappropriate or just unkind. Most children have seen things on the internet that made them feel bad by the end of primary school.
The question of safety has many other layers: devices must have passwords, these should not be shared with others, and people must be careful on the internet overall. Children also receive phishing emails, trying to steal their information or sell them something. All of this is complicated, even for the average adult. Children mostly believe passwords are necessary, but general safety on the internet requires guidance, both at school and at home.
Just get them off the internet?
It seems that the simplest solution would be to get children away from the devices, which should theoretically solve all problems. A great idea would be to limit children’s time on computers and phones, but a more systematic approach is also required. The most important aspect is to develop a relationship built on trust, in which the child feels they can come and talk to the parent if anything happens. Additionally, there should be constant communication. Parents should be aware of what their children are doing online, so that they can spot nuances that the children themselves cannot. For example, a child may not realise that their new online friend is suspicious, or that the video game they are playing is not suitable for them. The internet has many pitfalls for everyone; therefore, it is essential to prevent those pitfalls where possible and offer assistance whenever needed.
It is also important to teach children how to behave on the internet: what to do, how to interact with other people, and what potential risks await them. Sadly, even most adults cannot do that, especially regarding children, but they can look to the Estonian Safer Internet Centre website, targaltinternetis.ee, for help. Children need help on the internet and we, as adults, should be there to help, support and guide them.
Key reminders for parents
- Children encounter different problems online; you should encourage them to talk about their concerns and find a solution together.
- Children do not know more about "computers and the internet" than adults.
- Computer time can and should be limited, but it is not possible to keep children away from the internet completely.
- Devices and accounts must have passwords, and these should never be shared with friends.
Find out more about the work of the Estonian Safer Internet Centre, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services – or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.