Navigating the online world and supporting children to stay safe online is a challenge for families. A recent American study conducted by Northwestern University looked at parenting in the age of digital technology. The study included 2,300 American parents of children aged eight and under. Some of the key findings include:

  • seventy percent of parents don’t feel technology devices have made parenting easier
  • parents will more often turn to family and friends for parenting advice than to media sources
  • parents are less likely  to turn to media or technology as an educational tool for their children than to activities

Boundaries linked to the amount of time children spend on devices are also important. Research has shown that high amounts of online use by children can negatively impact their attention span, sleeping patterns and imagination.  Devices such as smartphones and tablets provide high levels of light and brain stimulation which can result in a decrease in overall sleep, decrease in quality of sleep and increase in sleepiness during the day.

Health and community professionals can play a key role in supporting children and their families with safe online usage.  Strategies health and community professionals can share with schools, early childhood services and families for promoting children’s safe online use include:

  • open and ongoing communication with children about the importance of staying safe online
  • monitoring  the amount of time children spend online
  • establishing family rules for using devices
  • filters and other tools to assist in limiting exposure to potentially harmful material
  • parental familiarisation with the technology used by children
  • modelling positive online behaviour and promoting ideas of responsible digital citizenship
  • ensuring time on devices occurs in the presence of parents and carers rather than in isolation
  • communication with children of the potential dangers associated with online use
  • supporting children to use effective passwords and security settings
  • psychoeducation of the public nature of uploading information and images as well as social media’s restrictions related to age
  • role-playing strategies for children to respond to inappropriate online behaviour eg confronting the person, blocking and deleting contacts and reporting of negative online behaviour

An important skill for all children to learn is perspective-taking. The ability to recognise other’s thoughts and feelings and how our actions impact others is an important social skill. Health and community professionals can work with children to develop these social skills which can lead to positive online behaviour. When children have the ability to think about how their actions impact others they learn to develop compassion and empathy. In regards to online behaviour, compassion and empathy are likely to support in minimising the occurrence of cyberbullying as children can reflect on their actions and how these may be experienced by others.

With increasing numbers of children engaging in the online world, it is important to support children to implement boundaries. Health professionals can teach children explicit skills through role-play techniques that will support their safe engagement in the online world. Supporting children to identify behaviour that is negative, and ways to disengage from this, is important for ensuring a safe and positive online experience.   

Professionals can facilitate information sessions for school staff aimed at promoting positive online behaviour as well as assisting staff to recognise symptoms related to cyberbullying and excessive screen time and the effects these have on children. By working collaboratively with schools, early childhood services and families, professionals can support children to have a positive and safe experience.