According to the media watchdog Ofcom, children between the ages of 5 and 15 spend an average of 15 hours each week online. To put that into context, our children now spend more time on the internet than they do watching TV.
The internet is a knowledge repository of unimaginable size. and an unprecedented learning and communication tool. It can be a lot of fun, but inevitably where there is so much light and life, there is also dark and shadow. In this guide we’ve brought together a range of expert views - from the NSPCC, Young Minds, NCA and many more - to help answer one key question. How can we equip our children with the confidence to successfully navigate an ever changing digital world? The answer, we believe, is Digital Resilience.
Table of contents
The World of E-Safety
1. The Facts Around E-Safety
“The digital world is exciting to children. It offers amazing opportunities to connect with others, to play games, to learn and explore the world. We need to embrace its positive benefits. But many parents I speak to, even the most internet savvy, often feel out of their depth when it comes to managing their children’s screen time. If we want to make sure the time children do spend online is healthy and productive, parents must take responsibility.”
Anne Longfield - Children's Commissioner for England
We don’t want to be alarmist about this. The internet is mostly positive, and often spectacularly so. It is also a place where bad things can and do happen, even to children.
But it doesn’t have to be. As dads, we can help keep our children safe online, not by banning it or censoring it with a heavy hand (which is likely to be counter-productive and unenforceable anyway) but by teaching a new and fundamental life skill - digital resilience.
2. What is Digital Resilience?
Digital resilience is a term that is often applied to business. In that case, it means accepting a new and, at first, unpleasant truth. The online world is inherently risky and, whatever you do, you will never completely eradicate that risk.
Digital resilience means living with that risk, at least to a certain extent. It recognises that the alternative - to lock everything down, batten down the digital hatches and have as little direct contact with the online world as possible - is, in fact, even riskier. The company that eradicates all online risk is also the company that fails in an increasingly connected world.
Digital resilience in the setting of families and children has a similar philosophy at heart. You can help to minimise your child’s risk online, but you can’t get rid of it completely. Or you could, but to do so would also be to take away all the wonderful positives of the online world, from a brilliant animation on YouTube that succinctly explains the water cycle in a way children just get, to free video calls to a beloved relative on the other side of the world.
Or, think of it through an analogy:
If you want all the good, you have to accept that a little of the bad will always be there. Digital resilience is the ability of children to recognise those risks, deal with them appropriately, and help to create a more positive online experience for everyone around them.
Sarah Brennan, chief executive of YoungMinds, states: “It’s important to encourage children to stay safe, but we should also encourage them to create positive content, to offer support to others who are struggling, to build empathy and responsibility, to identify and deal with challenging content, and to explore how to balance their lives online and offline.”
3. Can Tech Platforms Keep Our Children Safe?
There are two views on why the large tech companies aren’t doing more to keep our children safe online, and to shield them from inappropriate content.
- 1The size and scope of their vast operations makes it almost impossible to monitor every piece of content and the behaviour of every user.
- 2It’s just not a priority for them.
Whatever your own view, what should be clear is that a large part of the responsibility for keeping our children safe online, and instilling digital resilience, has to come down to parents or carers, and dads have a full part to play in that process.
One recent example should bring the reality home. It was discovered that YouTube is being swamped with violent, sexual or otherwise disturbing videos that feature popular children’s characters like Peppa Pig.
James Bridle, the blogger that highlighted the sheer scale of the operation to distribute these disturbing videos, wrote. “Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale.”
A debate rages about whether YouTube is doing enough to stop this material, or whether it is simply impossible to stamp it out completely given the breadth and scale of YouTube’s operation. And of course, there have been similar controversies about material on many other websites and social media platforms.
What is relevant here is not whether they can’t or won’t, but the stark reality that the big tech companies will not, on their own, keep our children safe online. A large part of that responsibility has to be ours. In the next part we will explore what digital resilience means in practice.
The Risks Our Children Face
Half of 9-16 year olds in Europe own a smartphone. Younger children can access the internet through family devices or connected games consoles. At the heart of digital resilience is the idea that our children will be exposed to the online world on an almost daily basis, and that neither parents nor third parties (including the social media platforms and websites our children use) can monitor and control every digital interaction they have.
4. Why Banning Everything Isn't The Answer
Inform and empower, don't exclude. Banning your children from the internet is unworkable and counterproductive. Study after study shows that children like being online. They value the communications they can have, and they place high value on being part of online communities.
Children’s mental health charity YoungMinds states: “Similarly, when they face a challenging life experience, traumatic event or an episode of poor mental health, they frequently turn to social media platforms to share their experiences, look for information or advice, and make sense of what is happening to them.”
For many young people, online life is an intrinsic part of life. Banning them from it - even if that were practically possible - would create more problems than it solved.
5. Educate and Empower
Instead, it is our role as dads to help our children negotiate both the light and the dark of the online world. And the first step to doing that is to know the risks our children face online.
The EU Kids Online study, supported by European Commission funding, splits these risks into three separate (but sometimes interlinked) areas.
That might seem like an intimidatingly large and complex web of online risks. From being exposed to violent or sexual content, to bullying and grooming, the internet can seem like the sort of place no right minded parent would ever let their children explore. The problem is, our children will explore it anyway.
6. Don't Panic
Our instinct here, especially as dads, might be despair, panic and lockdown. As we’ve seen, that course is neither realistic nor advisable.
It might even be counterproductive. There is some evidence that parents who are excessively controlling of their children’s internet use stop them acquiring important internet safety skills. Keeping your children in a state of digital innocence (and naivety) is not a viable strategy, because your children will discover the internet anyway.
Knowledge Is Power
As we’ve learnt, children spend a lot of time online, accessing through a variety of devices and using a large number of channels. Parents cannot monitor every moment their children spend online. Sensible rules and conventions around internet use are necessary, but on their own are not enough.
Ofcom’s Children and Parents Media Use & Attitudes Report, meanwhile found out something eye opening about the internet use of 12 – 15 year olds.
In other words, our children are venturing online with little knowledge of how ‘online’ really works. Knowledge is power. At the heart of digital resilience is the need to make our children digitally savvy, and to give them the psychological tools they need to arm themselves against online threats.
7. Doing The Basics - Your Checklists
That doesn’t mean that children should be given free rein. Digital resilience is not a cure for all the internet’s ills. Before we do anything else, dads should make sure basic internet safety protocols are in place. You can do that today. These protocols include:
A. Set up parental controls.
You can do this for every device your children have access to. The NSPCC has detailed instructions on how to set up parental controls for a range of devices, apps and channels, and there’s a helpline too.
B. Draw up a series of internet rules.
This is especially important for young children, and can include the times children are allowed online and the promise to tell you if they ever come across anything online that makes them feel uncomfortable. Here are very sensible pledges for children and parents that can be printed out, signed and kept near the computer (or wherever your children tend to go online).
C. For Younger Children, Monitor Their Internet Use.
These are sensible precautions and should be part of any dad’s online safety strategy. But they are not a panacea and can become increasingly redundant as children get older and more independent and start acquiring smartphones and tablets of their own.
8. How To Work With Schools
Schools have a major part to play in promoting digital resilience. The Resilience for a Digital World report from YoungMinds and Ecorys recommends that:
On that note, one of the things dads can do is ask the schools their children attend (especially older children) what they are doing to help students develop digital resilience.
Ask your child’s school sensible questions about internet use:
- Do you talk to children about the potential risks they face online?
- What do you advise children do about these risks?
- At what age do you start teaching children about online threats and behavior?
But again, we can’t rely on third parties to instill digital resilience. Part of the problem with online threats is that they exploit the ‘always on’ culture of modern digital life. To take one example, while bullying in the real world might stop when children get home from school, online bullying can follow them wherever they go. Our children need to learn the skills that can help them to avoid these issues if possible and deal with them in an appropriate way when they have to, wherever and whenever they encounter them. That is at least partly our responsibility as dads.
9. What Dads Can Do To Instill Digital Resilience
Helping to instill digital resilience isn’t as hard or complicated as it might seem, and you might be doing a lot of it already. Once you’ve set boundaries and created sensible rules around internet use, much of it is common sense, and mostly involves effective communication.
Dads (and mums ofcourse!) can help in the following ways...
Open a dialogue with your children
Don’t just tell or instruct. Make it a conversation. Be interested in what your children do online and let them tell you about it. If they’re keen, let them show you the sites or forums they like best. Ask to be shown around their favourite parts of the internet.
It’s easy to only focus on the bad things that can happen online, because safety is your prime concern. But the internet is a lot more positive than negative. Discuss the really good things about the internet too. Be fair and balanced and your children are more likely to engage with what you are saying.
Be Age Appropriate
As your children get older, the conversation changes. Make sure you’re not patronising your children with language and subjects they have moved well beyond.
Talk About The Way The Internet Works
Especially if your children are old enough to surf the 'net' independently and use social media. Make sure your children know that information and pictures they post online can be around forever. Make sure too that they are aware of the systems social media sites have put in place to report abusive comments, inappropriate content or bullying.
Talk To Your Teenage Children About Respect
What constitutes a healthy relationship? Today, teenagers develop relationships online, often receiving praise for their looks from people commenting on their pictures and videos. As well as knowing how to restrict access to their online information, teenagers need to be confident to refuse requests to post or text anything they don’t feel comfortable with. They also need to be able to turn to you if they receive unsolicited advances from people they don’t know.
Encourage Posting Positive Online Content
Report bullying even if it is happening to someone else, and be good citizens of cyberspace. Posting positive content can become a great habit if encouraged correctly.
And Encourage Reporting Upsetting / Uncomfortable Content
The internet is too vast and varied for you to be able to set rules for every eventuality, so the most important thing is for your children to feel confident they can turn to you whenever they feel the need to talk about something they experience online.
For that, they need to be sure of your reaction. According to e-safety expert (and father of three) Jerome Simas:
When your children know they can turn to you whenever they have a problem, they can engage confidently with the internet. As they do, they will naturally develop the digital resilience they need.
If you have other tips for encouraging that development, we’d love to hear from you. Let us know in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.