Thursday, December 12, 2019

With children spending more and more time online, we’ve entered a new era in which teaching our young ones how to be safe online must become an integrated part of our parenting routine. Long gone are the days when the “stranger danger” talks at home and at school sufficed, although it is still relevant to our children’s safety. Nowadays the abyss of cyberspace has catapulted us into a much broader realm. Cyber safety is an uncomfortable subject for many of today’s parents and educators alike. This domain is awkward to many adults because it is so broad, and in the sea of social media, internet apps, games and websites out there, who can keep up with the latest and greatest? What many of us are afraid to face is the impending reality that our children and teens seem to know way more about cyberspace than we do—yikes! So how are we supposed to protect them from something they already know so much about?

You don’t need to know all of the ins and outs, but knowing the basics can make all the difference between a safe and unsafe experience for your child. Essentially, there are three considerations when addressing online safety with our children: the basics (public and privacy settings), online predators (aka “internet stranger danger”) and cyber bullying. Once you are done researching and preparing your cue cards and you are ready to sit down with your child and show off your very obvious knowledge of how to use Google or Wikipedia and teach them about these lessons, what do you do next?

Although parents and educators agree that discussing internet safety is crucial, studies show that most children are not disclosing upsetting online incidents. Why is it more likely for our children to tell us they’ve been bullied on the school playground rather than tell us they are being bullied online? Children are afraid that if they reveal being cyberbullied or cyber bullying or experiencing anything unsafe online their parents will immediately take away their apps, phones, computers or internet privileges, ultimately causing them to be socially isolated. Additionally, if your child is feeling terrible about being cyber bullied in a group text, s/he may be terrified of showing you the actual texts for fear that you will scroll up and perhaps be disappointed by one of your child’s own texts/posts. Children are terrified of having their devices and internet privileges taken away—something that makes them more anxious than anything. They just want to be in the loop like everyone else.

So how do we become the type of parents/trusted adults that our children will actually open up to about their internet-safety issues? By having regular talks with your children about online safety, being proactive, establishing family rules and guidelines, but also by allowing children a free space where they can let you know if something is making them feel uncomfortable. Sometimes, in our quest to be great parents, we are so focused on coaching, guiding and instructing that we forget to step back and listen. By setting up some one-on-one time, when things are calm, and blocking some time to have a conversation about social media and the internet with your teen or child, you may be surprised to learn how much your child actually knows. We warn our children repeatedly to look both ways before they cross the street; why wouldn’t we speak to them periodically about their cyber life? After all, the internet and social media are quickly expanding and becoming the “norm” and we need to allow our children a safe space where they can communicate with us.

Project S.A.R.A.H. has developed a children’s internet-safety program as a preventative and educational medium that addresses key issues as well as opens up discussions about popular apps and the topic of “how things make us feel online.” Licensed therapists present to children, pre-teens and teens alike in schools across New Jersey. The interactive program encourages children to participate by sharing their knowledge and questions with the presenter after reviewing the slides and videos presented. Project S.A.R.A.H. has also developed a parent internet-safety program that addresses parents’ questions and concerns and teaches parents how to communicate effectively with their children. Parents feel more comfortable setting guidelines and limits, while children feel more comfortable telling their parents when something doesn’t feel right both online and offline.

In such a fast-paced technology-driven world where texting, posting and surfing is such a major component of a child’s day, parents have to learn how to effectively help their children be safe online and off.

By Hila Revah, LMSW, 

Project S.A.R.A.H. Clinical Staff

 Hila Revah, LMSW, is a licensed therapist at Jewish Family Services and Children’s Center of Clifton-Passaic, and part of the Project S.A.R.A.H. team. She played an instrumental role in creating the children’s internet-safety program as well as the parents’ internet-safety program that Project S.A.R.A.H. offers to communities and schools across New Jersey.