Thinking of Internet-capable babysitters for the kids this Christmas? Well, buyer beware: you may sign up for more responsibility than you bargained for.
Christmas is coming, and with it comes the most holy of all yuletide traditions: the great consumer exercise of purchasing pricey gifts at the eleventh hour.
For many parents, the prospect of plopping the kids down in front of a shiny new tablet, or games console seems like a sure fire way to earn that little bit more downtime, but it’s not that simple.
With every new Internet-capable device, and every entrance to the ever expanded world of interactivity, comes an added burden of responsibility for parents. Gone are the days of knowing your bundle of joy is safe in the lounge room under the watchful gaze of the Nintendo 64, your family home now under attack by that darned broadband.
Granted, this is not a new concern, nor are current parents the first to feel the looming threat of the world wide web and those dastardly humans who come to play.
Think back, to your family computer, in your computer room (remember when that was a room in your house?) and the joy you felt when your 56k modem had first brought the possibility of a constant connection to the entire world, as long as Mum didn’t need to make a phone call.
Maybe you had MSN, maybe you’d just discovered Yahooligans. But either way, you always heard the same sacred rules of web surfing: never talk to someone you don’t know, never tell someone anything about yourself, in fact, just don’t talk to anyone ever.
Even if you load it up with the tightest of parental controls (which you’ll find under settings, general, restrictions, and can then lock with a passcode, just FYI), those dastardly machines can still continue their mission of harm.
In the brief hours of computational leisure you were afforded, every click was a dangerous jump and your parents served as your sole guardians in a new, and therefore very frightening world.
But things are different now, and the advent of smartphones, tablets and Internet-capable gaming consoles has meant device owners are constantly in connection to the world. This constant, high-speed connection also has given rise to a whole new range of apps, websites and services, designed to take advantage of our modern day conveniences.
Sure, it’s fantastic that we can now add friends on the other side of the planet with no real barriers to communication, but when the user is only just getting their big boy teeth, that convenience starts to look awfully daunting.
The constant communication capabilities also mean that a child’s peers are at all times able to contact a device user – whether their intent to do so is good or otherwise. Bullying, already an endemic scourge in schoolyards, no longer stops when the bell rings.
Cyber bullying means there is no reprieve for victims, and it can manifest in incredibly damaging ways. This constant torment has lead some even to self-harm and suicide.
Even if you put your device on airplane mode, or load it up with the tightest of parental controls (which you’ll find under settings, general, restrictions, and can then lock with a passcode, just FYI), those dastardly machines can still continue their mission of harm.
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The increase in screen exposure can also lead to obesity, and can hinder a child’s ability to develop socially and emotionally. It is essential that parents limit the amount of time their child is exposed to their devices, according to Theodote Pontikes, MD, paediatric psychiatrist at Chicago’s Loyola University Health System and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at the University’s School of Medicine.
“Limiting screen time can be difficult for parents since homework and other school assignments require kids to be on the computer and online. What kids need to know is that screen time is screen time, whether that’s a computer, phone, TV or video game.”
Pontikes believes that the best way to go about this is by having a discussion with their children to set those limits, while also helping them understand why the limits are needed. Parents also should talk to their children about predators and cyberbullying, along with fiscal responsibility, because, hey, when’s the last time you got to sit down with your kids like this.
Giving real examples of what happens when ‘net adventures go wrong is a good way to go about this, while also reassuring your child that, like a band of multi-coloured heroes in spandex, you’re on the same team. If they’re ever uncomfortable or unsure, they should know they can turn to you.
Pontikes also recommends having no devices in the bedroom and limiting Internet time to only shared areas, such as the kitchen.
Gone are the days of knowing your bundle of joy is safe in the lounge room under the watchful gaze of the Nintendo 64, your family home now under attack by that darned broadband.
But it’s not all bad news for your child’s budding Internet flights of fancy; parents don’t need to add their children on social networks, ensuring little Billy’s zany meme antics can continue unabated.
“You don’t need to follow your child on Twitter, or friend them on Facebook, but make sure you’re communicating face-to-face. A relationship has to be about more than social media and texting,” Pontikes stressed. “Keeping in touch with existing friends through social media is great, especially when they are far away, but it should never be used to establish relationships.”
If your child does stray into the Internet beyond where the light touches, there are “warning signs” to look out for, including sudden changes in behaviour, such as disinterest in activities they previously enjoyed; subtle changes, such as a move to being more reserved or isolated; change in sleeping or eating habits, or nightmares; change in fashion sense (sorry child trendsetters); and loss in academic performance or attendance.
But of course, like a good ’80s Christmas movie, there’s a warm and fuzzy way to combat the ‘net nasties: being supportive.
“The best thing a parent can do for their children is to be involved in their life. Get involved at their school, be at the games, go to the recitals. One day a week do something as a family that sparks conversation. Be, there be supportive.”
So, not only do you have the responsibility of making sure your child is safe on their new toy, but you now also need to be supportive. Suddenly the price of entry is much less appealing.
Still, the idea of putting your mini me down for an hour of the angriest of birds while you have a coffee (and maybe Irish it up a little) does put a little bit of Christmas cheer in the parental stocking, so maybe the cost isn’t that bad after all.