Content media

For children who use the Internet, content matters more than time. Here’s how to protect them

A A study by Common Sense Media found that the average screen time for children between the ages of eight and 12 was five hours a day, and for teens it was well over seven hours in 2019. Unsurprisingly, according to this recent study, much younger children are increasingly exposed to screens during global shutdowns.

Concerned adults worry about children’s excessive screen time or that the online risks outweigh the benefits. The temptation for these parents is therefore to focus more on restricting internet use than on enabling their children to participate safely online.

While the impact of screen time on children is still debated, UNICEF’s Growing Up in a Connected World report suggests that what children do online has more of an impact on their well-being. -be that the time they spend online and that children who are more active online are also more effective at managing online risk.

So, rather than hindering children’s use of the Internet, adults should learn how to effectively facilitate the online experience. But in the face of complex and rapidly changing technologies, many parents don’t feel confident enough to guide their often more tech-savvy children.

It is important to keep in mind that risk does not always lead to harm. Children exposed to online risks may not suffer harm if they have the knowledge and resilience to cope with the experience.


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Online risks for children

The OECD Risk Typology offers a practical review of emerging risks that parents, educators and children need to be aware of. Simplified, these are:

  • Content Risks: that include hateful, harmful or illegal content as well as misinformation.
  • Driving risks: these refer to children’s own conduct which can make them vulnerable, i.e. in case of sexting or cyberbullying.
  • Contact risks: which include online predators, sex trafficking and cybergrooming, and have been identified as a growing concern in OECD countries.
  • Consumer risks: such as inappropriate marketing messages as well as online fraud.
  • Confidentiality risks: many children do not yet understand the privacy disclosures they face, or the value of their personal information. Parents’ desire to over-share (“share”) can also create privacy and security concerns.
  • Risks related to advanced technologies: the use of technologies based on AI, Internet of Things (IoT) and extended virtual reality (XR) present additional risks. With immersive virtual worlds within the Metaverse comes new and heightened threats, many of which are not yet fully understood.

Advice for parents

Just like teaching kids about safety in the offline world, we need to talk about online risks. A family agreement is a great way to start the conversation about these risks and how to behave, as well as setting healthy boundaries for screen time.

Parental control tools help block explicit or disturbing content and apps on children’s devices. Before applying them, it is important to discuss the reasoning behind them and agree on rules that respect children’s privacy.

Social engineering is one of the most common modus operandi used by cybercriminals, scammers and child predators. It’s about triggering a victim’s emotions to suppress their critical thinking. Protection against social engineering requires children (and adults) not to share too much personal information and to be extra vigilant when something triggers an emotion.

Explain to children that when a message makes them anxious (“there’s been a security incident”), rushed (“it’s going to expire soon”), flattered (“I love your profile picture”) or triggers fear to miss out (FOMO), the alarm bells have to ring.

Critical thinking and a healthy dose of skepticism are key tools for spotting social engineering scams, online fraud, misinformation, and grooming claims.

There are excellent online resources for parents and educators providing additional guidance:

  • Childnet is a UK-based charity that empowers children and those who support them in their lives online.
  • InternetMatters helps parents protect their children online.
  • The Australian Government’s Electronic Security Commissioner explains how to stay safe online.
  • Stay Safe Online from the US National Cyber ​​Security Alliance for parents.

Educators and policy makers

Policymakers must ensure that cybersecurity awareness and critical thinking becomes a necessary life skill and is embedded in public schools across all curricula to equip children against online risks.

For example, as is the case in Finland, in mathematics children can learn how easy it is to lie with statistics, in art how images can be manipulated, and in history propaganda campaigns can be tied to today’s fake news and misinformation. Being able to approach information critically – not cynically – should be the goal here.

This does not mean that the responsibility can be placed directly on the shoulders of children. Governments should hold technology and content providers accountable for protecting vulnerable groups. The public and private sectors should collaborate internationally with relevant working groups such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Security to tackle harmful content and take coordinated action to reduce the risk of harm online. Governments should apply the necessary legal and policy frameworks.

Jessica Lahey explains in her book “Gift of Failure”, that overprotective parents create children who are anxious, risk averse and not equipped to fend for themselves.

By applying an “autonomy-friendly parenting” lens to the online world, we educate children about the risks, but at the same time, we give them the space to explore and allow them to fail or succeed based on effects of their own decisions. .

This means that instead of trying to limit all possible risks on the Internet, parents and educators should focus on raising awareness and fostering critical thinking, mindfulness and self-control. These are crucial prerequisites for navigating effectively not only in the digital world, but also in the offline world.

Anna Collard, Senior Vice President of Content Strategy and Evangelist, KnowBe4 Africa

This article originally appeared in the World Economic Forum.


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