In this day and age, technology has become part and parcel of our daily lives. As parents of a generation which is growing up in a world of social media, apps, online games and virtual chat, we have the responsibility to educate ourselves first, and be equipped to handle all the good and the bad that comes with a technologically savvy generation.
What are the real risks associated with online use? Is screen-time really as bad as some say it is? At what age is it considered okay to give our child a smart-phone? These are all questions which us parents are continuously asking ourselves.
I sat down with Mark Spiteri, Senior Project Coordinator at the Malta Communications Authority who also heads The ‘BeSmartOnline!’ project, which has the main objective of safeguarding the well-being of children online, together with Agenzija Appogg, the Office of the Commissioner for Children and the Directorate for Learning and Assessment Programmes.
What kind of initiatives does ‘BeSmartOnline!’ carry out in order to achieve its objectives?
“Our initiatives are done mostly through schools. We feel this is the perfect way to reach all the respective stakeholders: the educators, the parents and the children.”
Mr. Spiteri continues to explain how the educational resources are created specifically for Malta and included as part and parcel of the ‘Personal, Social and Career Development’ subject within the school’s curriculum in all state schools.
“35% of primary school children (aged under 11 years old) own a Facebook account.”
“When it comes to church schools and private schools, BSO! also offers its services, however naturally in these cases the respective schools are free to choose which content to include in their curriculum. However, it is worth noting that most of these schools also provide educational programmes and initiatives themselves.”
“The real problems online are not the technical ones which we often hear of such as viruses and hacking problems. The real problems online are social.” Mr. Spiteri explained.
“We also participate in events that target families, such as National Cinema Day which was held recently in all cinemas locally” Mr. Spiteri continued. “We create a presence within these events to build awareness and provide information about the services we offer, and also answer any questions people may have.”
Has any local research into online use been carried out and if so, what are the main findings?
“The latest research carried out was in 2014/2015. One important finding that emerged was that 35% of primary school children (aged under 11 years old) own a Facebook account. It also seems that these children’s parents are aware of this. Naturally, since a couple of years have passed since the research was carried out the percentage is probably even higher now.”
“It is difficult to pinpoint the age at which children are ready to own a social media account. It is more about maturity rather than age”
How does Malta fare in terms of ‘child online use’ when compared to other countries in Europe?
“Malta ranks very high when it comes to online use. Circa 97% of households with dependents have internet access.”
Isn’t it illegal for children under 13 to own a Facebook account?
“It is against Facebook’s policy however it is technically not illegal.” Mr. Spiteri explains. “It is difficult to pinpoint the age at which children are ready to own a social media account. It is more about maturity rather than age” he says.
“You may have an 11 year old who is totally streetwise about the risks, and a 17-year old who is naïve and unaware of the dangers that social media poses.”
“Children are not equipped with the experience and skills to judge strangers they meet in person, let alone those they meet online.”
He stresses that the most important thing is that both the parents and the children know the risks.
WHAT ARE THE ACTUAL RISKS OF ONLINE USE?
Mr. Spiteri explains that the risks vary but the main dangers involve one or more of the following:
1) Vulnerability to predatory adults
Children are not equipped with the experience and skills to judge strangers they meet in person, let alone those they meet online. It is up to us adults to guide our children about communicating with new ‘friends’ on social media. Parents should also continuously communicate with their children about their internet use since monitoring is not necessarily the most advisable way to reassure themselves.
The online world has opened up the doors to a whole new world of bullying. A darker, more anonymous world. It is important for us parents to educate children to ask themselves questions such as “Is this going to hurt someone’s feelings?” We must educate our children not to bully and not to interact with others who bully them or other children. To actively take a stand against bullying rather than act as bystanders and indirectly contribute to it. It is not easy, but we should keep an open dialogue with our children. It is useless to try and avoid technology altogether. It is here to stay. What is important is to educate ourselves and our children.
If you or your child is being bullied or harassed online, please call 179, where trained personnel are at hand to help you deal with these issues.
3) Privacy and Digital Footprint
Believe it or not, one of the main risks that pre-adolescents and adolescents face today is the collective, ongoing record of their online activity, which is termed as their “digital footprint.” What children post today (or what is posted about them) may affect their future educational and employment opportunities as well as future relationships and even things such as eligibility for insurance schemes.
Just think back and imagine if everything you did as a child was documented on social media. Children who are unaware of the risks often post inappropriate photos and videos that they may later regret, without understanding that what goes online is there forever.
4) Exposure to commercial advertisements which may not be age appropriate
Many websites display commercial content that influence not only the purchasing behaviour of children but also their views on what is considered normal. It is important to educate parents, children, and adolescents about how advertisements can easily manipulate them.
“Peer acceptance is immensely important to adolescents and the online world only intensifies this”
5) Risk of identity theft
Children are, by default less cautious than adults when it comes to providing their personal information online. It is important for us to educate children to keep their private information private. If a child’s identity is actually stolen, it may take years to be noticed and put the child at risk for being a victim of blackmail in the future.
6) Mental issues associated with excessive social media use
Balanced use of social media is part and parcel of today’s daily life. However, like with everything in life, excessive use may lead to a skewed view on life. Peer acceptance is immensely important to adolescents and the online world only intensifies this. To make it worse, the availability of risky websites that promote substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm and aggressive behaviours only augment the risks and dangers of excessive online use. By way of example, if a child’s life revolves around his online persona and falls victim to online bullying, he will not have the resilience (through his offline existence) to brush it off in a healthy manner.
“If the only world a child is subjected to is the online world, then the online risks are magnified – It is important to always offer an offline alternative.”
Mr. Spiteri explains that BSO! is currently running a campaign entitled: ‘Balanced Use’.
“The ‘Balanced Use’ campaign aims to raise awareness about the importance of balance between online and offline time, not only for health reasons, such as eyesight, obesity and so on, but also to safeguard the social and emotional wellbeing of children.” He says.
“If the only world a child is subjected to is the online world, then the online risks are magnified. It is important to always offer an offline alternative and expose children to extra-curricular activities, encouraging them to interact with different groups of people.”
Mr. Spiteri tells me of one case of severe online overuse where a boy used to prefer urinating in his underwear to avoid getting up and interrupting his online activity (online games).
He tells me of another boy whose mum (with the best intentions) used to keep him home often from school to avoid him getting sick. Her son used to spend hours and hours in front of a screen playing video games to the extent that she used to have to feed him herself whilst he played because he would refuse to stop in order to eat.
“Online games are built to hook children. They are made for children to want more and more, hence the importance which adults play in regulating children’s online behaviour” adds Mr. Spiteri.
What precautions can parents take to ensure their children are using the internet in a safe manner?
“Well when it comes to posting content, ask yourself this question ‘if this image was to be put up on a billboard for everyone to see, would it be okay?’ If not, then chances are you should not upload it.
Also, when it comes to children, our advice is to avoid posting photos of your children alone and looking at the camera and obviously avoid nudity entirely. Exchanging of images of children online is a business and it does not just include nudity. Parents need to be aware of the risks. Also we suggest avoiding posting real-time images of where your children are or which school they attend and so on.”
He continues “In an ideal world it should be fine to innocently share photos of yourself and your children on an ongoing basis but unfortunately there are people with bad intentions and our job at BSO! is to educate parents and educators as well as children that these risks really do exist.”
Strangers can find out intimate details about children via their digital footprint and use them as ways to connect with the children.
Mr. Spiteri explains that another recent trend is the advent of ‘internet-enabled toys’ which are amazing and fun for kids but, again they are connected to the internet, so any information given by children is recorded on the internet whether it is video, voice, text and so on.
“We cannot stop technology. The only thing we can do is be aware of the risks. This also goes for us adults. For example, the ‘apple watch’ is great and all, however we must be aware what information the device is collecting in view of the terms and conditions people seldom read.
With apps like ‘YouTube’, we suggest that the adult logs out of his/her profile because in that way google will not assume the user is over 18, thus the risk of inappropriate content is minimised (though not removed altogether).”
Have there been any cases locally where children have fallen victims to online predators?
“Yes there have been cases of grooming locally. One thing to keep in mind is that the groomers are very clever. They invest a lot of time in their victim and sometimes the online relationship spans over a year before it gets sexual. This is also where the digital footprint comes in. Strangers can find out intimate details about children via their digital footprint and use them as ways to connect with the children.
Unfortunately we must all be aware that there exist people with bad intentions both online and offline. Children are the most at risk, and the online world has made them even more vulnerable.”
What should a parent do when he or she spots someone taking pictures of their child in public?
“If someone is taking a picture of them in a group, then nothing can be done. However if the perpetrator is focusing on the child, this qualifies as harassment and can be reported to the police.”
Be Smart Online is an EU Funded Project that was set up in 2010. Its main objectives include: Raising awareness on the safe use of the internet, offering reporting facilities for internet abuse through an online platform, and giving adequate support to the respective victims. The core age group is between 6 years of age and 17 years of age however only recently BSO! (‘BeSmartOnline!’) has also started targeting younger age groups on basic concepts such as privacy.
Parents can access more information through the BeSmartOnline! Facebook page and the website. Should you come accross any online illegalities such as pedophilia and racism, this can be reported anonymously therough anonymous online platform: www.childwebalert.org.mt.