January 26, 2022
Behaviour and Boundaries
By Dr Kathy Weston
As someone who is passionate about keeping children safe online, news of the arrival of Facebook’s virtual reality world or metaverse for “over 13s” has caused me to lose sleep (spoiler alert: underage children are already using it and coming across sexual predators).
Animated avatars inhabit this infantilised space, where occupants are able to mask their real identity in seemingly innocuous ways. Whilst much is disguised, the real voices of children are not. It is easy for adults to work out who they are talking to and get some understanding of their stage, age and level of vulnerability. The language used within this metaverse can be outrageous too; explicit, dangerous, discriminatory and predatory.
Most parents would never let their child enter a stranger’s house or hang out with them in a café, yet some are happy for them to mingle with adults that they don’t know in the virtual world. Too many parents assume that, just because their child is in the bathroom, bedroom or down the hall, they are ok and that there is nothing to worry about. It would be wrong to assume so. Britain’s IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) has warned that many cases of sexual abuse occur when a child is in their own home, on their phone in the family bathroom, or whilst using a digital device late at night.
Ask any parent and they will tell you that they worry about ‘stranger danger’, but millions still buy their offspring a smartphone (without explaining the risks), allow children access to social media (without regard for minimum age requirements) and fail to monitor, on an ongoing basis, who their child converses with and how their child behaves online. Both matter in equal measure.
In 2022, we should be aiming to raise good digital citizens; able to navigate the digital world, enjoy its benefits and opportunities, whilst possessing strong digital values and digital literacy skills.
Yes, we need to keep talking and talking and talking about online risk, but we also need to reiterate and underline the behavioural standards that we expect our children to uphold. Behaviour should be a central focus of our parenting. The litmus test is how will our children behave when we are not watching? “What if?” questions can help children and young people explore potential scenarios that they may find themselves in and allow them time to reflect on how they might handle them. What would you do if someone approached you online and asked for your number? What would you do if your best friend used racist or misogynistic language towards another person during an online game? What if your pal dared you to send a naked pic to someone?
I have witnessed it for myself many times, and spoken to many young victims of appalling cyberbullying; seemingly ‘nice boys from nice families’, referring to girls in their class as “hoes” or “whores” on Discord, ‘nice girls from nice families’, bullying another teen and filming the incident for TikTok, primary-age children casually exchanging highly sexualised material on Snapchat. It always leaves me with one question: Where are their parents? Do they care about what their child is doing online or how their child is treating others? If they don’t care, why not?
Everyday stories and experiences can usefully be used as springboards for family discussions about behaviour (both on and offline). Last week, I watched a video by the young Paralympian swimmer, Will Perry. After viewing it, my heart hurt. Will has a common form of dwarfism called achondroplasia. In this clip for the BBC, he describes the abuse he regularly experiences whilst going about his business. He describes a fresh incident at a local shop, where teen girls mocked and humiliated him. “Can you imagine how that must have felt?”, I asked my children. We talked about peer pressure, bystander behaviour and the motivations behind bullying others in general. We wondered if Will’s bullies or their parents might have seen his video? Would they brush or laugh it off, put it down to banter, accuse Will of being “oversensitive”? Who knows? Will those bullies ever grow to regret their actions? Hard to say.
In his video, Will pleads for unkindness to stop, and for other bystanders to challenge such behaviour if they witness it. I have exchanged messages with Will, promising to do what I can to promote his video and encourage parents to discuss it with their tweens and teens.
Low level behavioural misdemeanours in schools have also been the subject of some discussion among educators in recent months. At recent education conferences that I have attended, anecdotes surfaced from school staff who felt that children are slightly less compliant since lockdown ended; dismissive of school rules and sometimes of school staff. One described a pupil in a lesson dismissing her with the wave of a hand! Remind you of Zoom calls? Another teacher complained that children seemed to have lost that sense of boundaries. He gave the example of children talking about sensitive family matters, without any sense of the need for discretion. He felt that perhaps parents had dropped the ball somewhat, and asked: was this a legacy of lockdown?
Whether we can blame lockdowns for behavioural misdemeanours in either the online or offline worlds seems uncertain, and as of yet, the research (whilst ongoing) isn’t clear. It is easy to understand why lockdowns may have led, understandably, to a relaxing of parenting rules. With everything else we had to cope with, why wouldn’t we have taken our eyes off the behavioural ball? Relationships and responsibilities became somewhat entangled during lockdown; parents morphed into ‘teacher’ and the boundaries between work and family life regularly blurred beyond recognition.
As the pandemic eases, adults return to the workplace and online learning becomes a thing of the past, some sort of recalibration is required. The time has come for behavioural boundaries to be re-established, expectations to be clarified and our children to be made aware of some fundamental dos and don’ts.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you are a parent in a Tooled Up school, the library is packed with resources (like our Family Digital Values guide) that will prompt conversations about young people’s behaviour online. You’ll find them in the ‘Be Digitally Literate’ category in the advanced search. To learn more about the need for boundaries, listen to our podcast interview about cyberbullying. Our Parent-Child Phone Contract is definitely something that can help to establish some behavioural boundaries if you are about to buy your child their first phone.
For those of you who are interested to learn more about helping children to stay safe online, we’ll be releasing several new resources to coincide with Internet Safety Day in February. This will include a webinar on February 8th with clinical psychologist and researcher, Dr Elly Hanson, where we will focus on the impact that online pornography and gambling is having on our teens, and a webinar on digital citizenship skills, on February 9th. Book your free tickets now. Keep your eyes peeled for other new resources on this theme over the next couple of weeks.
PS. You might remember that last week, we asked if you could spot a new feature on the Tooled Up site, designed to help you find the resources that you need more quickly. Did you find it? Well (drumroll please), it’s our fantastic new Resource Index! It updates as soon as we add a new resource and lists everything on the site by category. If you are logged in, you’ll find it by clicking on the ‘Resources’ button on the homepage.