Safety net

JOHN PARSONS, New Zealand’s leading authority on cyber safety for children, responds to fears around the impact of the Christchurch shootings and our kids’ exposure to distressing material on the internet. By Kate Barber.

The Christchurch shootings, and in particular the images and commentary that have circulated online since, have certainly stoked parents’ fears around the harmful influence of digital media on young people. Many parents are asking, what can we do to protect our kids and control what they see?

However, rather than letting fear drive us to ‘prevent’ and ‘stop’ and ‘control’ what our kids do and where they go online, John says we need to be focusing on our connection with our children – online and off.

The strength of your connection
Ultimately John’s message for parents is that keeping kids safe both online and off, and helping them to cope if they see something distressing or get into trouble somehow, comes down to building a trusting, loving, non-judgmental relationship with them. “Expressed regularly, our love, compassion and guardianship will help our kids cope with whatever the world exposes them to,” he says. By contrast, the urge to ‘control’ our kids will only deny them self-agency and undermine our relationship with them, both of which leave our kids vulnerable.

When your child needs help
Building a loving, non-judgmental relationship means not overreacting when a child tells you they have done something wrong or seen something they shouldn’t have seen, says John. “If we overreact, they learn to not talk to us when they need help, which is dangerous,” he says. “It is imperative that you keep your ‘Cyber-Tooth Tiger’ under control and not let your anxieties become your child’s anxieties.”

“If a child approaches you and indicates they are worried about what they have seen online or on TV or heard through conversations with friends, never dismiss or downplay their reaction,” John stresses. “Let them know that how they are feeling is normal. Explain to them that they can talk to Mum or Dad, a teacher, a guidance counsellor or their ‘Lighthouse’ if they need help to process it.”

“It is also important to emphasise that under no circumstances should they forward or deliberately expose other people to any objectionable or harmful content they have accessed,” he adds.

The lighthouse
Regardless of how open a child is about issues in their world, as John says, “there are occasions when it is simply too hard for a child to talk about a problem with their parents” – if they feel stupid, ashamed, embarrassed or fearful. This is where the ‘Lighthouse’ figure comes in: a person the child knows and trusts, who will “be there for your child at any time, day or night – to listen to them, and help them when they need it.”

John invites all parents, and children, to consider the people in their lives who could be guiding lights, and for children to nominate their own Lighthouse person. “When you actively provide this opportunity for a Lighthouse with your child, you build a safe passage for them back to you and give them permission to get help when they need it.”

Limiting exposure
“Events [like the Christchurch shootings] challenge a young person’s belief that the world is predictable and safe,” says John, adding that the younger the child, the harder it is to emotionally process what has happened. He emphasises that primary-aged children should have limited exposure to social media, especially following major traumatic events. “Aside from the possibility of seeing the actual violence, there is also the outpouring of grief and commentary often played daily sometimes for weeks through online media outlets. This can cause young children to re-live the event every day and think it is occurring every day.”

Older children have educational commitments to maintain, so limiting their exposure to harmful content is not so easy, says John, adding that it is important to remember that the same technology also connects them to friends who can be excellent support networks when life gets challenging.

Guardianship applications
There are parental controls you can use to set up access to acceptable online platforms, how much time your child spends on a device and at what times of the day, says John. They can also provide you with a history of where your child has gone online and what they have tried to access. Instead of ‘controls’, John calls these “Guardianship Applications” – to be used to support you in your relationship with your child, not as a substitute for this connection.

Concerned about your child?
There are a number of agencies you can contact for advice and support:

  • LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE), or free text 4357 (HELP), lifeline.org.nz/services/suicide-crisis-helpline
    (available 24/7)
  • YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
  • NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
  • KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
  • WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm-11pm)
  • DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202
  • New Zealand Police

John suggests that parents create a list of these support agencies, along with the child’s self-chosen ‘Lighthouse’, and stick this on the side of the refrigerator – a place where children frequently go. Parents could also text this list to their kids so that it’s always available to them should they need it. This will give them advance knowledge of who to call and what to do if they need help.

Keeping Your Children Safe Online: A Guide for New Zealand Parents, by John Parsons, published by Potton & Burton, RRP $34.99