The Internet has become yet another information medium in which our children love to spend their time. In the past it was TV and computers, but now every smartphone offers access to websites and blogs. In the wide open spaces of the Web one can often encounter obscenities and adult content. Most of the time, parents are successful in explaining why one should not use bad language and how to study anatomy correctly. But in some cases the child may not even be able to distinguish between simple communication and coercion to perform acts that are harmful to health. And the decision to perform such acts is often taken unconsciously.
At the beginning of this year, so-called “death groups” became widespread in social networks. These are groups in social networks that post tasks for their members, most of whom are adolescents. The tasks involve self-harming and recording the action in photos and videos. The final task in the chain is meant to be suicide. Notorious cases involving public pages leading children to suicide had previously occurred in Russia, followed by Kazakhstan. And although the problem has been widely discussed online, the groups have claimed quite a few victims — partly because not all the parents recognized the problem, and partly because similar groups cropped up again. Despite the fact that network administrators blocked the groups, new ones were created, attracting several hundred members each.
The groups were called “blue whales” by analogy with the natural phenomenon whereby these mammals beach themselves for some unknown reason. You will recall that police have made some initial arrests in connection with the activities of these groups. But it has been impossible to bring criminal charges, because the victims’ parents would not testify. Many are afraid of publicity and do not want people to know what their child has done, and so refuse to submit a statement.
One can therefore conclude that publicity alone is no solution to the problem and that we have to think about how to resolve the situation in advance. Parents need to pay attention to the way their children behave and the content they are viewing. There are families in which children are willing to show their parents what they are posting in social networks, and there are others where this can become a problem and can only result in the children clamming up. Children have to know that any social network is just like the street. And that the rules of safe behaviour on the street also apply to the social networks.
The only true solution, therefore, is open communication between parent and child, in which the parent tries not to violate the child’s personal space while teaching him or her to recognize danger online.
There are numerous apps for following a child’s movements — some secretly and some openly. In the United States, for example, it is legal to use spy software to track minors. But imagine what would happen if you started using that kind of software behind a child’s back and they subsequently found out about it. It would destroy their trust, and they would then definitely conceal their plans and keep an eye on their device. Rebuilding the relationship would be very difficult.
Toavoid these situations, applications like FamilyInSafe, for instance, track people’s movements openly. Children can use the app to see where their parents are. Users receive reminders of tasks linked to specific locations. For example, if a loved one walks past a shop they will receive a push notification that they need to buy something for dinner. This is no longer just about control, but convenience as well. There is also “geofence” — push notifications that a user has entered or left a specified zone (e.g. if a child leaves a safe area). The app offers the opportunity to create closed groups for communication, thereby protecting against “death groups”.
If you explain to a child why their parents need to know where they are, it will probably be possible to reach a mutual understanding. It must not be done behind the child’s back: if they feel they are being overprotected, they will find a way of switching off the location tracker or they will “forget” more and more frequently to switch on their phone after school or to charge it.
Interms of controlling content, the situation differs from one web service to another. As an example, let’s look at YouTube — a video service that is popular with children. Unacceptable content can be shut out by using “safe mode”, which removes age-restricted videos from search results. But it would not be difficult for any child, should they so wish, to switch off that option. And besides, not all dubious videos on YouTube are marked appropriately: clips with innocent titles can sometimes have content that doesn’t match up or contains obscenities. So the conventional tools for controlling traffic on YouTube are unlikely to help.
You can’t shut down the entire Internet: if you block YouTube with third-party software, the child will find the content somewhere else. Banning something merely stimulates interest in it and, once again, will destroy trust in you. It is better to simply explain to the child why this or that video topic is inappropriate and why they should not watch it.
The other social networks are similarly beset with ambiguity. The rules of Facebook and Snapchat only allow people to use them under their real names after stating their age. Both networks have age restrictions: Facebook, for example, is only for users aged 13 year or over. Naturally, children become interested in social networks at an earlier age and the friends and classmates with whom they would like to keep in contact are most likely already users. So they exaggerate their age when registering. Denying a child that opportunity would mean isolating them from society and provoking a social trauma.
Real life is so much more simple and straightforward. Once again, by talking to children in advance one can explain simply and clearly why their parents need to know where they are. Geolocation of the child’s smartphone or family control web services can be used for this. The latter can be used in combination with live communication and a trusting relationship, where the child understands what you are doing and why. One such option is the FamilyInSafe app. This works openly and the child can see this. To improve the level of trust, it can also show children where their parents are. The app also offers additional functions based on geolocation data, such as “geofence” — push notifications that the user has entered or left a specified zone (e.g. if a child leaves a safe area or relatives are close to the house and you need to be prepared for them).
It therefore doesn’t matter which tool you choose to keep your child safe — the most important thing is to be completely honest with him or her. An app or function in a digital device should not be concealed and the child should be aware of them. He or she will almost certainly feel more secure, knowing that mum and dad can always come to the rescue.