At the age of seven, I would spend afternoons after school sprawled out on the couch with crisps, watching Rugrats and Sesame Street. Fast forward nearly thirty years and my own seven-year-old comes home begging to play Fortnight, make videos on TikTok, and chat with his friends on Snapchat.
I listen as he lists the kids in school allowed to play everything we’ve banned from him and patiently – sometimes not so patiently – explain the reasons why his dad and I just aren’t allowing him the freedom online that his friends have.
As kids get older, they are given even more license to play, watch and create online. When I work in schools, with years five and six, the children often boast about how they spent the whole weekend competing with their friends on violent, provocative games.
Each morning, the teachers collect bundles of smartphones, these same phones are returned and immediately switched on when school finishes, and the children quickly access videos and messaging. Often, the communication that happens online out of school is brought back into school with arguments and hurt feelings.
Luckily, my three boys aren’t quite that old yet, so I have some time to prepare for how I will manage when they are.
I don’t want them to become accustomed to the violence, misogyny, and blood, found in so many of the popular video games. The thought of them being bullied for their poor gaming skills or interacting with people they don’t know is frightening.
When exploring YouTube or flicking through TikTok, they risk potentially accidentally viewing things like cruelty to animals and hate content, all of which can’t be erased from their memories. I hate the possibility that they could be exploited and groomed online by older children and adults.
The trouble is, I want to protect my boys from the harms of the internet, but I equally want them to feel included in the interests of their peers, which seems to be primarily based online. I’m wary of how dangerous the internet can be for a child’s wellbeing – how it could impact their self-worth, mental health, and cognitive development. It is up to us, as parents, to protect our children. We are the primary gatekeepers of what information they absorb and have the power to set boundaries for their online activity.
Unfortunately, many children don’t have that safety net. The Good Childhood Report found that 18 per cent of children in the UK live with seven or more serious problems such as domestic violence, emotional neglect, or fear of crime. One in five children does not have stable living. These vulnerable children have been found to have an increased risk of danger on the internet as compared to their peers.
As a society, we must do better to protect the next generation. Intermittent online safety sessions, often carried out in schools, are beneficial to a point – given the world we know all live in. But children often lose focus, choose to ignore, or don’t prioritise the messages given by a stranger.
What is needed is a robust curriculum, spanning from early childhood to adolescence, to teach children about healthy relationships and safety.
We live in an age driven by technology and this generation is growing up surrounded by screens. Protecting them doesn’t look like banning screen time or scaring them into submission, but it does include conversations about relationships and safety between parents, professionals, and children in non-judgemental spaces, followed by setting boundaries based on the child’s age and development.
I plan to stand strong with my seven-year-old, he won’t be getting TikTok, a mobile phone, or Fortnight anytime soon – even if it means he is the odd one out at school. I feel some things are more important.