Left to their own Devices?

“They gave her the Device when she was only two years old. It had a sophisticated graphical interface, sending signals along her optic nerve that swiftly transported her brain to an alternative universe – a captivating other world. By the time she was seven, she would smuggle it into school and engage it secretly under her desk instead of listening to her teachers.

“When she grew up, the Device dominated her house; no room was free from it. No activity, not even eating or going to the bathroom, was carried on without its aid.

“Saddest of all, as soon as her children were old enough, she did everything she could to get them hooked on it too.”

- Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter

Iain, Digital Comms Officer
As a dad to a curious three-year-old, I’ve watched with a mixture of wonder and unease, as he’s effortlessly learnt how to swipe to a new video on the kids version of YouTube, and can even recite the passcode to get into the infernal iPad.

Much of it can be educational and entertaining, but turn your back to make some pasta pesto for the 1000th time, and you can easily find that Fireman Sam has mysteriously morphed into some awful video with an American kid ‘unboxing’ lots of expensive toys. Urrgh.

Sometimes I’ve wished I could put screen entertainment back in its box, cursing myself for not spending all his toddlerhood making amazing crafts from toilet rolls and elaborate, nutritious food shaped like animals.

Healthy animal-shaped food

Crafting: from Hurrah for Gin

Image from: Hurrah for Gin

With small children, it’s at least possible to limit screen time, set parental controls, supervise and guide what they watch. But for older children, carrying the internet around with them and fiercely seeking independence, neither leaving them completely to their own devices or trying to be overly controlling seem realistic. Looking ahead – I am worried about how to balance safety with a young person’s right to private spaces and exploration. And like most parents, I won’t have all the answers or get it right all the time.

Online safety: practical steps

The media loves a gimmicky scare story like SafeToNet, an app which claims to be able to warn parents of any suspicious activity like grooming, bullying, or explicit content on their child’s accounts.

Many people pointed out the similarities to the Black Mirror episode in which a mum puts an implant into her daughter’s brain to filter out any of the distressing realities of life. Spoiler alert – it doesn’t end well.

Instead of shortcuts, Children 1st’s ParentLine family support service would emphasise the hard work of continuing connection and communication as children progress from primary school age right up to adulthood.

Part of being a connected parent is knowing where your children go, who they meet and what they do. ParentLine find it helpful to get parents to think about the internet as a place. A child might be in their bedroom, but, if online, they’re also out in the big wide world. If they aren’t sure someone is who they claim to be, or if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Our Chief Executive, Mary Glasgow, also has good advice about conversations and what and how much to share:

“When I talk to young people I ask them to imagine their future self. How will you feel if your online profile from childhood comes back to haunt you? Children no longer have the luxury of thinking solely about the person they want to be today; they also have to think years, even decades ahead. And there are lots of distressed young people who have been either pressured or misled into putting really intimate statements or photographs online. That leads to feelings of shame, and potentially even more serious consequences.

“Parents have got an important part to play. They can inform themselves about the internet and talk to their children about its benefits and risks before they have ventured too far into the online world. Wait until something goes wrong, then conversations become tinged with shame and worry and open communication becomes harder.”

As adults, we aren’t perfect

Often adults unfairly believe teenagers are either proficient ‘digital natives’ or wildly risky online. But if we’re honest, we could all probably think more carefully about our internet and social media use. Are we so immune from:

Many parents and grandparents are anxious about the internet, especially when it seems their child is proficient and they’re not. But most kids love being asked to share their expertise. Learning from them can be fun and an opportunity to strengthen relationships and trust. You’ll show that you’re interested in their world, and not just expecting them to conform to yours.

Helping each other with privacy settings and thinking about the visibility and permanence of posts on different social media platforms is an easy way to start a conversation.

This brilliantly cringeworthy Police Scotland video could be useful to watch together. It uses humour to show the potentially embarrassing consequences of your social media history being shared widely – and the benefits of locking down your posts and being a bit more canny about what you post in the first place.



Keep things in proportion

Alison Gopnik’s addictive Device is in fact ‘the book’ – that frightening revolution that enabled anyone to create and spread information virally, influencing human behaviour with little regulation or control.

Gopnik points out all new technologies – from the book to the telegraph – have been accompanied by fear, distrust and moral panic.

Using the internet, including social media, is about weighing up and managing the benefits as well as the risks. 

Sources of help and advice

When you need advice on internet safety, cyberbullying, social media or any other issue you face as a parent or carer, Children 1st’s ParentLine is here to help. No problem is too BIG or small.

Or visit our pages of advice for parents and carers.