When standing in front of a school classroom, filled with Junior and Senior Infants, you can feel the excitement and enthusiasm emanating from them. They are so happy to see a new person in the classroom, as they are filled with the natural curiosity of youth. These very young children are very honest. They do not have the cop on yet, to hide what they are doing in the Digital World from others.
We interact with these young children, in a very age appropriate way, when we are delivering our message on Cyber Safety to them. Having travelled the country, delivering presentations to schools all over Ireland, unfortunately some children will tell us about something that they have experienced while using a digital device, which elicits within u,s a sense of shock or fear. While the circumstances may differ from pupil to pupil, their activities and experiences in an unrestricted, unsupervised and unmonitored digital world are pretty astounding to hear, especially at such a young age.
From talking with these young children, we realised, not only were they in a very vulnerable position, on occasion, to our horror, we discovered that these children had more access to technology, than many of their more senior classmates. We decided to roll out a macro presentation to students in Junior and Senior Infants immediately, in an attempt to put some form of context, in to how widespread this might be.
Our intention was to just cover the basics of stranger danger, deliver a message about what a friend really is and the need to always check with Mom or Dad, to see if you can play with a new person online. The emphasis being on, if you cannot tell Mom or Dad when you touched the person on the shoulder, “#theruleoftouch”, then it is a stranger. You would be surprised at the large amount of children, who believe that it is ok to talk with strangers online, in games and apps. We also encouraged children to ask parents permission before installing apps or games.
As with all of our presentations, we encourage the children to tell us about their experiences, their level of access to technology, if their activity on the devices are being supervised by parents, if they can take the device to their room, keep it overnight etc. We regularly see children from 1st and 2nd class openly talking to us with great excitement about Grand Theft Auto 5, we never expected to hear the same from their younger classmates. We were astonished with how many of the youngest children in a school have not only played the game, but on occasion also admit to owning it.
If you are unfamiliar with the game Grand Theft Auto 5, the game involves characters such as “a young street hustler, a retired bank robber and a terrifying psychopath. All the characters find themselves entangled with some of the most frightening and deranged elements of the criminal underworld, the U.S. government and the entertainment industry”. There are also graphic scenes of a sexual nature in the game of people engaging in various sex acts. When we say graphic, we mean GRAPHIC !!!
There is a torture scene where you can water board a character or use a battery to electrocute the person. One of the most gut churning scenes in the game, involves using a tool to extract a tooth from a man bound to a chair. The game even has a strip club you can visit, drugs can be consumed, there is extreme violence and no shortage of bad language used by the characters. This is a game that is rated for people OVER 18, and for good reason. It is meant for adults only. This is not a game any person under the age of 18 should have access to.
But while the age of those who were able to access this game, came as a huge surprise. The online content children were viewing, shocked us even more. We heard children in 1st and 2nd class often talk about watching content that frightened them on YouTube, Netflix or on movie or TV Streaming Sites. Children often asked us, did we know who Annabel, Pennywise or Chucky were. We did, but this was not a question we were expecting to be asked. For those of you who don't know, Pennywise is a character from the Stephen King story, “It”.
This is an evil clown who carries a red balloon and eats children, feeding on their fear. Chucky, a possessed doll of a dead criminal, comes back to life in the body of a child's toy, he attempts over several moves to transfer his soul back in to a human host. Finally Annabel, also a doll, who is demoniacally possessed. When we asked children in Junior and Senior Infant classes had they ever seen something on their device that frightened them, these were the same names that they told us.
Unrestricted access to the internet affords a child to view this type of content. Without doubt it is damaging children. We are told by children they have experienced nightmares after seeing frightening images or video content online. In asking have children ever told parents, consistently there is a very low acknowledgement of this. On asking the question why, the answers are always the same. Even reading this you are possibly saying them to yourself right now. Children tell us “my parents will give out to me, and they will take the device away from me”.
If a child believes they will have a device taken, or that they will get in to trouble, the chance of them telling a parent about their online experiences will be almost ZERO. Parents need to encourage open discussion with their children, about the harmful content which does on occasion, still pop up, even on a restricted device. One of the best ways to ensure a child will respond in a positive way and inform you, when they have been exposed to inappropriate content, is to complement the child upon telling you, then reward the child. Giving out to a child will only cause the child to hide their experiences in the digital world from you As a parent, one must be conscious that no device can tell the age of the user. The manner in which search results return are based on many different factors, such a,s if a person is logged in or the previous searches carried out on the device.
If you are going to provide an unrestricted, unsupervised or un-monitored device to a child, then it is the provider of the device to the child, not the child who is at fault. Children need to be protected from the all of the harmful content that is online. When speaking to children, we present them with a hypothetical choice. They are given the option of retaining their current device, which will still leave them exposed online, still living with the fear of arriving on a site or viewing a picture that they believe will result in the withdrawal of the device, or land them in trouble, as choice A. Or choice B, have an age restricted device, one which only allows the user to access the type of content, which is suitable for their age. One that removes the genuine fear they have of reprisal for accessing this harmful content, which is causing them harm. Children overwhelmingly opt for Option B. No child wants to experience sleepless nights filled with nightmares, having seen characters like Annabel, Chucky or Pennywise. They also should never be exposed to games, apps or movies which are unsuitable for their age, or fear talking to their parents about the content they see.
The protection of a child's mind is essential for their development. All parents should consider examining their digital devices at home. If they are internet accessible, it is time to consider restriction software or products which will help protect children being exposed to harmful content while they play in the online digital playground.