"Home Alone"? – Children's internet use during the pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed our lives in many ways. Working and studying from home forces both parents and children to learn new ways of using the Internet. If you're a parent, you might be worried about how much time your child spends online, communicating with friends, but still alone in a sense due to the lockdowns.
The Joint Research Centre of the European Commission and several research teams undertook a study of how the pandemic affected the online activities of children in the EU. Fifteen nations participated in the study; the results from Ireland have already been published and offer us an insight into what's going on with our children.
First of all, you should know that if you're worried, you're not alone. More than half of the parents asked in the study said they worry about how the pandemic will affect their children. The most common worry, shared by two-thirds of the parents, is about the long isolation affecting children's mental health, causing depression or burnout. Other major concerns are kids spending too much time online, falling behind in schoolwork or failing exams, and the possibility of cyberbullying or online interaction with the wrong sorts of people.
Many of these concerns are about real dangers. Over one-fourth of the children participating in the study reported that they have been the victims of cyberbullying during the lockdown, and half of them said they have witnessed the cyberbullying of someone else. These incidents can happen anywhere online: on social media, in video calls, chat rooms, email, or messaging apps; and the amount of cyberbullying has grown during lockdowns. The most worrying thing is that less than half of the victims told their parents about what happened. As a parent, you should sit down and have a talk with your child, telling them about cyberbullying and how to recognize it, and making sure they know they're not alone with their problems. We offer more advice on this topic here.
Cyberbullying is not the only danger to children who spend much time online without a parent's participation. Over one-third of the children reported seeing discussions or images of people physically harming themselves, and an even larger number of them saw gory or violent images of people hurting others or animals. Close to half of them encountered hate speech. A similar number were exposed to "pro-ana", "pro-mia" and "thinspiration" material. These phrases refer to following an unnatural, unhealthy thinness as a beauty ideal. Proponents of these ideas encourage anorexia nervosa and bulimia to attain such looks, which can cause psychological damage, long-lasting health problems and even death. Children have reported that they have seen somewhat more of all of the above during the lockdown than before. Like with cyberbullying, the best thing you can do as a parent is make sure your children know you're there for them and they can talk to you about absolutely anything they find online.
But not everything is gloom and doom: the survey also showed some positive things. The children in the survey were generally net-savvy. They could use video conference apps easily, three-fourths of them knew what information they should and should not share online, and many of them knew how to change their privacy settings. In fact, more than half of them said they knew more about the Internet than their parents. And those parents also saw at least a few upsides to going online during lockdown. Most of them agreed that digital technology helped them stay in touch with family and friends, and seven out of ten parents spent more time playing together or doing shared activities with their children than at other times.
All in all, the pandemic didn't change kids' online activities fundamentally. Sure, they spend time online, but the dangers lurking there are the same ones they had to deal with before. And as before, it's now up to the parents to make sure their children explore the digital world safely. So talk to your child: let them know they don't have to deal with online problems on their own. Make sure they will come to you with any fears or bad experiences they might have. Look for ways to improve their (and your) digital literacy. We at Logiscool offer numerous courses which can be taken either in our schools or online from home, including ones that teach children safe and responsible ways to use the Internet. If you'd like to know more, visit us at www.logiscool.com/nz/courses.