Lead paint on cots, playing outside after dark, hitchhiking and prank calls were all possible in the past, without parents batting an eyelid for their child’s safety. In 2015 there are threats to a child’s safety that were irrelevant or rare in the past. Claire Maher, Educational Psychologists discusses the threats parents need to be aware of, and how to prepare for these.
In 2015 threats to a child’s safety are varied. Physical threats in the form of abuse, abduction, bullying or neglect are no different to before, just more prominent due to an increasing awareness in the media and at schools. Cyber threats become more of an issue as technology increases. Wide access to the internet and technology opens up opportunities for cyber bullying, emotional abuse from peers or others, as well as easy access of information about people to strangers. Some of these dangers are discussed and some advice for parents on how to deal with these threats with their children will be provided, although this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Don’t talk to strangers
The basics of ‘stranger danger’ and how to make children aware of these dangers has not changed much from the past until now. Children need to be made aware not to talk to somebody they don’t know when a familiar adult is not around. Our children need to be reminded not to get into cars with anybody they don’t know, and not to accept sweets or money either. If for some reason a child’s usual lift (be it mother, father or lift club) is not able to collect them from school, it is important for a parent to inform their child who will be fetching them. Sometimes a code such as ‘bacon and eggs’ can be used with your child. For example, when you send your colleague (unfamiliar to your child) to fetch them from school they could arrive and say “Hi Tom, your mom sent me to fetch you today. She says the code is bacon and eggs.” In this way your child knows that you have sent them, and that they are safe to go home with the unfamiliar person. Children and adolescents need to be aware of these dangers when meeting people in social media forums too.
On high alert
It seems that children are more alert nowadays than they were in the past. There is certainly more awareness about dangers that children (and adults) face, and a more conscious effort to avoid these dangers. For example, in the past we may have stopped at an intersection with our windows down, whereas now we don’t and while we wait for the light to turn green we are on high alert for anybody ‘lurking around’ our car. We have burglar bars, and alarm systems and double locks on our gates. Our children become aware of our attitude toward safety, and in turn seem to adopt the same approach. We do not want to scare our children with this seemingly paranoid attitude, but also need to make them aware of the realities.
Parents seem to be more protective nowadays than in the past. This increased protection is likely due to increased awareness about dangers our children experience. When today’s parents were children there was more freedom and less focus placed on possible dangers and threats. Children then were more likely to play outside until it was dark, walk home from school on their own or stay home alone during their holidays while their parents were at work. This freedom may have been attributed to there being less danger, but also that there was less awareness of danger. Too many stories cover our newspapers and Facebook newsfeeds nowadays for us to allow our children the same freedom as before.
That being said, parents need to find a balance between allowing their child freedom, but also ensuring their safety. The teens that rebel are often those who have not been allowed contact with the opposite sex, or to go out with their friends. However, the children who are left to their own devices and are not questioned on their whereabouts can also give their parents a hard time later on. Rules should be set on a child’s access to social media and the internet. An agreement regarding how much time spent online, or if a parent is allowed to check their child’s phone should be made. School going children should only be given phones to use in case of emergencies. Lack of access to phones for social purposes at a young age will limit opportunity for cyber bullying and will allow parents to monitor their child’s actions and ensure their safety (i.e. that they’re not giving out their address or arranging meetings with strangers they’ve met online). While online dating, for example, and online chat is becoming more of a reality it is possible that your teen will want to meet somebody in person that they have already met online or via Whatsapp. Your teen needs to be reminded about meeting people in public spaces, or with their friends around and to let you know as often as they can that they are ok. Children need to have these cyber, as well as ‘real-life’ dangers explained to them with as much detail as is age appropriately possible. Children need to be reminded not to talk to strangers, get into cars with people they don’t know, and to not let anybody touch them where their bathing suit covers. The reasons for these rules can be expanded upon as your children grow up and become more aware of the dangers themselves.
The times they are a changing
The times have changed, but the dangers are not different, rather that more dangers have been added. Stranger danger, children walking home alone, break-ins, abuse (physical or sexual) or kidnappings are no different than they were before. However, there seems to be more awareness and exposure in the media around these dangers which makes them appear to be more common now than before.
Nowadays dangers related to social media and access to technology (internet, cell phones etc.) are prominent, and were obviously not present prior to the internet. Our lives are put on display for strangers to see and ‘like’ and provide comment on. We share our location, and ‘check in’ to restaurants, recreational areas, or the gym. Depending on the settings, our smartphones embed our location into our photos and when we share these to the internet our location is easily trackable, even if we don’t overtly say where we are. When sharing pictures of children on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat) parents run the risk of those pictures getting into the wrong hands (or the wrong computer). This is something parents need to be aware of. Parents need to warn their cell-phone using child/adolescent about these dangers too. While your child needs their privacy as they get older, there needs to be some monitoring of their usage on social media. Snapchat, for example, is an app where users take a picture and then set a time limit that the picture will be available for. The picture is then sent to a friend, who can only see it for the designated amount of time. However, many phones allow a user to take a ‘screenshot’ and invariably what ends up happening is the receiver of the image takes a screenshot. Young, impressionable adolescent (or even younger) girls are falling prey to this, as they innocently send a picture of themselves at the request of a new boyfriend, or somebody who is interested in them, and before they know it their picture is being circulated around the Grade 7 class at school. While this seems like a very ‘Hollywood teen movie’ situation, it is a reality in so many of our schools in South Africa at the moment. ‘Catfishing’ is another modern day cyber problem. Catfishing involves a person creating a fake online persona. A young girl may be allured by a similar aged good looking boy who shows interest in her. When she agrees to meet him she discovers that he is much older or completely different to how he perceived himself to be online. As much as possible technology of this nature needs to be limited, especially for our children and teens who want to be liked and are impressionable or naïve.
Technology can also be useful
However, an increase in technology also means that there are many more ways to ensure our children’s safety. Baby monitors are still popular because they allow a parent to be in another room yet still ensure that their child is safe. Nanny cams are also effective in order to keep tabs on what goes on when you’re not at home. There are ethical issues around this though, and cameras should be installed with your nanny’s knowledge (otherwise you may face legal issues if they find out and you have not informed them). Children often go missing in crowded unfamiliar environments such as the beach, markets and amusement parks. Writing your phone number on your child or on a piece of paper can be effective for when your child innocently walks away and gets lost. However, if your child is abducted these measures will prove to be ineffective. Innovations such as GPS enabled ID tags which sync to your cell phone can be more effective in these situations – showing your child’s last location, and often including a panic button. While they may be expensive they could save your child’s life. Other apps such as Life 360 are useful when every member in the family has a phone, and can be tracked, although these apps will not help young children without phones, they can help keep track of rebellious teens or teens who are in trouble.
It’s all about balance. We need our children to be aware of dangers, and we need to protect them. But we also cannot allow them to become fearful of their everyday surroundings. We need to teach our children how to protect themselves, and that the rules created in the home, especially in 2015 around online access and technology, are there for their safety. We need to be aware, but not paranoid; protective but not smothering.