As schools reopen, a disturbing "new normal" is putting kids at risk

Q: Since when did primary school become a place where your child could be bullied into sending nude photos - or receive hate-filled messages like “I am going to F-ing kill you”? 

A: Since right now, as our kids navigate big changes in online behaviour in a post-lockdown world.

Now that most schools have reopened, parents and teachers alike are reporting a disturbing spike in digital safety issues from cyberbullying to sexting. Yes, our kids are back in the classroom … but are they really back to normal? What can parents do to safeguard them in an environment of heightened risk?

Screen-time on steroids

It’s no secret that social distancing restrictions during the pandemic led to a massive surge in device use by young and old alike, as working, learning, and socialising from home became  the confining “new normal” across the globe. 

Of course we cut our kids more slack when it came to screen-time. With school, daycare, playdates and activities all cancelled, how else were we supposed to occupy our active families during the long, tedious weeks spent indoors?

One survey of more than 3,000 parents found that the average time kids spent online doubled during the pandemic. For nearly half of the children studied, screen-time increased by a whopping 500 percent

Not surprisingly, the same study found 85% of parents were worried about their family’s screen-time. 

More than half were concerned that their kids were becoming addicted to screens, and many respondents described incidents of cyberbullying, explicit content, and requests for personal information.

It's not the hours, it's the habits

But the real worry for parents, say experts, isn’t about some extra hours playing games or watching videos. “It's whether their children are forming habits that will continue after the pandemic's over,” says author and educator James M. Lange, author of Distracted: Why Students Can't Focus and What You Can Do About It.

Unfortunately, there’s evidence to suggest that’s exactly what’s happening now. What’s more, at least some children are bringing those changed habits back to school with them, and increasing the risk of online harm to themselves and others.

Cyberbullying

Because it’s not just the increased screen-time that’s the issue here. It’s the accelerated scope of their online activity - especially on social media and messaging apps intended for adults. 

Online risk-taking

Many parents who had previously barred their underage children from Instagram or Snapchat or TikTok, for example, looked the other way during lockdown. Now that school has resumed, there are signs that leniency may be fuelling a bullying mini-boom. (For a fuller discussion of age restrictions and social media, see https://www.familyzone.com/anz/families/blog/coming-of-age-on-social-media-13-plus-age-restriction)

In lockdown, bored kids were also likely to explore more adventurous, and potentially dangerous places online. Discord, for example - a platform that was once geared specifically to gamers that allows kids to create their own server to hang out online - or VSCO, a popular photo-filtering and sharing app similar to Instagram, associated with a certain “look” coveted by teen girls. 

Cellphone ownership

For many children, lockdown conditions meant access to a wider range of devices - phones especially. Yet the data linking phone ownership with cyberbullying is very clear. For primary school students, having a cellphone is closely associated with both real-world and online bullying, both as perpetrator and victim.

Four Australian states - Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania - have now instituted phone bans for public school students at the primary level. But in other states and territories and many private schools, smartphones are coming to school in ever-greater numbers - creating safety issues across the entire school community.

Online harm: going viral

Since the pandemic, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner has reported a 40 percent increase in all forms of online harm - with 15 percent of those involving direct threats of harm - and a 21 percent increase in of cyberbullying among young people, including 

  • name-calling and nasty comments.
  • fake memorials set up for a child to her supposedly died for coronavirus but hasn’t
  • direct threats of harm and telling young people that they hope they die from coronavirus

What can I do to protect my child?

But how  to prevent pandemic screen habits from morphing into permanent screen-time habits? eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant advises mums and dads to: 

  • Set clear limitations for using technology and entertainment
  • Restrict device use to open areas so you can see and hear your children’s reactions
  • Use parental controls and privacy settings on devices and apps

Experts agree: Talking to your children about bullying and about online safety in general is the best prevention of all. And remember, some children may not express their emotions verbally - so be sure to be on the look-out for any anxious or aggressive behaviour that may indicate a problem. 

What should the school be doing?

Do schools also have a responsibility to keep kids safe online? Absolutely. Their duty of care for students during school hours extends to online harms as well as physical ones - and this is especially relevant when schools mandate BYOD policies.

Family Zone’s holistic cyber safety solutions make it easy to keep children safe from online harm and distraction at school, at home and everywhere in between. If your school isn’t already a Family Zone partner, find out more today at https://bit.ly/3g2APrM.






Family Zone makes it easy for mums and dads to manage their child's screen-time, filter explicit content, and block inappropriate apps and games.

Start your free trial today - and create a home where children thrive. 

 

 

 

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Cyber Safety, digital parenting, teens on social media, mental health, tweens

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