Experts are 100% in agreement on this one. The most effective “parental control tool” is open communication. But how, exactly? We've hunted down the top tips for getting it right - and school holidays is the perfect time to start.
It wasn’t until her 10-year-old started pelvic thrusting at the dinner table that Darlena Cunha realised it was time to talk.
Turned out the fifth-grader had learned her new trick from an online puppet show called "Jeffy." At first glance it looked like a perfectly innocent show about healthy eating and car safety. Cunha took a second glance and then a third, as she clicked on an episode her delighted daughter described as “a good one.”
In it, in Cunha’s telling, “Jeffy screams at his adoptive father Mario that he’s ‘high as f–––.’ He slaps a diaper he wears outside of his pants, and he hits his dad. The show’s bio online says Jeffy was born in a port-a-potty to a prostitute who was addicted to drugs and who abused him severely.
Needless to say, it was not a show for kids - and Cunha and her husband were aghast. Their daughter had felt uncomfortable about the show initially, she told them. But all the kids at school were watching and, well, after awhile she just got used to it.
Let’s be real. It’s easy to pay lip service to “good communication,” but it’s often diabolically difficult to do, let alone to do well. Getting your kids to open up about inappropriate online experiences can be challenging. And if you’re coming a bit late to the party, and your kids are already tweens or heaven forbid teens - it can also feel incredibly awkward.
“So - tell Mum about the porn pop-ups you’ve been seeing!” - no matter how brightly you say it - is a sentence nobody wants to hear. Or say.Awwwkward
A third of Australian parents, and just on 50% of their Kiwi counterparts, say online pornography is their “most important concern” for their kids’ online safety, according to a recent comprehensive review by Netsafe (NZ) and the Australian Office of the eSafety Commissioner. Parents from both countries agreed that talking together was the best way of approaching the topic - but a quarter admitted they were embarrassed to bring it up.
“Tell Mum all about the porn pop-ups you’ve been seeing!” - no matter how brightly you say it - is a sentence nobody wants to hear. Or say.
No wonder backing away from the subject - or, worse, being in denial about it - is so common. The Netsafe study, for example, found that 39% of parents with children aged 13 to 17 believed their kids had been exposed to online porn. Yet other research has shown that the real figure for children in this age group is virtually 100%.Dr. Kristy's top tips
So how can mums and dads establish good communication - that most elusive of parenting goals? We asked Family Zone cyber expert Dr. Kristy Goodwin, a leading specialist in digital health, wellbeing and productivity, for her top tips.
- Start early Don’t do what Darlena Cunha and her husband did - which was assume everything was fine until they heard or saw otherwise. Be pro-active. Start those conversations about online safety from the moment you hand your preschooler your smartphone or tablet. It will be far easier to broach more challenging topics if you've built rapport over time.
- Keep it coming Good communication is never a one-and-done affair. Regular, short conversations and check-ins are so much more effective than one massive Talk with a capital T.
- Pick your moment School holidays are a perfect opportunity to have a meaningful talk without the normal term-time pressures. And do aim to tackle any difficult topic in the morning, not at night. Why? Because after hours, kids' and teens' logical brains (their prefrontal cortex) switch off and their emotional brain (their amygdala) switches on.
- Be respectful For older kids that means getting consent. Tell your child frankly that you’d like to tackle a bit of a tricky topic and ask if it’s okay to do that now. You need to have their attention and willingness to listen, otherwise the conversation will fall on deaf ears. If they decline, ask them to nominate a better time.
- Go public If you anticipate pushback on a hot-button issue, consider a neutral, positive setting like a cafe, park or beach. A change in scene can bring a change of perspective for both of you. Bonus: You are both more likely to behave with civility and restraint when there are others present.
- Be side-by-side This is an interesting one that can help avoid turning a conversation into a confrontation. Research shows boys in particular prefer to talk side-by-side rather than face-to-face.
- Cut to the chase Short, sharp conversations work best. Avoid the temptation to drone on or switch into lecture mode. Get in and get out.
- Share stories Interrogation tends to close down communication. Sharing experiences tends to open it up. For example, "The other day at work I was searching for some information and a pop-up video launched in my browser. It was a video of a naked guy. I was pretty shocked.” Silence is really powerful in such situations, too. Pausing to let your child respond may be a more effective way to encourage sharing than forcing a response with a direct question.