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Our parenting needs to catch up with our connectivity

The headline cut straight to my heart. Naked photos and videos of children. New Brunswick children. Shared online.  A parent’s worst nightmare. Except that this week’s news is different than other exploitation and abuse cases I’ve read about. These children posted the images themselves.

New Brunswick RCMP issued a press release on January 2, 2019. It urged parents to be “vigilant about what children are doing online” because of a “number of recent incidents” in which children ages eight to 12 “voluntarily shared nude pictures or videos of themselves” publically on various free websites.

Eight years old. That’s Grade Two or Three.

This wasn’t a case of ‘stranger danger;’ RCMP say none of the four children had been asked to provide naked images of themselves. They simply shared them. To me, that points to a lack of understanding among children about how the internet works and a lack of understanding among parents of what we need to be teaching our children … and ourselves.

It would be preachy and unrealistic of me to suggest that children that young should not have the opportunity to share anything online, let alone naked images, even though my gut reaction is just that. It would be equally simplistic to suggest that adding parental controls and monitoring is enough to protect children online.

We are living in a technological age. I feel even the terminology ‘online’ is outdated; we no longer ‘go online’ because we are already there. My children can ask a question out loud in their grandparents’ kitchen and hear the answer thanks to Google or Siri. Our connectivity is ubiquitous. Now our parenting needs to catch up.

We need to educate ourselves on the world in which our children operate. My kids are barely in school and already they talk about their friends with smartphones, ask to play games with open chat rooms, and beg to use the photo filters in apps they technically are not allowed to use. We as adults have allowed them access to a world that was created for older, presumably more mature individuals. We must also allow them to be prepared for that world. Shutting off Facebook or banning Fortnite doesn’t teach your child how to be safe; doing these things together and talking about how people interact online can.

The responsibility lies with us not to shield them from this world, but to give them the critical thinking skills necessary to live safely within it. It’s a simple and as difficult as that. Teaching someone else how to navigate the ins and outs of making a decision is no easy feat, but we must. Equally important is building trust so that our children know they can speak up when they don’t make a great decision. These are the skills that will serve our children in whichever situation, digital or otherwise, they find themselves.

I’m not in the teen or even pre-teen parenting stage yet, but I do hold dear a piece of advice I read about raising teens. It basically goes like this: You no longer know what it’s like. Being a teen in the ’70s was not like being a teen in the ‘90s, just like being a teen in the 2020s won’t be the same as being a teen in the 1990s. Your child’s experiences will not be comparable to yours. Focus on sharing your values and knowledge before your child turns 13, then spend your time listening to them. A relationship built on trust and communication is your best hope for helping them navigate what’s to come. But don’t wait until your child is heading to middle school to start these conversations; start today.

Helpful Information:

If you have a teen, or want to gain more insight on what they’re facing, visit www.needhelpnow.ca. It’s a website created by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection and is meant for youth “negatively impacted by a sexual picture/video being shared by peers.” It provides great information, as well as a wake-up call for those who don’t think this is commonplace among our youth.

Information geared for younger kids (and their parents) can be found on www.kidsintheknow.ca.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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