The social media platforms and gaming sites are the places in which our children are exercising their independence. It's equivalent to the new 'playground' they play on 13km from home, without supervision.
The role and responsibilities we have as parents with our child’s use and experience in the internet-connected world is imperative. Where once the risk-taking that is essential to childhood and adolescence was done in the physical world, has now transferred to the cyber world… and with far greater potential for harm and horrible consequences.
Let’s begin by highlighting the importance of risk in growth and development. There is a growing body of evidence that strongly suggests young people need healthy opportunities to take risks and participate in challenges. These opportunities help provide chances to establish their understanding of their mental, physical, relational and spiritual capacities. However, it would be generally accepted that the number of opportunities young people have for healthy risk-taking have reduced significantly.
One example of this is how far children and teenagers are allowed to roam unsupervised from home. In 1910s teenagers were allowed to roam upwards of 13km from their homes of residence. This distance gave teens independence, a sense that they had to solve problems on their own if they arose, and a sense of competency. In the 1960s children could roam unsupervised, on average up to 3km from their houses. In 2023, a walk to the end of the street by themselves might be as far as a parent might allow their child to walk without supervision.
Another example is the use of the safety net on a trampoline. Rarely do we see a netless trampoline these days. Yes, it prevents children from falling off (like I did when I was eight years-old back in 1993), but it does mean that children don't learn where the edge is, what capacity they have, or learn how far they can go before there is danger.
So in our current climate, what can we do to help promote healthy risk-taking? Here are a few suggestions:
Our job is to teach our children about disappointment, not keep them from it.
Let's sit with our children in their pain and hurt and give empathy, rather than trying to avoid it, prevent it or fix it.
Let’s guide, not guard
Be there for our children as they navigate the complexities of childhood and adolescence. Here’s an analogy that may help. A person learns to balance on a tightrope better if they have someone near them to reach for after they experience the falling sensation. It's detrimental to a person’s body awareness and balance training to have someone hold their hand the whole way so they don't experience the falling sensation at all.
Let’s prepare, don't protect
We won't be around forever, and even if we could, we can't protect our children from everything. Instead, let's work to prepare them with the skills they need to navigate all of life’s difficulties in a healthy way.
Support, don’t solve
We all know those lessons we have learnt the deepest. These are the ones that we learnt for ourselves. They weren't those that someone lectured to us about, or fixed or solved on our behalf.
Encourage, don't encumber
Be someone who is more willing to promote or celebrate exploration, celebrate healthy risk-taking, and praise failure as a learning opportunity rather than being someone who may restrict, avoid or expect perfection.
Let’s be mindful not to project our own worries, fears, and anxieties onto our kids
We may be worried about their academic performance, or their changing friendship groups. Rightly so. But be mindful. Is this our stuff to carry, or our kid's stuff? Because if it’s our stuff, we need to hold it and not project it onto our child.
Encourage and allow increased responsibility and all that comes with that
Actively take a “stepping-back” approach - we could call it “intelligent neglect”. Often it's easier and quicker for us to just step in and fix something. Yet in the long run, this isn't helpful. It can create over-dependence, over-reliance and unhealthy risk aversion, or the opposite; extreme risk-seeking behaviour.
Now, this is where all this links in with cybersafety.
It’s important to pause here and note that in the realm of cybersafety and our teenagers' online activity, rather than taking a “stepping back” approach, we need to step up in setting clearer and stricter guidelines for our children. According to Susan Mclean, Australia’s foremost expert in the area of cyber safety, if there is an area in which we need to be more controlling and involved in our teenagers' lives, it is in the cyber world. The world of connection our young people have access to and the dangers they are exposed to, such as sexting, sextortion and blackmailing, and grooming, is so high. Here are just two of many possible examples:
There is so much more we need to be doing as parents to be helping manage our teenagers' use of internet-connected devices.
In some ways, the autonomy that young people once had has been lost in the physical world and has been reclaimed in the cyber world. An internet-connected device is often an amazing tool for connection and information at our fingertips. But if we as parents aren't strategic, consistent, and have clear boundaries, we won’t know who our child is friending and we won't know if they’re suitable to invite over for our family Sunday-evening meal. The social platforms and gaming sites are the places in which our children are exercising their independence and it's the new playground they play on 13km from home without supervision.
Therefore, balance healthy risk-taking in the physical world, with strong, firm boundaries and restrictions in the cyber world to help protect your young people as they explore their online world. Don’t let them stroll about unsupervised.