By Alice Rich, Youth Programme Coordinator; Raise Up

Amidst the chaos and unpredictability of this global pandemic, one thing is certain: screens are here to stay. And for digital natives – young people who have grown up with close proximity to devices, the Internet and social media - the line between life online and offline has become blurred. The internet is, now more than ever, a powerhouse of influence and connection, for good, and bad, so what can we do to keep our young people safe online?

You might feel the easiest solution is to ban your young person from all leisure use of devices or place strict rules around usage; but the most likely outcome of these sorts of ‘helicopter parent’ strategies is to drive your young person underground – they’ll continue to use, they just won’t tell you about it. There are better, trust-focused strategies that are far more likely to keep your young person safe online – we’ve put together our five favourites to help you out.

1. Know what you're talking about

The best way of understanding the digital world is to be part of it so jump online and get involved. You don’t have to be the next influencer but some hands-on experience of what you’re dealing with will mean you can have authentic conversations with your young person. You could even ask them to show you how their favourite apps work.

2. Open a conversation, and keep it open

Talk to your young person – emphasise that connecting online can be fun, enriching and life-affirming and your young person deserves nothing less. Revel in the joy of cat photos and emojis but don’t be afraid to have those difficult conversations with them too. Discuss the heavily curated nature of the internet and how this can trigger FOMO (fear of missing out) and anxiety. Talk about harmful content, sexting, identity theft, extreme alt-right groups, echo chambers and unwanted contact. Encourage them to be conscious consumers - feeling into how their experiences online may be affecting them – both positively and negatively.

3. Be a safe space

Let them know that you’re there for them if they ever end up in a confusing, scary or uncomfortable situation, don’t know what to do, or just need someone to listen. It’s important your young person knows they can count on you, that you’re here to support, not judge or scold. Young people don’t always want to talk to their parents so it’s useful to provide your young person with alternative support options too like texting ‘Netsafe’ to 4282, contacting their youth group coordinator or school counsellor, or getting free counselling through Youthline.

4. Co-create a code of engagement

Young people want to feel empowered, not restrained- so rather than imposing a whole lot of rules on your teenager, invite them to co-create a code of engagement and an escape plan. Great things to discuss include daily screen time, timeframes for use, safe information-sharing, the use of specific apps, mental wellbeing check-ins or red flags for when support might be needed, being kind and finding joy in life offline. Giving young people accountability for their actions in this way shows you respect their right to privacy, and gets them thinking about what they want out of their time online and the impact that particular behaviours might have on them.

5. Create an escape plan

The first person who’s going to realise your young person is in trouble online is your young person, so it’s important they know what to do to minimise damage. A good starting place is the three Ss: starving trolls, screenshots and support. Talk to your young person about trolls and how they feed off people’s reactions – the best thing to do is starve them of any response. Encourage your young person to take screenshots of any content that’s being used to harass them (messages, photos – anything) and to seek support from you or another trusted person. Let them know they never have to wait until things ‘get worse’ to reach out for help.

This article was written in collaboration with Youth Empowerment Supervisor, Chelsey Harnell, and young people from the Mt Albert crew and Raise Up Advocacy group.