The Press and Journal (Inverness, Highlands, and Islands)

An un­fil­tered look at chil­dren’s screen time

- Eleanor Bradford Eleanor Bradford is a for­mer BBC Scot­land health correspond­ent who now works in com­mu­ni­ca­tions in the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor Tech Addiction · Viral · Bullying · Lifestyle · Family · Parenting · Addictions · Society · Zoom Video Communications · Google

Our chil­dren are cur­rently spend­ing more time on a screen than ever. School­work is done on­line, we chat to friends on Zoom or FaceTime and so­cial me­dia keeps us sane. But it can all go wrong in a heart­beat, no mat­ter how tech­no­log­i­cally savvy you think you are. I know a child who, aged 11, found an old mo­bile phone his par­ents had for­got­ten about in the bot­tom of a drawer. He sneaked it into his bed­room and the old phone, with no fil­ters, meant his im­ma­ture mis­spelled searches for men’s and women’s anatomy took him to hard­core porn sites.

Maybe that trig­gered what hap­pened next or maybe it was just his hor­mones kick­ing in with a bang, but shortly after­wards he sent a bar­rage of mes­sages to a school friend ask­ing her to send him top­less pic­tures. To him it was harm­less ban­ter but to a 12-year-old girl sit­ting in her bed­room, it was sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

At this point his par­ents de­cided he was too im­ma­ture for a phone. How­ever, the pres­sure from out­side was in­tense. Life at school re­volves around phones. Be­ing with­out a phone made him seem weird. I re­mem­ber there was a girl at my school who didn’t have a TV. She was the smartest girl in the year but couldn’t join in our play­ground chat. She was lovely but def­i­nitely not cool which, af­ter all, is all that mat­ters when you are 13.

So his par­ents re­lented and gave the phone back, with re­stric­tions. They in­stalled Google’s Fam­ily Link to con­trol screen time and fil­ter out adult con­tent. Then, one evening just be­fore Christ­mas last year, the boy’s father

We have in­stalled all the fil­ters and blocks that we can

did a spot check. His son had sneak­ily taken a pic­ture of his mum naked in the shower and texted it to an un­known num­ber of his friends for a laugh. He had deleted the pic­ture after­wards but it was in a re­mote part of the phone’s mem­ory. When con­fronted, the boy said he had only sent it to one child but there was no way of know­ing if that was true.

The boy’s par­ents ex­pected the school to swing into ac­tion but clearly, pre­vent­ing a naked pic­ture go­ing vi­ral was not top of their pre-Christ­mas pri­or­ity list.

Noth­ing was done to find out who had re­ceived the text or to stop it be­ing passed on. Af­ter more than 24 hours his mother rang for an update only to find that they had all gone for their Christ­mas lunch and would not be back un­til af­ter the week­end.

Even­tu­ally, af­ter a week of in­ac­tion, she used her son’s phone to mes­sage the child who had been sent the im­age and asked him to get his par­ents to call her. Thank­fully they did and as­sured her the im­age had been deleted.

I would pre­fer it if my chil­dren have no un­su­per­vised ac­cess to the in­ter­net or so­cial me­dia but I can­not peer over their shoul­ders all day. We have in­stalled all the fil­ters and blocks that we can but it is sim­ply im­pos­si­ble to stop them from abus­ing our trust if they want to.

I know sev­eral par­ents who have had sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences and also heart­break­ing sto­ries about chil­dren who post a mis­judged com­ment on so­cial me­dia and lose all their friends.

Many fam­i­lies are too em­bar­rassed to talk about it and some have very neg­a­tive re­ac­tions when they do. Par­ents who have been through the same ex­pe­ri­ence are of­ten blamed for al­low­ing it to hap­pen yet most statis­tics on pornog­ra­phy use say that the av­er­age age of a child’s first ex­po­sure to pornog­ra­phy is 11.

We have strict con­trols at home but we know our 13-year-old son has been sent porn by an older pupil dur­ing the school day.

My ad­vice? In­stall fil­ters and sys­tem blocks but don’t rely on them. The non­tech­ni­cal so­lu­tion is the best: keep all de­vices, in­clud­ing phones, in com­mu­nal ar­eas where your parental radar is more likely to alert you to odd be­hav­iour. Know all your chil­dren’s pass­words and do spot checks. I would still rec­om­mend parental con­trols like Google Fam­ily Link.

You will be amazed what 18-rated games your an­gelic lit­tle dar­ling has down­loaded with­out your knowl­edge. Apps like Fam­ily Link mean you have to ap­prove what they in­stall and can see how much time they are spend­ing on screens – as well as hav­ing the power to set non-screen time and re­motely switch their de­vices off and on. It’s the dream app for he­li­copter par­ents.

When the kids do go back to school, don’t as­sume that it is a su­per­vised en­vi­ron­ment. Use this time with your chil­dren to teach them about the se­vere con­se­quences of one silly text or com­ment.

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