The secret is that tech parenting starts early

It is painfully too late when instances of young children being exploited and abused surface.

‘It’s not good enough to say you don’t understand Facebook or you can’t work out how to use an iPhone. You need to learn about what your children are using so you can guide, assist and supervise their use.’

This was the blunt message from the Queensland Police Minister, Jo-Ann Miller after a man was charged with 145 offences involving children between 2002 and 2015._DSC1413

‘The message I have for all parents today is that it is extremely important to take an interest in what your children are doing online,’ the Minister said.

Digichild thinks the message can go further. Parents need to be involved and informed well before children are at primary school. Research suggests children are engaging with technology at younger and younger ages.

‘It seems to be a child’s first birthday is the benchmark for when you get your first device,’ said Sydney-based early childhood academic, Dr Joanne Orlando when she spoke with Digichild recently.

For the first time young parents and experienced parents of new babies and toddlers need to be knowledgeable about technology now in the same way as they would approach their child’s other milestones: first steps, solid foods, a tricycle ride. They would inform themselves about the activity and what is age-appropriate, encourage the child, take care, help with guidance and skills.

When parents and educators are knowledgeable it informs values. It sets up the framework for children’s experiences from their earliest moments. By the time adults think children are ready and ‘need to know’, children have often already found their own sources of information and experience.

Be their guide. From a young age see the digital world as ‘real’ and understanding it, as part of adult responsibility for young children. Share interactive experiences with children rather than leave them to their own devices. Know how to set limits and help them crawl before they walk in the digital world. This is part of being a parent and educator of young children in the 21st Century.

Default responses to this week’s terrible news can prey on fear rather than capacity. Lots of media attention was on ‘parent spy’ software and what level of oversight and how intrusive parents should be.

Some of the more thoughtful commentators (Leonie Smith aka The Cyber Safety Lady) said digital surveillance is not a substitute for parental supervision. It does not replace discussion, information and connection between parents, guardians, educators and the children in their care. For younger children close supervision is important, while with older children, trust was frequently mentioned.

Building parent-child trust starts early for those later difficult conversations about online behaviour.

The Queensland prosecution is disturbing, not least because the alleged perpetrator appears to have used social media to groom and lure children. The perpetrator was described as being ‘exceptionally skilled’ at using apps to ‘gain access to children’. Parents need to know about the sites and how they are used. Perhaps the perpetrator simply had more knowledge than others.

People who want to know, find a way. Parents and educators must also take steps to know about and face the real world their very young children are moving in.

Clare McHugh

Clare McHugh is Early Childhood Australia's (ECA) Strategic Communications Executive, working on projects that support ECA’s reputation as a trusted voice for young children, their families, educators and carers. Clare has been part of ECA's Learning Hub Team, managed ECA's Start Early. Respectful relationships for life project and ECA digital initiatives including the federally funded Digital Business Kit and Live Wires. Clare has been thinking and writing about children, family and social policy for a number of years, including for the Commonwealth Child Care Advisory Council and the Australian government.

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