Removing Devices from Children due to Concerning Content or Contact

Should we remove devices from children if they see inappropriate content, or if they’re spoken to by someone they don’t know online?

Every now and again I’ll speak to a parent or see a social media post about how a child has been spoken to by a stranger (usually an adult) online, and in order to protect the child the parent has removed all access to devices. Quite often this scenario is shared on social media with lots of follow-on comments such as, “well done”, “you’ve done the right thing”, etc.

Whilst a completely understandable reaction, we need to think about this course of action very carefully as completely removing online or device access is rarely a good strategy; it may appear that by restricting access you’re protecting children, but wrapping children up in cotton wool is not the answer.

To be clear, there isn’t a ‘correct’ answer; the answer entirely relies on the facts of a particular incident and the comfort/knowledge levels of the parent. But I would like to give an example (a real and unfortunately all too common example) followed by an opinion:

  1. A 10 year old child was being spoken to inappropriately via a messaging app by what appeared to be an adult (the text of what was said wasn’t clear so I can’t say if it was inappropriate or illegal contact).
  2. The child recognised that something wasn’t right, and was concerned by what was being said.
  3. She approached her parents and told them of her concerns.
  4. In order to protect the child, parents removed all devices and online access.

Point one is probably the most concerning for most parents; your child being contacted by an unknown person for (initially) an unknown reason.

A huge amount of emphasis is put on social media when talking about online contact but we must remember that a very large part of the web is interactive and allows for relatively easy communication with anyone. Just telling children, “Don’t talk to strangers online,” when used as a rule isn’t very helpful to children. For example many children will play online games with others around the world and as part of that game-playing there’s a good chance they will be playing with people they don’t know.

If a child is having fun playing games or doing other activities with others, is there really any harm in that?

What’s important is that the child is able to recognise if something isn’t right. For example a player that is using inappropriate language or picking on your child (spoiling their in-game experience or targetting them which then moves into online bullying), someone who says to a child, “can we go to private chat? I’d like to ask you something.” And this brings us to point 2.

In this case, the child recognised that something was wrong. A lot of time is spent in school to empower children with simple messages, such as “if something makes you feel uncomfortable or if you’re just not sure, tell someone and ask for advice.”

Sometimes when speaking to children they will tell me that they don’t tell anyone. The two biggest reasons for this are:

  • They were happy to deal with the situation themselves, e.g. block and report.
  • Fear of judgement, e.g. something has happened and the child fears they will be blamed in some way.

On this occasion the child did tell her parents. This is fantastic and is exactly what should happen, and this brings us to point 4.

In order to protect the child the parents removed access to her devices.

An understandable reaction, but has it really helped? To some children this would be seen as a punishment. The child hasn’t done anything wrong, in fact she did everything right, and as a consequence of telling her parents she has now lost some privileges.

The actions you take largely depend on the content, conversation etc. but in this particular scenario this is what I would have done if this was my child:

  1. I would have thanked her and told her she’s amazing, firstly for recognizing that something was wrong, and secondly for telling me. I would reassure her that she can always talk to me about anything.
  2. If possible, I would have blocked and reported the user with her, firstly to minimise any further contact, and secondly to make sure she knows what to do. Prior to that I would also take screenshots of the content just in case they’re needed for evidence and show her how to take screenshots.
  3. I would talk to her, and ask her to explain what she found concerning. This is so that I can find out what she picked up on and also to make sure that she is okay emotionally.
  4. Depending on the content and the severity, I would either have reported to the local police (if illegal activity suspected), reported to CEOP (in the UK, if exploitation suspected) and reported to her school so that they’re aware.

In school this can be an interesting (and sometimes quite revealing) conversation to have. If you ask children whether they talk to strangers online the vast majority will say ‘no’ because they think that’s what you want to hear, but it isn’t the reality. Give them a safe space to talk openly about these things and get them to discuss the positives, negatives and risks that may be associated with talking to others. Look for gaps in knowledge or understanding and keep an ear out for high-risk behaviour. For example I had a Year 6 child tell me that she always tells people that she’s 18. I asked her why she did this, to which she stated she was always being told in school and at home that strangers are dangerous so to protect herself she always pretended to be an adult when people she didn’t know spoke to her online.

We have to be really careful with the words we’re using with children. For example:

“Strangers can be dangerous.” All children will hear is “Strangers dangerous”. The correct message is, “strangers are people we don’t know, either in the real world or online. Most people are really good people, but because we don’t know them we can’t trust them.”

For parents, only you can decide whether you allow your children to engage and play freely and much of that is based on the age of your children, your own comfort levels and parenting style, but a couple of points I would make are:

  • Overly-restricting childrens use of technology does not protect them.
  • Confidence in our childrens use of technology only comes with understanding that technology ourselves. That doesn’t mean getting all techy, it simply means talking to them about their use, playing their games with them, being curious about what apps they’re using etc.
  • Children need to know that we’re there for them; not to judge, but to help, support and guide. It’s vital that we let them know.

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