At the moment like a lot of other people I am working from home with my partner and three children aged 8, 12, and 15. When I have the time, I was hoping to look at some resources that would help me chat to my kids about keeping safe online. They are spending a lot more time on their various devices and it’s necessary for homework but I worry and feel the need to engage with them regarding content that may not be suitable. My 12 year old is also going to miss ‘The Talk’ as he puts it, so again I feel I would struggle with this and need some help?
It really does seem that parents are struggling in general when it comes to discussing issues with their young people about relationships and sexuality, so you are not alone. There is an insightful piece of research ‘Supporting Parents Communicating with Children aged 4-9 about Relationships, Sexuality and Growing Up’, that you can have a look at here. The research was commissioned to gain an understanding of the experiences and challenges faced by parents when communicating with their younger children, and provide a deeper understanding of the issues they face.
I would say that there are so many other parents in the same boat at the moment and even though it may seem a lot to take on, there is help out there.
Interestingly when we have our parenting seminars this comes up quite a bit. When we as educators mention various websites and resources that are available, many parents haven’t heard of them.
Without being biased, I will have to mention our own WISER Website it is packed with really useful information for Junior and Senior Cycle students. Topics such as Consent, Relationships, Sexual Orientation, Gender, Pornography, Sex, Pregnancy and STI’s are discussed in both a frank and concise manner. We are updating our Parenting Section over the summer and this will be a wonderful resource for both parents and their teens in the coming months.
Another Irish Website is Webwise, it has great information for parents and young people regarding Internet Safety. It provides 'Top Tips' to ensure going online is a positive experience for both you and your child. Here are some examples of these helpful tips; Doing it Together; you both discover websites that are interesting and fun, providing your child with a very positive experience exploring the internet and therefore making it easier for them to share both positive and negative experiences in the future. Agree Rules; how long is acceptable to be online, discuss disclosing personal information to others, how to treat other people, what sites are OK and ones that are not OK. It’s really important to explain why these rules are in place. When it comes to disclosing personal information for a young child, the simplest rule to follow is they do not give any personal details like their name, address, etc. without their parents/carers permission. You also need to have a conversation about meeting online friends in person and the safety concerns that exist within this area.
Two other areas that in some cases cause panic for parents/carers when they think of their young person’s online activity are pornography and sexting.
Pornography has been around for centuries and for most adults their porn viewing causes no problems whatsoever and can indeed enhance people’s sex lives. However, it has been produced by adults for adults and not our little people! The issue often is how to broach the matter and have a conversation with your child/teen. Most (not all) young people are curious and want to know about sex, it’s vital they don’t feel any shame about that curiosity and that they are allowed to ask questions.
Pornography is extremely accessible and often when young people are not given comprehensive relationship and sexuality education at home or school they do turn to porn as a way to learn about sex and - as we always say in our WISER workshops - “porn is not a good sex educator!".
You need to explain why it may be inappropriate for them. One very important point to make, is what they see is not real, and can be very different to relationships and sex in real life. For many parents this could be a very challenging conversation to have, it’s good to acknowledge that. Childnet, a UK based organisation, provides very good support and advice on how to talk to young people of all ages about online pornography. The Porn Conversation is a project which was developed by Erika Lust and her partner Pablo Dobner, who work in what is known as the 'ethical adult cinema industry'. It offers tools for parents to teach the younger generations about porn
WISER deliver a workshop to 6th year students that raises awareness about the ubiquity and ease of access to online porn, it challenges aggressive and violent sexual content, discusses body ideals and genital representations portrayed in porn, unrealistic sexual expectations for young people and facilitates discussion on negative stereotypes about women and LGBT+ persons represented online.
'Sexting' is when someone sends sexually explicit pictures of themselves or others via mobiles, tablets, smartphone’s, laptops – any device that allows you to share media and messages. Young people often refer to these images as ‘nudes’. These pictures can include sexual, naked or semi-naked images or videos of themselves or others, or sending sexually explicitly-worded messages.
Sharing sexually explicit images may be more of a temptation for young people in the current situation. In general, it can be a way for them to explore their sexual identity and sexual feelings, and flirt with others. It needs to be said that for some young people sexting can be seen as harmless and no cause for concern. However, in some situations it can cause huge issues, have severe personal consequences and also legal implications.
Lockers is an Irish education resource that can be accessed on line or you can download the manual from Webwise here. It deals with issues such as; the law on sharing intimate content, when online sharing goes wrong, victim-blaming, peer-pressure and non-consensual sharing, the influence of media and gender stereotypes, and getting help.
WISER deliver a Sexting, Smartphones & Snapchat workshop in secondary schools. Sometimes the attitude from students is; if someone gets caught, it was their fault! There seems to be a lack of empathy for the victim. The objective of the workshop is not to further vilify the ‘sender’ or further stigmatize or shame them. Rather the emphasis is on; protecting your privacy, not being a bystander to image sharing, challenging slut-shaming, encouraging empathy, and seeking help.
There was a very interesting report produced by Zeeko in 2018 titled ‘Children’s Online Behaviour in Ireland 2016-18’ it was one of the most extensive studies regarding children’s digital behaviour at the time. When it came to sexting (sharing sexually explicit images online), “teenagers (6th year) showed the highest percentages of sexting behaviour, specifically: 30% sent sexually suggestive images, 22% shared sexts, 28% sexted a non-partner, 16% sexted someone they met online for the first time. Male adolescents presented higher percentages in all sexting behaviours”
With regards to your 12 year old missing ‘The Talk’, the WISER team within Sexual Health West are putting together some resources that can be accessed through the WISER website. We spoke with Principals of schools we work with and received a very positive response to the idea as they were also concerned that their 6th class were not going to receive our RSE programme this year. We will be contacting primary schools throughout Galway, Mayo and Roscommon over the coming weeks and requesting that they forward the information to parents of 6th class students, who can then look at the content with their child(ren). Topics will include Puberty, Periods, Reproduction, Our Bodies, Gender, Sex and Sexuality, Friendships & Relationships, Body Image, Consent and Online Safety. We will hopefully be up and running with our ‘Little WISER Programme’ again in 2021 and will see all our lovely 6th class students face-to-face.
There is also the Busy Bodies Adolescent Development resource that you can access through the HSE’s website www.sexualwellbeing.ie. It provides basic information on puberty and reproduction for 10-14 year olds. There are also sample questions and answers for 2-4, 5-8 and 9-12 year olds.
As educators, parents and carers, we have a very important role helping these little humans to become critically engaged, mindful and empathetic towards the world that surrounds them. It may seem difficult at times but if we achieve this, the kids will be all right and wouldn’t it be worth it!