Instagram, TikTok, WhatsApp, Youtube, Twitch, Discord, Roblox, Fortnite… If you have a pre-teen at home, you probably know what we’re talking about. We live in a connected world, where social networks and smartphones are everywhere. And let’s be honest: the digital environment can, yes, bring many benefits, but it can also be the source of many problems and concerns.
It turns out that there is no way to escape (nor shield our children from this contact with technology). The big question is: how to carry out this mediation, encourage healthy use of the internet and social networks and, at the same time, prevent them from becoming “easy prey” to digital dangers?
Like it or not, in childhood, it is easier to keep the situation under control. In the first years of life, you can even limit the time children spend using the tablet, allow access to the cell phone only when an adult is nearby, install parental control apps… But what about when our children grow up, walk for adolescence and wanting to have more freedom in relation to internet use?
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“When there is this transition to adolescence, children are already more autonomous and end up spending much less time with adults than they did before. Consequently, this gain in autonomy is also marked by this loosening of digital supervision”, says Ygor Corrêa , university professor in the area of Technological Dependencies and PhD in human-technology interaction (RS).
In other words, as time passes, we end up letting children become more “loose” and “free” to explore the different possibilities of the internet. There’s nothing wrong with allowing your child to do this — as long as it’s in moderation, supervision and lots of dialogue, of course. “We have a mistaken idea that digital native children know how to use technology better than we do. They may even have an easier time accessing content, but the basic notions of security, privacy and respect for others will only begin to be constructed based on the guidance of an adult”explains psychologist Bianca Orrico, responsible for the Safernet Helpline and PhD in Child Studies from the University of Minho (Portugal).
The benefits of the internet and social networks
The current generation of pre-teens doesn’t know what it’s like to live in a world without the internet. When they were born, more or less a decade ago, the smartphones already existed and relationships were already experienced intensely in the digital world. They never needed, for example, to go to the school library just to research books and encyclopedias, as was done in the past. Today, just a quick search on your cell phone browser and that’s it! With one click, they can access a vast amount of online resources, articles, educational videos, interactive tutorials…
“The internet has brought many opportunities to this generation of children and pre-teens, especially at an educational level. If it weren’t for her, for example, during the pandemic, many children would have been left without the chance to continue studying”, recalls psychologist Bianca Orrico.
It was social media and the internet that allowed children to stay close to friends and family during the period of isolation at home. In this case, the pandemic was just a little push that ended up accelerating a process that would already happen naturally. As they approach adolescence, from the age of 9 or 10, it is natural for children to begin to extend their face-to-face relationships to the virtual environment as well. For the first time, exchanges with friends and family begin to take place in other ways than just in person.
At the home of teacher Milene Figueiredo, 41, this process happened little by little. Little Manuela, 9, started using her cell phone just to play games. Then, to chat with friends. “It was gradual. First she started using my WhatsApp, on my cell phone, to talk to her friends. I observed the content of the conversations and saw that the use was positive and healthy. Only when we realized that she already understood the meaning of this tool, we let her have hers”, he recalls.
A PhD candidate in Communication Sciences, Milene is well aware of the importance of ensuring that her daughter makes moderate and guided use of these tools. Today, Manuela still does not have social networks, other than WhatsApp, and can only use her cell phone on weekends, always under the supervision of her parents. “We also always suggest some content that is interesting to her, so that she understands that there are other possibilities for using these tools other than just for consumption purposes.”
Even if without realizing it, Milene ends up following exactly what experts in the field recommend. From the moment the family allows the pre-teen to use a device with internet access, the ideal is for adults to really take on this role of “curators” of content and know how to indicate interactions, tools and platforms that can add to the experience . You can’t leave this exploration 100% in the child’s hands.
For its use to be positive, parents need to know how to manage the situation, guiding, supervising and, above all, being good examples. There is no point in demanding that your child have a healthy and beneficial relationship with technology if you yourself have not yet been able to establish this habit. “In childhood, the child’s brain is in full swing. In pre-adolescence, despite the most important phase of intellectual gain and increase in synapses having already passed, there is still a lot of gain in this cognitive issue. If you don’t provide the stimuli correct, it will immutate this”, says Silvia Guiguer Chaim, member of the Center for Integrative Medicine for Children and Adolescents of the São Paulo Pediatrics Society (SPSP).
The risks and challenges
A global study, carried out at the request of the technology company McAfee, showed that Brazil is one of the countries where pre-teens have the most access to cell phones. According to the survey, 95% of the population aged 10 to 14 already uses a smartphone. Here comes the first challenge: if almost every pre-teen has a cell phone, is there a way to keep our children away from the risks that the internet can bring?
To answer these questions you need to go back two houses and understand how the internet works. “Within the logic of algorithms, the more we consume a type of content, the more platforms will show other similar content. Because their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed, pre-adolescents can be even more affected by this”, says Ygor Corrêa.
+ 8 tips to ensure online security
The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for logical reasoning, decision making and emotional control. Studies show that, until around the age of 25, it is not yet fully formed. Which justifies the fact that pre-teens and teenagers are more impulsive, inconsequential, and have more difficulty establishing limits… Added to this, there is even more. “At this stage, a natural movement begins to disconnect from parents and connect with friends. Hence comes this feeling of loneliness, incomprehension and, at the same time, the need for approval. Precisely for this reason, they end up being much more influenced by likes and the sense of reward”, explains pediatrician and hebiatrician Claudia Naufel, certified in Lifestyle Medicine and PhD in Health Sciences (SP).
It is precisely in this search for approval and acceptance that pre-teens often end up exposing themselves too much, sharing personal data and getting themselves into trouble. “Often, parents are very worried about their children interacting with unknown adults, with possible pedophiles. But on the Safernet Helpline we have noticed that risky and violent situations usually happen between peers. Cyberbullying, discrimination, hate speech, introduction to pornography, all of this usually arises from interaction with other teenagers”, points out psychologist Bianca Orrico.
Precisely for this reason, Bianca’s advice is that caregivers look at the child’s digital relationship network and try to understand who they are interacting with and, above all, what these interactions have been like. “Not everything that glitters is gold. It may not even apparently have violent or problematic content. These could be conversations and content about the gym or reading, for example. But, when consumed in excess, the teenager can hyperfocus on this, which is natural for their age, and assume anxious behavior.“, adds Ygor.
Let’s imagine a hypothetical situation: you take your child to a public space, where there will be a crowd of strangers. What would you do in that case? Before arriving, do you give guidance on how to behave in this space or do you let your child discover the risks involved in the experience on their own? Do you stay away, allowing it to circulate freely, or do you stay, even if distant, always keeping an eye on it to keep it within your field of vision? On the internet, the logic should be the same.
The American Academy of Psychology (APA) recommends that parents monitor the online activities of every pre-teen, without exception. This means checking what kind of things they are spending time on the internet and talking about the quality of the content they consume on social media. “Autonomy can gradually increase as children get older and acquire digital literacy skills,” he says.
The APA says these suggestions apply to children over 10 years old. Even though age is an important marker, it should not be our only reference when making the decision for our children to start having access to the virtual world. “Before giving this autonomy, parents need to ask themselves if it’s really time, if the child already has enough responsibility for this, what the agreements will be, where the devices will be located…”, explains pediatrician and hebiatrician Claudia Naufel. “The rules have to be discussed, they need to be clear and they must apply to everyone in the house”, she adds.
Not using the cell phone when the whole family is together, not accessing the internet when they are at the table or in the bathroom, keeping cell phones in a box outside the bedroom two hours before bed… All of these can be good habits to be built together. The secret is to try to find balance. Prohibiting its use is an illusion, but it also cannot be released in general. In fact, the Brazilian Society of Pediatrics (SBP) recommends that, between the ages of 11 and 18, children do not spend more than 3 hours a day in front of screens.
For specialist Ygor Corrêa, the ideal is for us to work from a digital education perspective, explaining to pre-teens the reason for each agreement and decision. “This change in habits needs to happen gradually, step by step. If I go there and unplug the router or take the child’s cell phone, it doesn’t work. Reducing the use of technology abruptly will only make this pre-adolescents become more reactive and have aggressive behavior”, he states.
The solution, then, is to allow your child to participate in this decision-making process with you and maintain an interesting and stimulating routine outside of the screen, whether with a hobby or extracurricular activities. The important thing is to have space in your routine to also experience real, face-to-face relationships. For her to be willing to embark on this challenge of improving her digital habits, she needs to trust you and feel safe that her wishes will not be disregarded or her privacy invaded without authorization. You can even use parental control apps, for example, as long as your child knows they are being used.
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