portrait of cheerful mother and daughter using tablet at home

words: Judy McAuliffe images: supplied

From a very early age, our kids are online. They’re playing games, listening to music, watching movies and YouTube and interacting.  But are they safe? Are we safe? Do we even know what the dangers are? I chatted to Neysa Koizumi and Megan Rutter of Digital Waitaha Trust and discovered there’s a lot more to digital safety than passwords and privacy settings.

If I’m honest, internet safety is one of those things that I rarely think about. I’m careful about what I post on social media but beyond that I’m guilty of putting my head in the sand.  As Neysa and Megan talk about digital equity, digital safety and responsible digital use, I’m a possum in the headlights.

“The Vision of Digital Waitaha is focused on helping people in Mid Canterbury and beyond become more informed, more responsible, ethical digital device users, people that are confident online, feel safe, and understand digital safety and wellbeing issues,” says Neysa “

So, what does that actually mean? “We’re in a time not unlike the early 1900’s, when cars were first mass produced,” Neysa says.  “People could buy a car and drive away. There was no Road Code to keep anyone safe until much later on. We’re in a similar space again now. We all have multiple devices, but there’re no safety features, so Digital Waitaha are trying to change that paradigm through education and prevention.”

In line with, or perhaps because of the 24/7 access to social media, two of the biggest issues faced by teenagers are body image issues and mental health. “Social media plays a role in mental health.” Megan says. “We’re bombarded with beautiful body images that are completely unachievable because they’re unreal. Beautiful people, living wonderful lives, making money, they have the perfect life, and it feels like that’s the standard we’re supposed to meet, and of course we can’t.

The other aspect of it is that if you make a mistake, someone posts a photo and it’s out there for anyone and everyone to see – you have a complete loss of control. Everything is under the microscope. Sometimes you don’t even know a photo is being taken but it can affect every aspect of your life from friendships, even job prospects if you’re at that stage.”

Cyberbullying, they say, is not caused by social media, but exacerbated by it and knowing how to deal with is vital. It’s insidious. Being able to attack someone via texting, or online and often anonymously, creates an imbalance of power and it can be relentless.

Digital Waitaha run a STOP, BLOCK & TALK® programme in Mid Canterbury schools. “It’s like giving kids a tool box,” says Megan. “From around Year Eight, kids are going to be asked for nude photos, they’ll see porn and experience cyber-bullying. Knowing that it will happen and having the tools will give them the confidence to deal with it safely. STOP, BLOCK & TALK® is a mantra like SLIP, SLOP, SLAP & WRAP. We all know it and we do it automatically. Our aim with STOP, BLOCK & TALK® is for the response to automatically kick in, STOP the interaction, BLOCK that user and TALK to an adult. Ideally, we want all Canterbury children as well as their parents/grandparents/caregivers/whānau to embrace this easy-to-teach mantra. That’s where talk is so important. Talk to your kids and really listen, don’t be afraid of it, effective communication really is the key.”  

The other challenging aspect of digital safety is that our kids know more than we do about technology – they’ve grown up with it.  Parents are left behind and seniors are really in the dark. Digital Waitaha recently ran Ask a Digital Expert, with a bunch of youngsters who were technologically confident, sharing their knowledge with a gathering of Seniors. “It was a great success to the point where both the youngsters and the elders are asking when we’re going to do it again. The intergenerational action was just amazing!” There are definite plans for more of these workshops, so watch our Facebook page.”

Training parents, training our seniors is a big focus for Digital Waitaha.  “If we can teach people how to be safe online, give them the skills they need to bridge the digital gap, that will be enormous. If we have a good understanding of what’s happening, what the dangers are, and the safety guards and tools that we can put in place to ensure everyone is safe online.

At some point we have to trust that the young people know their stuff, and they’ll apply the knowledge and risk-minimising tools, but again, talk, and let your kids talk. Give them a voice and you’ll be amazed, they want to talk, they want to share what they know, and they want to help. Just give them the opportunity. It’s a massive paradigm shift, but worth it if we can pull it off.

We’re the first generation of parents that are raising digital citizens, we’ll make mistakes and its OK.  Talking is the solution.”

If you have pre-schoolers, primary age, intermediate or college students, or you may be older and want knowledge, check Digital Waitaha social media pages – there are programmes to fit all ages. www.digitalwaitaha.org.nz

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.