An increasing number of kids are preferring YouTube and video games to television, leaving parents, at times, feeling overwhelmed trying to ensure their online safety. How do we keep kids safe? And how do we
curb the obsession? Carly Gibbs reports.
Like many Kiwi kids, Jae, 12, and her brother, Jett, 11, favour YouTube and video gaming over traditional television.
And like many parents, their mum, Stacey Kemp, feels overwhelmed trying to ensure both limited screen time and online safety are maintained.
"I'd love to know what other families are doing," she says.
She's just placed her children on a "tech detox" for a fortnight because her 12-year-old was becoming a "Netflix and YouTube slug" over the weekends, as well as using up a Saturday and Sunday one-hour allocated gaming slot for the likes of Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft.
"The phenomenon of watching other people do things instead of doing them yourself (also) blows my mind. Oh, what to do?" she says.
The phenomenon of watching other people do things instead of doing them yourself (also) blows my mind. Oh, what to do?
The pace of change in technology, as well as the type of content capturing kids' attention, has got some parents worried, with a Bay of Plenty principal saying too much technology is causing a minority of adolescents to become disconnected from reality.
Kemp, from Pāpāmoa, would like to see more digital help for parents, including how to put effective locks and timeframes on devices - and she's not alone, says Rory Birkbeck of social enterprise Safe Surfer.
In four years, the Tauranga tech specialist has made a fulltime job out of keeping families safe from Dark Web dangers and he's about to launch what he says is his most impressive safety feature yet.
Screencast detection is the ability to black out the screen on an Android device when any suggested nudity is shown on any app.
"It is groundbreaking, globally," he says of his design.
It runs on a machine-reading model, which has been trained on explicit imagery. If it detects inappropriate content it immediately blacks out the screen and can provide parents with notifications.
Birkbeck set up Safe Surfer with a friend in 2016, after he was employed to enact a national rollout of iPads across New Zealand for in-home-based childcare provider Footsteps, and saw a market for an easy solution to protect children online.
Since then, demand for the company's services has grown worldwide and Safe Surfer is used in 120 countries.
As well as developing a free safety app for Android devices, the company has developed a smart device or Safe Surfer "Wi-Fi lifeguard". It retails at $185 plus GST and plugs straight into your existing modem to instantly create a safe wireless hotspot within your home.
The idea is for children to navigate the internet "between the flags", blocking explicit websites. Parents are sent email reports of websites that have been accessed.
It's common knowledge that today's generation is increasingly online, but what isn't known is the true long-term implications of that, Birkbeck says, cautioning it's important not to be alarmist, while also increasing awareness around online safety, available tools, and the creation of new digital habits for parents.
Safe Surfer creates a safer experience they never say "it's a 'set and forget'."
Since Covid-19 hit, digital distraction has become more of a problem, John Paul College principal Patrick Walsh says.
He says level 3 and 4 lockdowns saw some students' addictions to social media, pornography and gaming "exacerbated", with the pandemic introducing some to video gaming for the first time.
"A minority of students are becoming disconnected to the real world," he says.
"They don't engage in real conversations with family and friends, choosing social media platforms instead. They don't read newspapers or watch the news, so have little knowledge of what is happening in the world or New Zealand."
Furthermore, students are either intentionally or inadvertently being exposed to graphic online violence, sex, cyberbullying, fake news and "dangerous" conspiracy theories.
Walsh says school deans and counsellors are increasingly dealing with the emotional and psychological fallout of online overuse, including persistent anger, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation.
"Parents are left feeling helpless, frustrated and desperate," he told essence.
"It is a real and very significant issue for all schools and whānau in New Zealand. The giant tech companies such as Facebook, YouTube and TikTok need to lift their game in protecting young people and a quicker response in taking down offensive material."
Earlier this month, footage which appeared to show a man dying from suicide was shared on TikTok and sparked national concern and warnings from the Mental Health Foundation and Netsafe.
A minority of students are becoming disconnected to the real world...Parents are left feeling helpless, frustrated, and desperate.
Walsh says the issues start in primary schools where there is a "real and desperate" need for counselling services.
"Free workshops for parents in schools by experts in the field would also help."
His comments are backed up by other educators, but digital distraction isn't just a youth problem, says Linda Woon, principal of Otonga Road School.
"I think we have all witnessed the bizarre situation of families and friends at a dinner table, not talking, all on their phones. It isn't just young people.
"We are all responsible for teaching social etiquette and appropriate use of our devices."
Added to that, some parents don't know how to tackle the issue.
"They may not be confident or as tech-savvy as their kids but our parents care deeply."
Woon says devices serve important purposes in children's lives and the opportunity to learn great entrepreneurial skills, but what would be helpful is conversation around values and what's real and what's virtual.
"The music videos that saturate the channels are pretty near pornographic but is that just me being a dinosaur? What body and self-images are we supporting by not talking about them? What we ignore, we condone."
At an e-learning conference she attended in Helsinki, it was suggested students find a balance of practical activities offline, bookwork, and face-to-face experiences, as well as online learning.
There is a real risk of the device being a babysitting tool for time-weary parents, conference-goers were told.
Dangers of free rein included online predators, peer pressure and a disconnect between virtual friendships and the real thing.
Most harm was done after usual bedtimes and parents were advised to turn off their Wi-Fi if needed.
We - and our children - need to find healthy ways to use technology, without letting it take over, the principals say.
In Pāpāmoa, the Isaac family embody a cautious example.
In their home, only mum Mary and dad Norton have devices, however, Chili, 9, Brix, 6, and Zaylee, 4, can use them if it's for a specific learning purpose.
"Our main philosophy is that they are tools rather than entertainment," Mary says.
"I feel like there are very few people who do what we do and don't let their children on devices (regularly)," she says, noting that they may seem "extreme" or "weird" to some.
If they do let their children online, it's so their 9-year-old can access a guitar tutorial on YouTube or edit a video, such as the one he made during lockdown on how to grow microgreens.
The siblings are allowed to watch TV but it's limited and "highly monitored" by Mum and Dad.
Mary says the main reason they don't like screen time for entertainment is the "squirt of dopamine" the brain gets when you receive a like on a Facebook post or the thrill of moving up a level in a video game.
"Life's not like that outside the internet," she says. "I want them to be self-motivated to do something."
As a result, she believes, her children are more imaginative. They've researched filters and made their own water decanter in their garage; developed a catapult device; built creations in their backyard sandpit and "dug for China"; while also building an underground hut.
"They love what they've achieved and that's all it needs to be, really. They don't get that from looking at a device. It's not impacting them negatively at all."
Children's use of devices ranges from healthy to addictive but the internet isn't something to be feared, family charity Parenting Place says.
Spokeswoman Holly Brooker says learning to navigate the web is now an essential part of growing up.
Parents can install safety software and gadgets, but "self-control and character" are the filters children need to develop long-term and she cautions on the need to ensure balance early on.
"I notice with my two (children) aged 5 and 8 that when they spend too long online or even watch too much TV their mood and their behaviour changes. In fact, my 8-year-old notices it himself and admits he doesn't like how he feels afterwards."
The ultimate key in stopping kids from going down an online rabbit-hole is a solid foundation, she says.
"Ensuring they have what they really, deeply need from us that a screen can't fulfil.
"We need to invest time and energy into that, and, like all relationships, it isn't always going to be easy and it takes effort, but it will pay off long-term."
Dangers of device time
• Breakdown of people's social structure where face-to-face contact and sitting around the family dining table and having discussion becomes extinct.
• The experience of getting anxious and/or depressed as a result of online bullying.
• Accessing inappropriate material and its effects. Family Link says the cost of having Sky TV or other platforms is prohibitive for some families, which then entices them to seek other viewing options.
Signs of overuse
• Anxiety from bullying or seeing inappropriate material.
• Anger through restricted access.
• Reduced motivation and passion to do other things.
• Becoming isolated from family and loved ones.
• Loss of interest in once-favourite activities.
• Getting involved in risky behaviour.
How do I fix my child's online addiction?
Karen Potter, a whānau field worker in mental health and addiction for Tauranga's Family Link, says there is no easy fix.
It depends on the individual who is experiencing the addiction, their response to boundaries, and their willingness to change.
"Just like any other addiction."
Children and youth will go to great lengths to maintain their connection with the internet, she says, giving the example of accessing neighbours' Wi-fi, school Wi-Fi, and library Wi-Fi.
"They will even verbally abuse or physically attack the person who is trying to limit their access to the internet or the source of their addiction."
If you hold serious concerns about your child's online habits contact your GP to get a referral to Community Adolescent Mental Health, or ring them directly to seek advice. The service is for youth aged up to 18. You can also contact your local Hauora.
If you need to talk to a crisis counsellor, you can free call or text 1737 any time.
Tips for parents
• Set time limits for screen time.
• Keep off chat groups.
• Only allow screens in a family area.
• Turn off Wi-Fi at bedtime if need be.
• Install safety ware, such as Safe Surfer's free app or Wi-Fi lifeguard.
• Safe Surfer enables you to manage devices and filter an extensive range of categorised online content.
• Schools are using filtering systems to help keep students safe and parents can also access them through Netsafe at home.
• For personalised advice for your family, book a one-on-one session with one of Parenting Place's family coaches.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
•Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: 1737
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.