Dealing with Fear of Online Risks


There is a fear among parents about the risks (real and unknown) that lurk in the online world. This fear feels different, and is different, than the risks on the playground or among children or teens at school. Cyberbullying[1] means being victimized online and the potential repercussions cause any parent to shudder - low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, social isolation, substance misuse and suicide.

There is also a fear among youth that because parents don’t understand technology, that it will be taken away because of those risks (or realities). The loss of online connections among today’s digitally connected youth is threatening because, as published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, “the use of mobile devices now makes screen use the centrepiece of young people’s social lives.”

So what’s a parent to do?

First, know that research has found that online activities hold opportunities as well as risks. These “benefits” may include enhanced self-esteem, quality relationship building and the development of autonomy[2]. These are important to healthy development as youth learn to control for themselves how they come across to the world and what they share publically.

Cyberbullying is, undoubtedly, a risk and parents[3] need to keep an open mind, and want to know what’s up online. Studies show, however, that when parents control access to digital technology and "just ask” about their child’s usage, they don’t get a clear picture of what’s going on. Having children and youth tell them (on their own) is the primary predictor of parental knowledge[4]. The best way for that to happen is not through making demands and over-monitoring, but by creating a safe, positive, open relationship between the parent and the child.

Dr. Jennifer Shapka (of UBC's Developmental Change & Technology Lab) suggests that cyberbullying is about relationships NOT about the technology. She suggests giving young people the skills to recognize, avoid and prevent cyber-bullying using three key relationship strategies. Follow the links to find out practical next steps for each strategy.

  1. Start with a long-term investment in a safe and open relationship[5] between you and your child.

  2. Help them learn about healthy relationships that include empathy and compassion[6].

  3. Create developmentally appropriate levels of responsibility[7] and trust both online and off.

3 Criteria for Cyberbullying
1. intent to harm
2. repetition over time
3. use of power over someone

In addition, the research suggests that bullying online has an element of permanence which makes it unique!

Online activity is not the only way to develop self-esteem, relationships and autonomy but one reason why online communication holds appeal for adolescents is it's anonymity, asynchronicity and accessibility.

In addition, a report examining teens, technology and friendship suggests that technology plays a considerable role in how teens meet and interact with friends. 

When parents "don't know" what is going on in their child's life, it IS a risk factor for behaviour problems in adolescence.

Taking a longitudinal perspective, researchers have identified that what youth disclose (or spontaneously tell their parents) is more predictive of how much a parent knows than how much the parent monitors.

With a secure attachment relationship, emotions are expressed openly and authentically between adult and child. This provides a safe and rich opportunity for a child to learn how to become competent in an emotional world, in other words, how to understand feelings and their connection with behaviours. 

Follow the link for how to build or strengthen attachment with infants, children and youth.

Check out these 10 things parents can do to promote emotional understanding and kindness.

Build a family screen time agreement, using a Heart-Mind perspective, to create a balance of online and off-line time that fosters respect, responsibility and meaningful connections among family members. 

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.