Friendships and relationships are an important part of young adult life and in this day and age, this extends to connections they may have formed on the internet.
You might be worried about your child’s safety, however, it is important that you build a relationship where your child feels they are able to talk openly with you about their online activity without provoking judgement or a negative reaction – such as you limiting their access to the computer or mobile phone. Our Valentine’s study revealed that 55% of respondents overall had, at some point experienced a virtual, romantic, relationship with somebody they had never met. The data shows that young people who do not identify as being exclusively attracted to members of the opposite sex, those with a disability, those who identify as transgendered or respondents from lower-income backgrounds are the most likely to have engaged in a virtual relationship with somebody online.
While virtual relationships are often blamed for a wider disconnection between people and our ability to communicate in offline environments, our research has forced us to acknowledge the positives of conducting a romantic relationship in such a way. Virtual relationships allow for human connection, contact and gratification – things which for some, might be challenging to obtain or experience in the physical world. Those with a disability, for example, can also choose how much they disclose about their disability and can present themselves how they wish. Many young adults find relief and freedom from some of the prejudices they have encountered offline.
1. Keep an open dialogue.
We advise talking openly with your child and creating an environment in which they feel able to approach you. It is important that you do not patronise your child when speaking to them about their virtual relationship – to them, it will be just as meaningful as an offline relationship. Reassure them you will be there to support them every step of the way and you are there if they need to talk. Spend time with them, make sure they know they are not alone and encourage conversation around their online activity, or who they might be virtually dating in a way that doesn’t seem like you are prying.
2. Get to grips with the technology.
To get a better understanding of what sites and technologies your child might be using, take time to get to grips with it yourself. Read up on it, sign up to it and explore it. It will be easier to talk to your child about it if you are able to hold your own in the conversation. It also means you will be able to offer them advice on how to stay safe on a particular platform and they will be more likely to respect your opinion and listen if they know you are clued up on it.
3. Don’t punish them for being honest with you.
Reassure them that they will not be punished or chastised for talking about their online activity or seeking help. Often children do not confide in their parents because they are fearful of the consequences; make sure they feel comfortable talking about their experiences and that they feel they can confide in you without fear of being reprimanded. For example, if you threaten to limit the time they spend online as a preventative measure, you are essentially punishing them for being honest with you – this may mean they do not seek your support in the future when something is wrong.
4. Advise them on how to stay safe online and teach them ‘netiquette’.
Their safety is your priority. Make sure your child’s privacy settings are high and remind them to be careful when connecting with anybody who they do not know offline. Make sure they are aware that people may not always be who they say they are and that they could be putting themselves and those closest to them at risk.
Advise them that they should never give away personal details like their full name, telephone, address etc to someone they have not met offline either. If somebody is exhibiting threatening behaviour, or has their personal information and is giving them the impression that their safety might be at risk, contact the police immediately.
Teach your child how to behave properly online; help them to understand that their behaviour in online environments should reflect their offline behaviour – they may have forgotten that there is a person behind the profile. Remind them to be respectful of themselves and not to share anything online that they wouldn’t be happy with people seeing offline.
5. Give them solutions to potential problems.
For example, make them aware that if they ever feel like a situation is getting out of control, they have your unconditional support. You could also give them the contact details of Ditch the Label or an organisation like Childline (0800 11 11) if you feel they are more likely to want to seek external support.