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20% kids have ‘secret online friends’ despite parents ‘spying’

One third of British parents spy on their kids’ internet activity as cyber-dangers have replaced sex and drugs as their biggest concern, a study has found.

However, this approach may be exacerbating the problem, with a third of children aged 11–17 reacting by creating secret social media accounts to avoid prying eyes.

A survey of 1,007 parents and 1,000 children by research firm Censuswide revealed that one-in-five of the youngsters admitted to having ‘secret online friends’.

Moreover, half of the children surveyed said that they felt both hurt when they were spied on and less able to talk to their parents about the challenges they faced online.

Parents, meanwhile, confessed to struggling to handle such issues, while 20 per cent of kids who spoke openly about cyber-bullying said that they wouldn’t again. 

Lockdown may have heightened these dangers, with families turning to the internet more and nearly half of all parents citing online time as a source of arguments.

‘I am a firm believer that social media is not the enemy. It’s actually a fantastic platform for self-expression, creativity and development,’ said Joseph Sykora of software firm Cogenis, which specialises in machine learning and psychology.

‘Of course there are risks, but we’re doing our children a disservice by simply spying on them, because we’re not teaching them how to cope.’

‘Open, consensual communication is the key to developing a healthy and safe relationship with their online environment.’

To address the challenges that parents and children face online — and inspired by Mr Sykora’s own family’s experiences — Cogenis has developed Wing, a new artificial-intelligence powered ‘safety net’ app for parents. 

Rather than adopting a Big-Brother-style, total-surveillance approach — which they argue robs children of both their privacy and ability to ‘build up resilience to online threats’ — Wing uses AI to non-intrusively scan internet activity for the parent.

The app then only alerts caregivers when it spots something concerning — rather than sharing all of the child’s data — using ‘colours and a weather-analogy’  (e.g. red for anger) to help parents understand their kids’ online experiences.

‘Experts believe the way to protect children is to work with them, not behind their backs,’ the firm said in a press release.

‘This is why Wing has to be installed on the child’s phone with their permission, rather than a secret tool to spy on their activity without consent.’

‘Children don’t fully develop the prefrontal cortex — an important region for emotion regulation — until early adulthood, potentially placing them at a higher risk of being influenced by negative content,’ said Wing in-house psychologist Jessica Swainston.

‘However, restrictive parenting behaviours can lead to secrecy, and often serves the needs of the parent — not the child.’

‘It is far better to give children the technical skills needed to function in society in the digital age,’ she concluded.

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