'My 12-year-old was talking to adult men’: 3 things I've learnt about leaving kids alone online.

Finding the sweet spot between ‘helicopter parenting’ and ‘free range parenting’ has been a goal of mine for many years. As a mum of four boys aged 16 to 23, I have instinctively wanted to wrap my kids in cotton wool on so many occasions, despite knowing they’d absolutely thrive with more freedom. 

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Finding the balance is tough. We intuitively want to love and dote on our offspring – to keep them safe and protected. But, if we strip back the emotion and channel our inner scientist – our precise mission (over the span of approximately 18 years) is to create independent, self-sufficient humans that don’t need us anymore. Heartbreaking stuff, really.

As a mum of four digital natives, the process of creating functioning humans really involved me drip-feeding independence to my boys over the years – particularly when it came to the online world. But, like all first-generation digital parents, I absolutely made mistakes. 

Here are the three most important lessons I have learnt: 

1. Gaming can get out of control. Fast.

My boys (including my husband) have always loved the Xbox. And I have too, because over the years the lure of that wonderful machine has helped me ensure bedrooms are tidied and homework is done and, for that – I am very grateful.


But without strict boundaries, gaming can easily take over. Online games have been cleverly designed to ensure players receive dopamine boosts at key moments to encourage them to keep playing. 

When my boys were younger, I would give them an allocated Xbox time – with thanks to the oven timer. Turns out there’s nothing like a loud, irritating sound to get one’s attention. But as my hours at work increased and I wasn’t around to manage their gaming (and the oven timer), things quickly got out of hand. 

I’ll never forget one particular school holidays when I discovered – thanks to some spies – that my older boys had spent literally all day on the Xbox. Or when I conducted an experiment and gave one of my sons 30 minutes on the thing (without the oven timer) only to observe him clocking up nearly three hours before he appeared requiring a snack. 

And the problem with too much gaming? Their behaviour can often deteriorate, particularly if they are playing aggressive games; they are exposed to an adult world, and they miss out on other important life experiences like riding bikes and, you know, being bored.

Takeaway – Set clear time limits and use parental controls to help you manage this. Also ensure the games your kids are playing are suitable – they may feel pressured to play the latest games from their friends which may not be age appropriate.

Always check the ratings of the games your kids are keen to play, and ideally – you should take it one step further and watch and play them as well to ensure they are suitable for your child (even if it means, yep, hovering in the background.) Age classifications have been given by the Australian Classification Board for a reason – so just because you think an MA 15+ game is suitable for your tween, doesn’t mean it is.


2. It’s very easy to talk to strangers online.

Walking into my lounge room and hearing the voices of adult men playing Xbox Live (online) with my then 12-year-old son was an experience I won’t ever forget. They were all very involved in a conversation about the game and let's just say I was alarmed.

If your kids love gaming, then it's likely they will be interacting with strangers from quite a young age. Whether they're visiting chat rooms to find ‘cheats’ for games or playing online games such as Fortnite, there are many opportunities to make new friends online. And while the majority of our kids’ online experiences will be positive, it is important that they understand that any new online friends could in fact be online predators with ill intentions.

Takeaway – Online friends cannot be trusted like real, in-life friends. Consider disabling the chat function on your kid's online games and continue to reinforce the online stranger danger message.

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3. Online jokes can get out of hand.

There’s no question that boys love banter. One of my favourite things about being a mum of boys is the teenage boy humour. But sometimes jokes can go too far and when this happens online, it can be devastating. 

Over the years, I’ve heard of boys setting up fake accounts on dating sites to trick their friends into thinking they had a potential love interest; or putting ads online offering free tickets to popular festivals and using their friends' phone numbers. 


But the most upsetting thing I’ve witnessed was when a video of a boy dancing in a school assembly was made into a short video with some cruel commentary and posted on Facebook. My son actually saw this video and reported it to Facebook. Within hours the video had been removed but, in the meantime, the poor boy was gutted.

Takeaway – Teach your children to think before they post, to take a minute to ask themselves whether anyone will be upset or adversely affected by what they post.

Even if we tried, we couldn’t spend every minute supervising our kids’ online activities. Instead, we need to prepare them so that when they are alone online, they will make good decisions (fingers crossed.)

So, set clear boundaries and rules around online gaming; tell them often that online friends are NOT real friends and help them understand the importance of thinking before they post online jokes.

And if you're looking for something slightly more sophisticated than an oven timer to help you manage your kids' time online, why not think about investing in some parental controls? They'll make your life easier and I’m all about that.

Alex Merton-McCann is McAfee's Australian Cybermum, helping to guide parents and their kids through the ins and outs of online life.

Optus has partnered with McAfee to include a subscription of the McAfee Safe Family app in the Optus Family Plan, at no additional cost. The plan also includes four SIMs and 250GB of monthly data to share.

Read more from our Ask Cybermum series here

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