Every parent with teenagers worries about what their children are being exposed to online, more so after the recent discussions about privacy on social media. If you’re a parent whose work involves securing a company’s intellectual capital and minimizing the impact of a data breach, there is definitely greater awareness of the risks.

“Being part of the IT security industry, we are in a better position to understand the threats that kids are exposed to today," says Anand Ramakrishnan, CEO, Qtek Systems, a technology solutions company that also offers internet security management.

At home, Ramakrishnan and his wife talk to their 13-year-old son about online dangers like phishing, cyberbullying and social media dares. They believe it’s more important to teach children to be smart about their behaviour, rather than track their activities through tech tools. “I would love to put all kinds of systemic controls on his devices, and there are tons of software programmes available that can limit what your child can do online. But I know that he has a number of ways to access the internet that go beyond his own devices," he says, explaining that he has no control over the devices of his son’s friends or the online games that allow one to chat with strangers.

When every app downloaded or URL visited stores information, how do you reduce a child’s vulnerability? For Sriram T.V., it’s by practising what he preaches to clients—extreme caution. Sriram, director, consulting and business development, at Juniper Networks, India, which develops and markets networking products, says his daughter, 14, uses his email account and a family member’s phone. His wife and he were his daughter’s first followers on her social media accounts. He does a weekly check on her online activities. “The onus is on parents to be more proactive and stay involved," he says, likening this to teaching a child to ride a bike. “You hold on to the cycle until they have mastered it," he says.

These tech experts ensure maximum privacy settings on devices and limit screen time for children to an hour a day. The home Wi-Fi is turned off at night to discourage surfing. Ramakrishnan admits that these kinds of checks can lead to a rebellion, while Sriram says his daughter has had emotional outbursts. “It’s not easy, but my aim is to keep the conversation going," he says.

“I know a lot of parents who don’t allow social media access, screen time and even TV watching until their children are a particular age, but how long will you prevent it? By class V or VI, your children will begin to feel like misfits," says child and adolescent psychiatrist Zirak Marker, medical director of Mumbai-based Mpower Centre, a mental health consultancy that conducts school workshops, among other awareness programmes.

Parents should instead educate themselves about the internet and set boundaries for children. “Ensure communication channels remain open and transparent, ask them for their opinions and perspectives, and, most importantly, validate their need to be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’, which is often at the core of risk-taking behaviour on social media," says Ankita Khanna, counselling psychologist at Delhi-based adolescent mental health service Children First.

Ramakrishnan relies on the “EDC" approach with his son—education, discipline and confidence. “While encouraging him to browse in a constructive fashion, we also discipline him by restricting his time online to an hour or so daily so that he uses it judiciously," he says. Sriram encourages his daughter to spend as much time as possible away from screens. “She is a big MasterChef fan, so we encourage her to explore her passion for cooking. If I’m home, I join her," he says, emphasizing that parents must serve as role models for their children. “Children imitate what parents do, whether it’s what we do online or what we share," Sriram says.

At the end of the day, technology is simply an outlet—and a constantly evolving one. “Helping your child develop a sense of maturity will hold them in good stead as they grow older, rather than depending on technology to do the job," Ramakrishnan concludes.

Neerja Birla has ‘Mpowered’ her children’s online habits

Neerja Birla, founder and chairperson of Mpower, believes that building positive mental health is critical to protect children from harmful behaviour online. “We need to nurture resilience and enable them to build lasting self-esteem from a young age," she says.

When it comes to her three children, the youngest of whom is 14, Birla is careful to strike a balance. “I’m not a helicopter mom, I don’t check what she is surfing or reading. There is that much trust between us," she says. Birla, who rarely uses social media, says children are much smarter than grown-ups when it comes to technology, which is why parents need to tread carefully. “Gone are the days when you would just listen to what your parents said. Today, you need to converse with children as equals, and make a case for why you want them to be careful online," she says.

This is a parenting style you need to adopt from the beginning. “If I am expecting my child to have a dialogue with me for the first time after 14 years, it is not going to happen," she says. Accept that children will make mistakes, Birla says, but they need to know they can always come to you for help.

While some counsellers recommend family meetings to resolve issues leading to, or caused by, online behaviourial problems, Birla prefers a one-on-one approach.

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