Making friends and managing real friendships online – tips from a parent

The internet is a great place to connect but how can we ensure children are making the right digital friends and avoiding the pitfalls of misunderstandings while socialising online? Teacher and mum Eilidh shares her ‘open door policy’ and other things that have helped her to support her children.

As a former primary teacher, Eilidh Gallagher has plenty of experience seeing how important it is for children to manage their relationships. And when it comes to her own children, it’s especially important.

Talking to children about interacting online

“I started talking to my children about online relationships as soon as they were watching online videos and playing games,” Eilidh says. “I was lucky to have lots of training on online safety at work, which I put into practice at home.”

From the age of around six, Eilidh’s children were taught about the importance of being safe online, and why certain games or sites might be out of limits. Eilidh also makes sure to check relevant websites and the newspapers for updates about possible dangers. “If I’m unsure of anything, I will tend to research it online,” she adds.

Eilidh has focused on helping her children to feel confident in approaching online relationships. “I tell them if something makes them uncomfortable, or someone says something you don’t like, then they can tell me or another adult, and they will NEVER be in trouble,” says Eilidh.

Encouraging ‘netiquette’

The second important rule is to be as kind online as you would be in real life. “We say not to say anything to anyone online that you wouldn’t say in real life. We talk about cyberbullying, what it looks like, and what the consequences might be,” says Eilidh.

Eilidh’s daughter is on the verge of her teens, and eager to have social media accounts and online friends. “I have friends with older children and they insist that the children’s profiles are accessible to parents, we may go down that route,” says Eilidh.

When it comes to friendships, Eilidh and her partner talk to all the children about friendships and things that happen offline, that might spill out into the online world. It’s an area of real concern. “They’ve already told me about times they have seen people not being kind online, and we’ve spoken about telling an adult if a friend is upset.”

Online versus offline issues with friends

Many of the issues kids have with online relationships are exactly the same as those found offline, Eilidh says. For example, Eilidh’s son recently heard that other children had been saying unkind things about him online. “We talked about how people can say things online that aren’t true, or that they wouldn’t say to someone’s face,” says Eilidh. “But really, I approached it just as I would if it happened on the playground.”

Taking on an ‘open door policy’

The family’s rules around talking to strangers online are very strict. There is also a household ‘open door’ policy so that the children only access the Internet in areas where Mum or Dad can pop in to check what’s happening.

Eilidh’s eldest son, who is 11, has only recently been allowed to play games online. However, this is only allowed at home, under supervision. “My 11-year-old has talked to strangers online when playing at friends’ houses, and he knows what my rules are,” says Eilidh. “There is to be no sharing of personal information, and if anything makes him uncomfortable, he can leave a conversation at any time without worrying about upsetting the other person.”

Benefits of forming digital relationships

Although online relationships can be challenging, there are plenty of upsides to balance it out. “My eldest recently moved schools and being able to play games online with old friends has helped him feel less sad about leaving them,” explains Eilidh. “I met my fiancé online, and have lots of online friendships, so the children definitely know there are positives to having online relationships!”

Eilidh, 34, lives in Bedfordshire with her 3 kids and fiancé. A former teacher, she works from home as a freelance writer and blogger.

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