The digital generation gap can leave parents floundering as they try to keep up with their children’s digital expertise. Many, understandably, are worried that the kids can be exposed to all sorts of online nasties and don’t know what to do about it. A BullGuard survey illustrates this with the vast majority of parents feeling like their children are growing up far too quickly. But a few simple steps can help educate the children while also ensuring parents can still keep a protective but discreet arm around them.

A sweeping survey by BullGuard revealed that 80 per cent of parents believe their children are growing up too quickly and this surge towards accelerated maturity is largely driven by peer pressure, the internet and social networking.

The age of independence, where children start moving from beneath the parental umbrella and start establishing their own preferences, needs and friends today starts at the tender age of 10.

Social networks and a range of apps are helping drive this with children able to contact their friends well beyond school and engage with peers across a wide range of platforms any day of the week.

Always plugged in to the digital realm

The survey, of 2,000 parents with children aged between 8 and 12 revealed that at the age of 10 the majority let their kids have mobile devices, pierce their ears and get a TV in their bedroom.

While it might appear that children are enjoying ‘splendid isolation’ tucked up in their rooms for lengthy periods the likelihood is that they are messaging their friends and engaging in online banter.

At age of 10 most children can get an iPad, choose their own clothes and make their own breakfast though catching a bus alone, being allowed to wear make-up and getting an email account comes at the age of 11, reveals the survey.

Shifting milestones

These dynamics are probably partly driven by the move to secondary school at the age of 11, a step up in education, and acknowledgement by parents that while the children are taking the first steps towards independence the children need mobile devices so they can stay in touch with them.

That said, more than half of the mums and dads polled have specific age deadlines in mind for a number of life’s landmarks. And many of these milestones are significantly different to what they encountered when they were young.

The polled parents said 70 per cent of children aged 12 or under are now ‘googling’ things unsupervised. 80 per cent said their kids were growing up too quickly, with 77 per cent feeling that the vast array of content they can access online was to blame. However, today’s children are part of the digital generation and using technology and the internet is second nature for them.

Obsessed with fitting in

One in three parents acknowledge that their child is obsessed with fitting in and nearly half say they do all they can to ensure this is possible which along with peer pressure fuels the move towards mobile devices for the kids.

For example, four in ten parents felt pressured to buy their kids the latest gadgets while half let their children use the internet unsupervised and download apps at the age of 10. On average, 50 per cent of parents would also be comfortable with a child having a Facebook account by the age of 12 though the official age is 13.

Nedko Ivanov, BullGuard’s CEO and also a parent, points out: ‘‘Children display different levels of maturity and as a rule you can’t always say every child is ready to do this or that by a certain age… Most kids will pester their parents and demand the latest gadgets, but it’s important to also take into account whether or not they’re ready for what they might encounter and if they do start using this sort of technology, to make sure they are safe online.’’

Trust and education

However, due to the digital generation gap this can be difficult for parents who don’t feel like they have a grip on the online world. 53 per cent say their kids are more tech-savvy than they are, so it’s important to know where to turn to for help.

Tony Neate, CEO of Get Safe Online says that trusting and educating children is an important element in ensuring they remain safe online: ”Like learning to ride a bike, or crossing the road, the most effective way to educate children is to start early and empower them to take responsibility for their own safety. For many parents this means educating themselves too so they can feel confident talking to their children about online behaviour and safety.”

However, practical steps can be taken. When asked if it would ease their mind if parental controls were installed on devices connected to the internet, 84 per cent said that this would at least offer reassurance, with a third saying it would considerably ease their anxieties.

Practical steps

There are many practical things parents can do, for their own peace of mind as well as to help set boundaries such as installing parental controls on computers, mobiles and games consoles, privacy features on social networking sites, and the safety options on Google and other search engines.

Nedko Ivanov adds: “It can be disconcerting to have an eight year old who knows their way around a laptop or smartphone better than you do. This is why it is so critical that parents are aware of what their children are doing online.

“When parents can’t be there, an effective security suite with strong parental controls can provide insight into a child’s activity and help parents to protect their children should they encounter things that are unsavoury and inappropriate.”