While you sit and read this article, what are your children up to? Outside in the garden? Reading a book? At the park with friends? There’s a good chance they’re sitting on a computer, tablet or mobile phone indoors, surfing the internet or one of the many social media sites.
Fifty per cent of parents admit to buying their child digital devices but, once purchased, 81% of parents fear their child spends too much time on them.
Technology is playing a major part in children’s lives from an increasingly early age. As many as four in 10 children aged three to four years old now use a tablet at home. Worryingly, tablets and smartphones have been dubbed the new ‘dummies’ for babies and toddlers.
Meanwhile, seven in 10 children aged between five and 15 years old have access to a tablet, according to an Ofcom report. Since 2013, access to tablets at home for this age group has increased from 51% to 71%.
Many parents fear letting their children play outside, worrying about the risks of abduction and stranger danger. But today, there are as many dangers on the internet as there are on the streets. If your child is walking across town to a friend’s house, it’s likely you’ll ask her to call or text you once she’s arrived safely. But upstairs, on the computer in her bedroom, do you have any real idea what she’s looking at and who she’s talking to?
Around 57% of children worry about coming across pornographic, violent or other unsuitable content online. And one in three 12 to 15 year olds is in contact with people on a social networking site who they don’t know in real life. So it’s never been more important to learn how to keep your kids safe on the worldwide web.
Cause for concern
Many parents first give their children a mobile phone to ‘keep them safe’ – a device they can use to call you if they need help. In theory, it makes complete sense. But it’s what else your kids are using their phones for that’s rapidly becoming a huge worry.
An international study showed that 73% of 10 year olds in the UK own a mobile phone – significantly higher than the global average of 45%. And a staggering 97% of 11 to 16 year olds are mobile phone owners – 8% more than the percentage of adults who own one!
According to another study by The Marketing Store, 24% of eight year olds in the UK own a mobile phone, as do 6% of six year olds. Yet two-thirds of kids’ phones don’t have parental controls, and one in five parents never monitors their child’s online activity.
Around 16% of children say they regularly use their mobile phone to send videos, 15% to send pictures, and 13% frequently access social networking sites via their > phones. A whopping 94% of teenagers who use social media have a Facebook account, and more than two million set up their page well before the legal age of 13.
No one wants their child stumbling across adult content such as pornography, but one in four children has received an unwanted sexual image.
It’s critical that children feel comfortable talking to their parents, so they can speak up when things go awry online. For this reason, it’s important that parents make an effort to understand their child’s fears and anxieties, particularly when faced with complex emotional and social situations online. So, daunting as it may be, make sure you have that conversation with your child.
As a parent, you can put safety parameters in place. You can observe when your child uses the internet, and monitor how much time is spent online and what your child is looking at. You also need to make sure the right controls and security are in place across all devices.
Internet Matters (www.internetmatters.org) is an independent, not-for-profit organisation set up to help parents keep their children safe online. You can use the site as a go-to guide to all things digital concerning your child, including cyberbullying, online grooming, sexting, inappropriate content, your child’s online reputation, privacy, identity theft and pornography.
There are security protection programmes available that protect up to three or four PCs or android devices for 12 months. These safeguard your children online, blocking spam as well as malicious sites, and include anti-virus protection and personal data protection.
You can also protect your child’s tablet and mobile, as well as their computers. Some software will control your child’s access to internet applications, games and websites, and block or limit social networking and instant messaging. You can also control file downloads, and block the transfer of private data, including telephone and credit card numbers.
Future of online safety
Technology is constantly improving, but you need to keep up to date with the new applications and sites that children use. There will always be new elements you don’t want young people to encounter when they’re not yet equipped to understand or deal with them. As well as using preventative filters and blocks, talking to your child and discussing why certain content is inappropriate is important. ‘What you think is inappropriate for your child may differ from your child’s view or that of other parents,’ says Carolyn Bunting, general manager for Internet Matters. ‘It will also depend on your child’s age and maturity. Inappropriate content includes material
or images that upset your child, inaccurate information, and content that might lead or tempt your child into unlawful or dangerous behaviour.’
False sense of security
Don’t think that, by becoming your child’s ‘friend’ on Facebook, you can monitor everything there. You can’t. If she has privacy settings turned on, she can hide as much as she wants. You must know her password to see everything.
Be wary of anonymous networking sites. The fact that they’re anonymous may make them sound safer – if your child isn’t using her name, it must be safer, right? Wrong. If inappropriate interaction occurs, it’s also harder to track the perpetrator. And on sites like Snapchat, posts are automatically deleted after a short time, leaving no evidence of the exchange.
‘Parents must talk openly and frankly to their tweens and teens about the dangers online. It is a must to tell your kids that uploading inappropriate pictures and giving out info to people they don’t know can put them in harm’s way of predators. The next conversation will be to explain what a predator is.’
You can help your child deal with hidden harassment
Like any form of bullying, cyberbullying is horrible for the children involved, and hard for them to talk about. The difference with this type of bullying is that the victim can’t get away from the perpetrator – they can be bullied anywhere, anytime, even at home.
‘Cyberbullying can have a large audience, too,’ says Carolyn Bunting, general manager for Internet Matters. ‘Posts on social networks, emails or group chats can be seen by lots of people very quickly.
‘Cyberbullies can also remain anonymous, by using fake profiles on social networking sites or by blocking their phone numbers. This can make it harder to identify the bullies. However, you should still save texts as proof of the bullying.’
Sites like Snapchat make bullying easier as they work by showing a photo or message for a very short time before it is deleted from the server, leaving no evidence that bullying has taken place.
As many as 45,000 young people called ChildLine to talk about online bullying last year, according to the NSPCC (www.nspcc.org.uk). But at least twice as many probably didn’t report it. Around 30% of parents are worried about their child being cyberbullied, and 26% of 12 to 15 year olds know someone who has been bullied online.
There are signs you can look for if you think your child may be being bullied online, including:
- They suddenly stop using the computer
- They seem nervous or jumpy when an instant message or email appears
- They avoid school and general socialising
- They’re angry, depressed or frustrated after using the computer
- They avoid discussions about what they’re doing on the computer
- They start withdrawing from friends and family
Get your kids web wise...
1. SET HOUSE RULES
Decide how much time you’re happy to let your child spend online, and stick to it. Outline which sites your child can go to. This will take time, as you’ll need to check sites out for yourself, but it’s time well spent. If your child wants to visit a new site, ensure she knows she must get your approval first. Make sure she understands the consequences of breaking the rules – confiscating your child’s gadget will inevitably result in a temper tantrum (now known as an ‘iPaddy’) if the ground rules for this action aren’t established from the off.
2. IT'S GOOD TO TALK
Good communication between you and your child is vital. You still need to employ ‘traditional’ safety lessons – for example, on stranger danger, constant communication and house rules – as you would for any other aspect of your child’s life.
3. KEEP IT COMMUNAL
Your home computer should be in a communal space so internet usage is an activity monitored by all the family. If your child has her own laptop or phone, encourage her to only use them in a communal room, such as the lounge, rather than her bedroom. And a key rule should be no devices in your child’s room overnight.
4. USE YOUR TECHNOLOGICAL IGNORANCE TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
If you’re less internet savvy than your child, use this cleverly. Ask her to teach you how to set up a social networking account such as Facebook or Snapchat. That way, you can learn about, and gradually explain, the risks she might encounter.
5. TEACH THE FOUR PRIVACY 'NEVERS'
Check that your child knows these essentials:
- Never give out any personal information without your permission, such as name, phone number, home address, email address, passwords of any accounts, the name of her school or photographs
- Never open an email from someone who she doesn’t know in real life
- Never respond to hurtful or disturbing messages (and tell you if she receives them)
- Never meet up in real life with anyone she’s only ‘met’ online
6. PROMISE YOU'LL STAY CALM
Let your child know that if she sees anything that upsets her or makes her uncomfortable, or if she’s bullied or victimised online, she must tell you. Reassure her that you won’t overreact, blame her or take away her online time, but that you’ll work together to resolve the issue.