Why you can’t afford to ignore internet safety!

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Children from an increasingly young age live online these days. Even my 18 month old knows how to scroll across my phone with his finger and has accidentally developed a passion for YouTube! The reality is that, however hard we parents try to keep up, most of us are never going to be as tech savvy as our offspring. Whilst I would really like to feel proud of the fact that I have (almost) mastered Facebook and Pinterest, not to mention starting this blog, my 11 year old is using things I’ve never even heard of to communicate with her peers! She’s not even particularly technologically minded and is one of the few among her peers that does not yet have her own smartphone, not to mention her own account on Snapchat. She did have an old blackberry phone once, for a while, but when she got a shock with a few ill advised Google searches we decided to take it away for now! Now, before you all scold me for not letting her be like all her friends, let me explain to you why we (as a family) made that decision, and what we have done instead. As a professional working with children I have been made all too aware of the hidden dangers that access to the internet can bring. Dangers that even some of my most protective of parent friends often seem unaware of. Yes, the internet is an amazing tool. It has opened up possibilities that we could only have dreamed of as children, and in many ways has made the world a smaller, friendlier place; and yet…..

The facts

If you don’t believe it’s that bad, here’s some statistics for you; taken directly from the NSPCC website which has some amazing resources for both parents and children on this subject.

  • One in five 8 to 11 year olds and seven in ten 12 to 15 year olds has a social media profile.
  • 1 in 4 children have experienced something upsetting on a social networking site.
  • There were over 11,000 counselling sessions with young people who talked to Childline about online issues last year.
  • 1 in 3 children have been a victim of cyberbullying.
  • Almost 1 in 4 young people have come across racist or hate messages online.
  • There were over 3,700 counselling sessions with young people who talked to Childline last year about online sexual abuse.
  • In 2015, the Internet Watch Foundation identified over 68,000 URLs containing child sexual abuse images.

The truth is that we really don’t know how big the problem is because many children simply don’t tell anyone. Estimates put figures much higher.

What can we do?

I am not suggesting that we prevent our children from using this technology, or that we should somehow rewind to a simpler time where we wrote letters and used the phone (attached to the wall by something called a cord!). I see examples all the time of how the internet has made my children’s life richer, from ready access to soothing ‘go to sleep’ sounds for my baby, to my daughter watching Youtube videos of craft activities (and then doing them) or using a search engine to help her research the Ancient Greeks for school. She uses Skype to chat for hours to her beloved cousin in Spain and an old mobile phone means that she and I both feel more confident when she goes off on an ‘adventure’ with her friends. None of these things were possible when I was her age.

However, the potential harm that children can be exposed to via the internet is not a risk I am willing to take without careful thought. The emotional dangers of cyber bullying, peer pressure, inappropriate content and lack of time to themselves are bad enough, before you consider the possibilities of online grooming, abuse and exploitation made so easy by the internet (in particular by social media). I was recently told about new updates to an app popular with my daughter’s friends, that allow location tracking whenever they post! Whilst it may be tempting to simply remove this technology from our children’s lives, this is not a solution to the problem. Their future in a technological world will depend on their ability to exploit that technology to the full. We may also wish to install every parental control under the sun, then heave a sigh of relief, this is also not going to be enough on it’s own. Our children need to be taught how to protect themselves and each other, for those times when controls are not in place, or do not work. They need to be aware of what is appropriate and what is not, what to do if something is not right, and how to be a considerate and respectful user themselves.

How can we do it?

The reassuring thing is that there are loads of brilliant sites dedicated to helping you do just that. There is a wealth of information out there to help parents and children to manage these risks in a measured way, whilst still allowing your children to hold their own in the virtual world. There are tips on what to say to your child, guidance on what is appropriate at different ages, and even videos and games you can show your child. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) have put together a useful booklet for parents about social media and have even introduced a new logo for businesses, such as cafes, to use to indicate that they have ‘safe’ wifi for children to use. The NSPCC site (in collaboration with O2) gives some really handy tips for what to consider when thinking about child internet safety, and promotes their most important 4 steps to take; Talk, Explore, Agree and Manage (T.E.A.M.)

Talk about staying safe online,

Explore their online world together,

Agree rules about what’s ok and what’s not,

Manage your family’s settings and controls

…and repeat!

Some other useful websites to check out are;

thinkuknow.co.uk        nspcc.org.uk        childinternetsafety.co.uk        kidsmart.org.uk

What did we do?

After doing a lot of reading (online!) and talking, we decided to sit down as a family to create an ‘internet safety agreement’. It was important to me that my daughter did not feel ‘singled out’ so my husband and I also signed up in full. We discussed what each of us we wanted to be able to use the internet for, and what the potential dangers were. We now have in place a set of rules that we have all agreed to abide by, which ensures that we are all have a ‘reasonable’ level of protection, without being too restricted in what we can or can’t do. I am happy to share it if anyone is interested!

Part of our agreement regards what we can and cannot share online about each other. Proud parents are often the worst culprits for sharing pictures and information about their children online, but remember that with each pic you may inadvertantly be giving away key information via ‘meta-data’ about your child’s location etc. Those images will also follow your child indefinitely and at the very least may cause serious embarrassment later on. This is the baby album scenario ten million fold! The excellent site thinkuknow.co.uk refers to the idea of ‘sharenting’ and expresses concerns about ‘our child’s right to privacy’ and quotes psychologist Aric Sigman who has expressed concern about the impact on children of the eroding boundaries between private and public online: “Part of the way a child forms their identity involves having private information about themselves that remains private.” The downside of this of course is that for a short while I was regularly chastised for unthinkingly sending pictures via Whatsapp to my closest friends or even to her grandparents! She knows her rights and I have learnt my lesson! Ask yourself this; do you always seek your child’s permission before posting online?

Although my daughter does not yet have a smartphone of her own (she says she doesn’t want one yet!), she does have an old fashioned mobile that allows her to call or text us (and her friends) when she’s out and about. We have a laptop and a tablet that she can use downstairs (with our permission) and she takes full advantage of Youtube and iPlayer on the Fire TV with their own pretty good parental controls built in. All in all I think we’ve reached a pretty good compromise, for now…as she gets older I’m sure we will meet new challenges! By the time we reach this stage with my son things will have moved on even more, so who knows!

I’d love to hear about your own experiences of this problem, or any helpful tips for other parents, so please get in touch!


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