Parents can help protect their children online, writes Colm Fitzpatrick
A few decades ago the most useful safety advice given to children was that when out and about you should never speak to strangers. This message was often summed up by the useful adage ‘stranger danger’, which stressed that all strangers can be potentially dangerous. This guidance has stood the test of time given that now with an online social world at our fingertips, encountering strangers is no longer that strange.
The advantages of the internet and social media apps can hardly be overstated as means to communicate and educate nowadays, with countless young people now being part of large network where they can share ideas, create, and learn more about the world around them. However, the internet also has a much darker side which preys on the vulnerability of others. Online games where strangers challenge children to commit tasks which escalate to suicide, websites that allow adults to anonymously show sexually explicit images and videos, and apps where random people can connect with your child at the touch of a button are all part and parcel of this global cybernetic realm.
With the internet becoming a part of children’s everyday lives, the best way to help them safely explore it is to teach the do’s and don’ts of web use, and also implement security measures to make sure that nothing untoward is happening on your child’s device.
Here are five pieces of advice for parents on how to best prepare your child for using the internet.
- One of the first steps that can be taken in protecting your child from online abuse is asking them about any negative experiences that have had on social media.
A child is much more likely to discuss any issues they’ve had with you if you appear genuinely receptive to what they have to say. Some children may feel hesitant to speak to you about issues they might perceive as embarrassing such as bullying or sexting (sending and receiving sexual text messages), but if you use these words and ask them about it, a child will feel more comfortable in speaking to you. According to Teresa Devlin, CEO of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland, there must be a “dual process of the parent and child speaking with each other”, with parents needing to constantly reassure and support their children.
One way to do this, Teresa explains, is to say to your child in some shape or form: “This is about the reality of the dangers you might face and I want you to know that I’m here and we can talk about that.” Creating a trusting and safe environment where your child can speak is one important way to become aware of any illicit online activity that they may have experienced.
- Although some have suggested prohibiting children from using the internet outright until they reach a certain age, this approach may not be the most effective way to stop online abuse. On the surface this might sound counter-intuitive, but as Teresa says, prohibition from the internet can mean that children will be more inclined to use it.
She believes that it is “much better encouraging children to use the internet safely”, rather than creating the mentality that it is a “monster”. In fact, in an age when children have access to the internet in school and at their friends’ houses, it is almost impossible to stop them from accessing it.
A more fruitful approach is to educate children on how to use the internet safely, but not to deprive them off it altogether.
- A more secure and practical approach to reduce online abuse is to set up parental protection controls. As Teresa says, “safeguards should be put in place before children start using the internet” meaning that children don’t trip into the “dangerous side” of the web.
Setting up screening mechanisms or barriers may sound daunting, especially for parents not proficient with technology, but the hardest part of putting safeguards in place is overcoming this mindset. There are countless websites that offer information on how to set up parental controls such as CyberSafeIreland, which explains how to apply them to your child’s device, ranging from Google and YouTube to Sky and Netflix.
The most important safeguarding mechanism is to have conversations with your child regularly about what social media apps they are using and on the odd occasion review their friends list. CyberSafe’s annual 2017 report revealed that 22% of children surveyed were in online contact with strangers. Most of these (14%) reported that they were in contact at least once a week and 6% of this number every day. By checking that no strange behaviour is present on your child’s device, you can be more confident that nothing illicit is happening.
This must be done with nuance however, as appearing too tyrannical or untrusting of your child may cause more harm than good.
- Setting up rules and boundaries for your child’s internet use at home is another efficient way to reduce a child’s dependency on the internet. Rules are an important aspect of raising a child properly as it gives them routine and teaches them to behave in an appropriate manner.
Using the internet also falls into this bracket.
Too much screen time means that a child may become totally engrossed in a virtual world, resulting in it becoming their sole focus. Letting your child use social media devices behind closed doors late into the night can also be dangerous, as online predators are more likely to strike up a conversation in the evenings when they have finished work.
To fight against this, some parents have suggested that bedrooms should become ‘no device zones’, creating tech-free times during the day, and having no screen time an hour before bedtime. In order to show support for your children in this endeavour, it is probably best to lead by example and also follow these rules.
- It is also vital that you speak with your child about their own online behaviour and important factors that they should consider. We all have an ‘internet footprint’ explains Teresa, and so children should be careful about posting statuses and the type of language that they use.
They should never give out any personal details about themselves to untrustworthy sites or people and this includes passwords. The privacy settings on their social media accounts should be as high as possible so that as little information about them can be garnered from online abusers.
Children should also be extremely careful about posting up videos and pictures online as they can be viewed globally and even downloaded. One way to get this message across simply is to tell your child never to write or post anything that they would be embarrassed or ashamed of you seeing.
With 16% of children spending in access of at least four hours online a day, making sure that they’re safe should be a top priority. New apps and games come out regularly so keeping up to date about new releases means that you will be more aware of the experiences your child may be subjected to online. Parents are vital in this safeguarding process but Teresa says that the Church community should also be playing a role.
She recognises that there is “a fear in the Church about safety because of the history of abuse”, but says Church members should be given the tools to run a safeguarding Sunday program for children, and priests should also give talks about this topical problem.
Although not exhaustive, these pieces of advice when implemented will certainly make an impact on the safety of your child’s internet use.