Being a parent is stressful enough, without having to worry about the online safety of your children.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of unwholesome sights (and sites) in cyberspace.
Even excluding the murky temptations of the Deep Web, the surface internet is packed with things children shouldn’t be exposed to.
A survey earlier this year indicated parents had three main worries – cyber-bullying, stranger danger and the proliferation of adult content.
In an age when even fridges are able to go online, what can parents do to maintain online safety among younger family members?
Technology has the solutions
The internet brings out the best and worst in people, but it also offers solutions to most of its own challenges.
Online safety tools wouldn’t be necessary if everyone played nicely. But since they don’t, these are our tips for keeping youngsters away from trouble – and out of harm’s way:
- Engage your broadband provider’s family controls. These have different names; BT calls its service Parental Controls, whereas Sky has a Broadband Shield. These free filters control what can be viewed online, blocking specific websites or types of content. Some deactivate at night, while most block explicit search results and images.
- Turn off location sharing on mobile devices. Issues like cyber-bullying may be exacerbated if a child’s location is revealed every time they go online or post something. And if you don’t know how to do something on a mobile device, learn! Don’t be one of those parents outsmarted by their kids when it comes to modern technology.
- Ensure age restrictions are adhered to. Most social media apps are aimed at kids of 13 and older – Facebook Messenger, Reddit, Snapchat and even Pokémon Go. Yet the NSPCC reports over half of 12-year-olds have a social media presence. If your child isn’t old enough, don’t allow them to install these apps – even if the software providers don’t object.
- Minimise unsupervised internet access. You can’t constantly look over a kid’s shoulder, but tell them their browsing history will occasionally be checked. Ensure mobile devices need a PIN code before installing apps. Check Google histories on web-enabled devices for age-appropriate results, and position desktop computers somewhere public in the house.
- Befriend your kids online. Few things are less cool than being followed on social media by mum and dad, but from a parent’s perspective, this generates a far clearer picture of online activities. If strangers start befriending them or bombarding them with messages, you might be able to nip a potentially troublesome situation in the bud.
- Teach them about the importance of passwords and antivirus software. Outline the reasons we need online passwords, and why it’s inadvisable to use the same one across every account. Teach kids best practice, like writing down internet passwords in a safe offline location. Show them how to run malware scans, and what to do if an issue is flagged.
- Disable automatic WiFi logons. This might sound strange, but if children have to ask you for a network password whenever they want to go online, you’re able to keep tabs on their activities. And to prevent them memorising the password, change it periodically – it’s good housekeeping anyway.
It’s also incumbent on parents to explain issues such as fake profiles and identity theft, so youngsters are aware of the dangers.
Don’t be melodramatic, but explain how it’s easy to get caught up in unpleasant things. Tell children they’re not missing out on everything – just the bad stuff.
Ask them what their friends do online, show them ways to report anything they’re not happy about, and ensure they feel comfortable telling you if something ugly crops up.
Kids love to feel grown-up, so explain that a hacker is effectively an online burglar, and tell them why it’s a bad idea to give sensitive information to a “friend” online.
Helping children to identify potential risks and understand their consequences ensures they know where to turn for help or advice.
Tell them it’s always better to ask your opinion if they’re unsure about anything, rather than making their own decisions.
If you’re still unsure what children should be allowed to do online, the NSPCC has created a useful social media resource called Net-Aware.
The Government has also published a guide to online safety among youngsters.
Finally, Internet Matters has published an excellent series of guides for children of different ages – 0-5, 6-10, 11-13 and 14 upwards.