Advice for Parents
Protecting our children from danger in their day to day life is always a balancing act. How much freedom is enough for them to grow into independent and confident adults, while still keeping them safe. Keeping children safe online is an ever larger part of that worry.
As much as we might like to wrap them up in cotton wool and keep them home, as they grow we have to loosen the apron strings and allow them to make their own experiences. Yes, they may come to harm, but that is part of growing up and all we can do is try to limit the harm. Just as you did when they were toddlers – you allowed them to crawl and walk, while ensuring that they could not fall downstairs or stick their fingers into sockets.
Child protection has become much more difficult since the advent of the internet. While we have reasonable control over who they come into contact with in real life (RL), once they start using the internet their horizons broaden immensely.
It is important to start talking to your child about this as soon as they start to use the internet. Remember that even if you do not allow them to do so at home, they may well be going online elsewhere, at school or at a friends house. You can have your PC locked down with all sorts of programmes that do not allow sexual, violent or disturbing content, but their friend’s parents may not have done the same.
Another important point is that our children are used to using the computer, from a young age, and before you know they may well be more internet and computer literate than you are. It is not unusual for teenage hackers to get around the parental controls. There is only so much that you can do.
Finally, while I would always advise on the usage of parental controls (I use the one offered by my virus protection software), I never rely on any software to filter out all nasties.
So what can we do to protect our children? First install Parental Controls – you can see a list of those websites recommended by Mumsnet users here . We have a separate account for our children’s usage, with parental controls, google safe search. Doing this means that you don’t have to remember to switch parental controls on and off when your children use the PC or Mac. Here is how to do this. You can protect each account with a password so that they cannot go onto your account instead of their own.
Our children have their own email addresses, and a copy of the email goes to my account so that I can ensure that they are not being contacted by anyone we don’t know in RL. It goes without saying that you need good spam filter on your email account. Make sure the children that they should not open mails unless they personally know the sender.
The best control and protection is not the software, it is informing your child of the dangers in an age-appropriate manner, and being visible. Where is your computer set up? It should be somewhere you can observe the children. This does not mean you need to sit next to them – give them a bit of space and privacy – but you should be able to glance at the screen in passing and check that they are not doing anything dodgy.
Talk to your child about the dangers of the internet, in an age appropriate manner. For all age groups, make house rules and stick to them. How long they are allowed to use the internet, what websites they can look at, internet safety rules. Agree beforehand what the sanctions will be if they break these rules.
For younger children, this means telling them that they are only allowed to use the computer to look at certain websites – Cbeebies or Playhouse Disney for example. Show your children how to access these websites (add them to their bookmarks) and ensure that they know not to go else where. This phase lasts till the children are about 6 years old and their school friends tell them of other fantastic websites. And they learn the wonder of Google.
The next age group is the pre-teens, who often come home from school telling of a new website that a friend has discovered. Have a look to see if you can find websites that you like, together with the kids. Make a list of ones that they enjoy using and spend an evening having a good look around. Lots of pre-teens love Moshimonsters, which I allow with certain provisions. One thing that I do not like about Moshimonsters is that children can add people as “friends”, without the parents being aware of it, and these friends can communicate with your child. If you are going to allow it then do chose a website such as Moshimonsters where the site is moderated. If you allow this, then see the tips below for internet safety in chatrooms.
Children of this age can be frightened easily so you have to tread carefully. A neutrally worded comment, “You know how in school there are children who are nice to you and children who are not so nice? Some children you don’t get on well with, and you want to avoid. It is the same on the internet. So you have to learn to avoid people who are not so nice. There are also adults who put things on the internet that are not nice, and we don’t want you seeing things like that. It is important for you to only go on the internet when an adult is nearby and only on websites that we agree on”.
Once the children get slightly older, it gets less easy to stop them using certain websites, so all you can do is make sure they know how to use them sensibly and safely. These rules are obviously also for the younger age group, if you allow them to use chat rooms.
Don’t use your real name on internet fora, use a pseudonym. Some Social Media sites don’t allow this, so ensure that your kids are aware of the dangers that using their own name brings i.e. when you write something online, it is there forever.
Choose a neutral picture for your avatar (the little picture next to your name), such as a cartoon rather than a picture of yourself, or use one that shows just one eye, or a part of your face. Don’t use one when you are wearing your school uniform, as it makes you identifiable.
The person you are chatting to might be another 14 year teenager. He might not be. Don’t give out information that would identify yourself, ie. name, address, phone number, picture of home or school.
If the person wants to chat to you off board (ie. private mail facility on the website) only do this if you want to. Think of it like being at a party and someone wants to take you into a separate room to chat to you. Would you feel comfortable with that? If not, say no. If they put pressure on you to do this, then leave the conversation.
If you put a photo online, remember that once it is out there, you cannot take it back. You have no control over what that person does with it. Do the school assembly test. Would you be mortified if that photo was beamed onto the wall at school assembly? Then don’t put it online.
Do not give out your email address to anyone you do not know in RL.
If anyone you are chatting to online makes you feel uncomfortable, talk to an adult. Or check out the website Thinkuknow.co.uk
Know how to block people if they make you feel uncomfortable, or if they try bully you into doing something that you don’t want to do.
With many children now owning mobile phones and gaming consoles that enable them to go online, it can be incredibly easy for them to see content that you would rather they didn’t. Most mobile phone networks offer a parental control service, but this must be activated, it is not automatically installed.
Again, this is only going to stop your child accessing dodgy websites on his or her mobile. It does not prevent them looking at disturbing images or films that another child has on their device. You can speak to the parents of your child’s friends, but there will always be someone at school whose parents are less concerned (or simply less informed).
Finally, with all this talk of nasty content, and potential dangers, remember that the internet is not all bad. The internet is a fantastic tool for communication, learning and having a lot of fun.
CEOP – Child Exploitation and Online Protection – portal to report online content that exploits or endangers children
Thinkuknow – CEOP’s online information portal for children and adults with information about child safety online
Childline – You can phone, email or chat to an advisor if something is worrying you. For children and their parents.
Internet Watch Foundation – portal to report online content