online safety: our 10 e-safety tips will help keep your child safe on the internet
2nd December 2014
The explosion in the uptake of digital technology, and the relative ease of access to the internet means that increasingly children and young people are exposed to aspects of the world which their teachers and parents never experienced at such a young age. While this is a potentially dangerous scenario for today’s generation of young people, there are preventative measures – through education and communication – that can help limit the threat of exposure to potential dangers on the internet.
understanding and appreciating the online digital landscape
Children and young people like to go on to the internet and connect with existing friends, and to make new ones. They like to browse the web to find information, live chat with each other, and play online games.
So what are children and young people doing online? Simply put, online activity can be broken down into the following activities: searching, sharing, socialising, commenting; live chatting and playing.
Typically children may search for information or content via search engines, including Google, Yahoo, Internet Explorer and Bing; they may share images and watch videos through websites or mobile apps, including Pinterest, Vine, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat; they often spend time on social media networking platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and Anomo; visit forums and message boards and write or reply to messages; play online games, either alone or with others, via websites, mobile apps or game consoles; Live chat with friends and people they don’t know personally via online game networks, BBM (Blackberry Messenger), games consoles, webcams, social media networks and multi-participation apps, such WhatsApp.
From a Utopian perspective, when children and young people go online they have the opportunity to learn new things, find assistance with homework, express their creatively, and connect and interact with friends and family members. Unfortunately we do not live in a utopian society, and as such children and young people online are subject to many potential risks. It’s vital for parents and teachers to know and understand these risks, and to take preventative measures – such as openly talking about them – to ensure that children are kept as safe as possible online.
so what are these online safety risks?
The internet is a digital representation of the diversity and variety found in the ‘real’ world. Going on to the internet means gaining access to the world, and while there is much that is good, it cannot be ignored that there is much that is not. Exposure to inappropriate content, including pornography, images of child abuse, potentially dangerous advice (such as the encouragement of eating disorders, self-harm or suicide) and extreme violence and hate-based themes (including racism, religious extremism, homophobia and gender prejudice) – needs to be managed by teachers and parents, so that their children are not affected or influenced at such an impressionable age.
There’s also the threat of accessing websites that intentionally contain illegal content, and other websites that are legal but which may publish unregulated advice and content that is only meant to be accessed by adults. There is also the possibility that children and young people may stumble across inappropriate content by accident, or that they may go looking for it because (at such a developmentally sensitive period in their lives) they are curious.
Naivety and a lack of worldly experience can also result in children being seduced by the promise of ‘free’ services, prizes or special offers, without fully appreciating the consequences. Internet-enabled gaming – particularly through smartphone apps – is notorious for (whether deliberately or not) encouraging children to make in-app purchases without them realising, leaving parents to deal with the financial fallout.
While some websites and online-gaming services employ age restriction protocols to try and make sure that children and young people do not gain access to inappropriate content, the reality is that many under-eighteens circumvent these safeguards by simply providing inaccurate information about their age. Ignoring age restrictions is easily done, and without the watchful eye of a parent or teacher can go un-noticed and undiscovered, until it’s far too late.
Did you know that most social network websites have a minimum age restriction of at least thirteen years old? Despite this, the sign-up process is such that there’s no way of enforcing this limitation. It’s essential that parents and teachers address this issue with children, acknowledging that – just as with film classifications and parental advisory notifications for music – age restrictions exist to protect children and young people from content which they are not developmentally mature enough to engage with. Communication is vital, trust needs to be engendered, and clear boundaries and limitations need to be established. It’s all too easy for adults to succumb to pressure from children to join inappropriate websites, particularly if made to feel guilty about exclusion and being left behind by their peers.
talking to strangers is a threat to online safety
Before the internet, when children and young people spent more of their time outdoors, a commonly asked question of parents was “Do you know where your child is?” Today, with so many youngsters spending time in their bedrooms and accessing the online world, the question has changed to “Do you know who your child is talking to?”
The practice of ‘friending’ or communicating with people youngsters do not know in person is a serious threat to their online safety. The traditional advice “Don’t talk to strangers” is increasingly being ignored by youngsters in the online world. A false sense of security has been fostered through the absence of physical presence.
Unfortunately, with so many people intentionally misrepresenting themselves online, children and young people are vulnerable to the possibility of online bullying (known as cyberbullying), child grooming (the deliberate emotional manipulation of a young person by an adult for the specific purpose of sexual exploitation, both for themselves or on behalf of others) and as a consequence sexual abuse, and inappropriately disclosing personal information (such as their home address, contact telephone number or school location).
In 2012 a Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) survey found that the number of ‘friends’ that 8-11 year olds questioned didn’t actually know outside of the online world amassed to 12%. Similarly, the publication of the 2013 Ofcom research document Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report revealed that for ages 12-15 years the figure was a staggering 29%. With the continued proliferation of mobile devices, and their increasingly earlier uptake by youngsters, this trend is set to continue.
Against this backdrop, how can teachers and parents ensure their children’s online safety?
Our 10 e-safety tips to help parents and teachers improve their children’s online safety
communication: Talk to your child early and often about e-safety
Just like any other life lesson, clear and simple communication is key with young children, and the earlier you begin this process the better. Keep your conversations short but regular, rather than long and occasional. This will make it much easier for young children to digest, and means that online safety has a better chance of being accepted as ‘normal’ and something that they won’t feel sensitive about. Encourage young children to remember the lessons you teach, and clearly and positively acknowledge their ability to successfully remember them.
enquiry: Take an interest in what your child does online
Young children enjoy the attention of their parents and teachers, no matter what activity they undertake. This is also true of their participation in the online world. Begin by asking questions such as “Which websites do you like spending time on?”, “What are your favourite things to do on these websites?”, “Which are the websites you would recommend to your friends?”, “What are your favourite online games?”, and “Who do you play these games with?”
Actively enquire about the specifics of what they do and have achieved online, remembering to demonstrate positive reinforcement and encouragement. Create an environment of trust which encourages your child to voluntarily share their online experiences.
demonstration: Let your child show you how to participate in their online world
As with gaining attention and approval, young children enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate their skills and experiences to teachers and parents. With the amount of time they spend online (the previously cited 2013 Ofcom publication reports an average of 12 hours a week) the chances are your child may well know more than you do about the online world. This is to your advantage, since it will enable you to better understand exactly what they know and how they do it, and as a consequence determine what controls need to be put in place for their protection, if appropriate.
Assistance: Ask your child to help you in the online environment
What better way of discovering how your child thinks and behaves online than asking them to help you with online safety sensitive tasks? Activities such as creating a social media profile, setting up an email account, and how to ‘friend’ someone will provide you with the insight you need to determine whether they are adhering to online safety good practice. If your child needs to do better, it presents you with the opportunity to discuss your concerns in an environment they can best relate to. Either way, allowing them to assist you online provides the chance to ask questions such as “Where did you learn to do this?”, “What would you do if you were worried about anything?”, and “Why did you choose that option?”
intelligence: Learn who your child talks to online
With so many people intentionally misrepresenting themselves online, it’s vital to keep tabs on who your child communicates with in the digital world. Unfortunately, children do not perceive people they meet on the internet as strangers, rather they see them unreservedly as online friends. For this reason it is vital for parents to keep track of who their child is talking to.
As with Enquiry and Assistance, taking an interest in a child’s friends can reveal if they are vulnerable to exploitation. Questions such as “Who do you know that has the most online friends?”, “How can (that person) know so many people?”, and “How do you choose who to become friends with online?” will help provide you with an insight into your child’s attitude to online safety, and whether their behaviour needs to be addressed.
If appropriate, explain to your child just how easy it is for people to lie about themselves online – for example about their age – because they have never met them in person. If necessary, consider creating a false profile yourself and ‘friending’ your child. This will allow you to demonstrate to them just how easy it is to be deceived online.
Some parents may wish to consider openly ‘friending’ their child on social media channels, for the purpose of monitoring their timeline and online activities. This however may prove more difficult as your child gets older. An alternative to this is to encourage your child to ‘friend’ a trusted adult, such as a ‘cool’ aunt or uncle, or godfather or godmother, who can keep you apprised of any concerns.
limitations: If appropriate, set boundaries and agree rules
Setting internet usage rules and boundaries can only be determined by each individual child’s age, experience and attitude to online safety. Whatever they may be it is vital to explain why they are in place. If your child does not understand their importance and relevance they are likely to ignore them and attempt to conceal their online activities from you.
Rules to consider include determining the amount of time your child is allowed to spend online (daily, weekly); the time of day that they are permitted to go online (after finishing their homework, or only at the weekend); where in the home they are allowed to go online (it may be inappropriate to allow them access to the internet in the privacy of their bedroom, so you may wish to confiscate mobile devices at bedtime or deny their usage out of plain sight); restrict the websites that they are permitted to visit, or the activities they can allowed to participate in; whether or not they are allowed to upload and share photographs and videos; and showing respect for others online, and not posting anything or making comments that they would not say to someone if face-to-face.
If you have a child that enjoys playing games online be sure to check the age rating of any and all games before they are given permission to play; insist that your child informs you of who they’re playing with, and if it is someone they do not know in person that they limit any information they share with them to a pre-agreed amount only; and put a limit on the time they spend on the internet by negotiating the amount your child spends playing online games, so as to reduce the chance of potential addiction.
appropriateness: Ensure your child only views content that reflects their age
At the end of the day, parents know their child best. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to determining what is appropriate for your child to view. However, to ensure your child is not exposed to inappropriate content, parents should check and confirm that the websites, social media networks and online games that they’re accessing are suitable for them. By following the previous online safety tips, parents should be able to obtain a good understanding of which websites and online activities their children actively participate in. Parents can also monitor browser histories.
If your child’s access to the internet is through a shared device (such as a family desktop or laptop computer, or tablet) you should ensure that the homepage of your browser of choice (the first page that appears when you open an internet window) is appropriately set for your child to see.
Creating individual user profiles on your digital device allows parents to set specific limitations and restrictions that are only applied to the designated profile user. Parental controls can also help you to limit what your child sees online, and privacy controls can limit the exposure of personal information, ensuring that it stays private. In the digital classroom, many teachers retain control of what their children and young people can view by utilising classroom management software blocking, filtering and monitoring features.
control: Use parental controls to filter, restrict, monitor and report
With older children, particularly teenagers, parents may encounter more resistance to perceived interference and intrusion. It may become necessary to implement measures which are motivated by a desire to hinder a child’s wilfulness to resist rules and boundaries. Parental controls are readily available to filter and restrict access to content, as are computer usage and monitoring software features. Parents can even review online activity and generate reports.
While this may seem draconian to some, when trust has broken down between parent and child it is a measure which will ensure adults retain control of internet access and usage. There are a variety of ways parental controls can be employed to ensure your child’s online safety, which can be found throughout the different tools necessary to access the internet.
First off, the device you access the internet with will have parental controls. Desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones and games consoles all have settings to activate parental controls.
Next, your connection to the internet will provide parental controls. All the leading the ISPs – Internet Service Providers – like Sky, Virgin Media, BT, PlusNet, EE and TalkTalk provide a suite of parental controls as standard, allowing parents to restrict internet access and filter content. Recent high profile intervention by prime minster David Cameron concerning child online safety – particularly centred on pornography and child abuse – has resulted in ISP parental controls becoming a major talking point amongst UK parents, and (at the time) thrusting child online safety to the top of the news agenda.
Finally, there is specialist software designed to filter, restrict and monitor internet usage. These are very popular and are becoming more prevalent throughout all aspects of online usage, not just the home. Many businesses employ network management software that includes internet usage controls, and increasingly – with the rapid expansion of the digital classroom – more and more primary and secondary schools, further education and higher education establishments employ class management software, such as Impero Education Pro.
Classroom monitoring features are now perceived by children and young people with access to the digital classroom as the norm, so it’s not a giant leap for youngsters to accept this level of control in the home (if your child spends time online at school it is probable that their access is already subject to filtering, restrictions and monitoring). The adage “You get what you pay for” is especially true of computer software, and while some parents may opt for readily available ’free’ parental control software, equally true is the adage “Caveat Emptor” – “Let the buyer beware.”
One important thing to remember is that parental controls only apply to devices, services and software that you directly have access to. They do not apply outside of this limitation, such as when your child accesses the internet via public Wi-Fi, or when at a friend’s home, or in the digital classroom. If the preceding online safety tips have been followed, and trust established, it is advisable for parents to talk with their child about how and where they use public Wi-Fi, and what they are and are not allowed to do online outside of the family home. You should also consider liaising directly with other parents about setting strict boundaries regarding what your child can and cannot access online while within their home.
privacy: Protect your child’s personal information
The protection of personal information and online privacy is currently THE hot topic concerning internet usage, not just for children but adults too. It seems that everyone is vulnerable to attacks on their privacy, whether it be by businesses, governments or criminals. While it is vital that parent’s take the lead in establishing control of their child’s privacy settings, the truth is that many adults fail to adequately protect themselves, or even understand the motivations and consequences of private data collection.
By default most online privacy settings will be set-up to favour the service provider. High profile examples like Facebook and Google are run on business models which depend on extracting as much personal user data as possible, for the purpose of assisting advertisers when targeting customers. It’s how they generate revenue. They can do this because buried deep in the multitude of terms and conditions users accept (typically without reading) prior to service usage are permissions to do so. However, privacy settings for these and all other applications and software can be customised to limit – and even prevent – the unwanted gathering of personal data.
Just as typical are businesses that gather your personal contact details – such as name, gender, age, email address, telephone number and home address – as the price for receiving any given ‘free’ service, product, competition or online access. Many of these businesses gather this information not just for their own marketing activities but for the specific purpose of re-selling your personal data to third parties.
If you’ve ever signed up for anything online (and provided your email address) the chances are (if you check your email inbox) you’ll have noticed that you suddenly received a flurry of unsolicited messages from businesses trying to sell to you. It’s not a coincidence. There are many, many businesses that exist solely to gather and re-sell your personal data, and they have absolutely no concerns regarding whom they sell it too.
These, and many other data gathering activities, leave children vulnerable to invasions of privacy. In all likelihood they may not conceive the notion that they are being tempted by offers and prizes purely for the purpose of data gathering. It is important for parents to discuss this issue with their child as early as possible, so as to indoctrinate them with the knowledge necessary to protect their privacy.
Just as important to consider is the use of real information online, particularly on social media channels such as Facebook. As outlined above in Intelligence, there are many online predators and trolls (people who deliberately write comments online designed to upset the recipient) who, by knowing the true identity of a person, can escalate matters into the ‘real’ world.
Parents should consider instructing their child not to use their true personal information in these settings, instead utilising a false name, age and location, and to not publish any information that could allow someone to escalate contact with their child in the real world, such as telephone number, email address, home address and school name/location. Parents may even wish to insist on censoring the type of photos their child posts or shares of themselves online.
reporting: Instilling confidence in your child to deal with online safety concerns
Parents know that children will often conceal problems from them which originate in all aspects of their lives. It’s no different when issues arise from experiences on the internet. Unfortunately, the consequences of concealing problems arising from negative online experiences, such as cyberbullying, threatening behaviour, child grooming, unregulated advice and debt accumulation can have tragic consequences. Many parents will recall high profile occurrences of child sell harming and suicide brought on by a failure in online safety, as reported in the mainstream media.
While there is no single fix that works for all families – every child/parent relationship is different – there are safeguards and advice that parents can instil in their child that can minimise the potential consequences of negative online experiences.
Many online applications, particularly social media platforms, have reporting functions that allow users to communicate their concerns and grievances to service providers. These are by no means perfect, but they do allow users to raise concerns and flag content that may be either personally or generally upsetting.
Parents should always make it clear to their child that they should come to them first (or a pre-agreed, trusted adult, such as a teacher or relative) if they encounter a problem online, but that in the event they feel they cannot do so be made aware of the reporting tools available online.