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Parents offer advice on protecting children online

By BullGuard on 01 Aug, 2014

While the online world has radically altered the way children learn and interact with their peers, it has also brought anxiety for parents about how best to protect their charges while still allowing them the freedom to explore and develop.

At BullGuard we canvassed the opinions of some of our customers (parents) about the approaches they use. The response was revealing and educational.

Interestingly, it also cast light on the scale of the predatory threat. At one level it’s easy to dismiss the potential threats as scaremongering but at another the threat is real and serious.

IT skilled predators

One of our customers, Lyn Baxter, spent a long time working as a child protection social worker and was involved in many cases in which children were groomed or bullied over the internet, often by adults pretending to be children.

She says: “... potential abusers can be very organised and IT skilled. They visit and stalk websites where they know children will be communicating with each other... Paedophiles are excellent communicators with children and know how to engage them and build trust.” 

This sends a shiver down the spine but it also illustrates how real threats are. In fact, the internet presents predators with far more opportunities than the real world and they can also cloak their identity and intent with anonymity.

Open education

Allan Winans, takes an open and educational approach to safeguarding his children: “We didn’t just rely on our own knowledge, we made sure we read articles on all these topics [about online abuse] and printed out the articles to give to our children to read.”

Two other parents, Josien Peelen and Alec Barton, recommend really simple steps: “We always tell our children to check if Bullguard is running. If so, they are allowed to go ahead without danger of visiting the wrong website...” and, “We have drilled in to them if you think it is risky, forget it and this has worked. Having said this, BullGuard has most certainly been at the forefront of keeping the nasties out.”

These approaches are simple and effective in that they reinforce the message to children that they need to be aware of online safety.

A nasty shock

Caroline Light received a shock when she discovered an inappropriate discussion taking place with her 14 year old son on MySpace. Her response was direct. She contacted the local police who dealt with the matter, spoke to her son about dealing with these situations and then monitored her younger children more closely.

Simon Bartlet also favours a direct approach. He says: “As a parent I know what can be found on the internet... come on, we all do.  But I explained to my kids the trust I place in them when they are on a piece of tech equipment is the same trust I place on them when they walk to school, or play outside with friends and go to the shops.  

Trust the children

“They understand that a stranger who approaches them on the street should be treated with caution. There’s no need to run away screaming but they need to be aware that the stranger cannot do certain things. The stranger is not permitted to touch them, ask them personal questions or details about where they live or go to school. I extended this teaching to the internet.”

Trusting children was a consistent theme among parents but only when the children were educated to the dangers. Parents take different approaches to education with nearly all talking about the potential pitfalls. Monitoring children online also ranked highly but in an open manner, which reinforced to the children the need for safety.  And it seems once children get the message and understand the dangers, they actually carry out the monitoring themselves, with the help of their parents, which surely must be the ideal of all parents.

Watching out for teenagers online

We’re all familiar with the grunting, monosyllabic teenager. It’s a stereotype. And like all caricatures there is a smidgeon of truth buried somewhere in there. But being a teenager is possibly one of the most difficult and uncomfortable times in anyone’s life. Ask any psychologist and they’ll tell you about the dramatic changes adolescents go though, from the search for identity and independence to changes in the brain that make teenagers seek out new experiences and sometimes engage in risk-taking behaviour.

It’s part of growing up and it’s also nature at work, invisibly shaping changes designed to drive the young from their nests and into the world. Within the context of these changes the internet and social media hubs are a ready-made refuge for teenagers. They can interact with their peers, shape identities, develop beliefs and act with a freedom that is typically not available in an adult world. It’s a sanctuary of sorts and in the digital age the sense of freedom it engenders is important for growth and development.

Protection and independence

But clearly as parents the protective instinct remains and it always will even when the kids have developed into fully grown adults. This is nature too. But as any parent knows instinctively the teenage landscape is like a minefield and predators are drawn to developing youngsters with all the force of iron to magnets.  And in the online world where identities are easily masked and motives easily hidden the sense of threat is not only magnified, it’s real and more prolific.

Parental control software helps parents get a sense of what their children are doing online. It’s a very useful tool that helps keep the kids safe from inappropriate content but also acts as a filter to identify and halt potential predators. However, as children get older we understand that tools like this must be used in conjunction with an approach that respects adolescent development and the need for increasing degrees of autonomy.

Obviously such approaches are a fusion of art, skill and understanding. There’s nothing prescriptive, there is no road map, which is part of the challenge of parenting. However, there are some broad guidelines that can help parents to get their teenage children to open up about negative online experiences. And when teenagers do this, you know as a parent that you’re doing your job but tempered with detachment and an acknowledgment that your teenagers need their own space.

Softly, softly

One of the golden rules is not to accuse, judge or make assumptions. Even adults recoil at people who adopt this approach and ever so sensitive teenagers even more. If you don’t pre-judge teenage online activity they’re more likely to open up and explain what they do. Sometimes teenagers may be affected by their online experiences, especially if they’re being bullied. If you suspect something is wrong, don’t assume that you know what it is. Rather express your concern in a neutral way by saying something like: “You don’t seem like your usual self, is there anything going on that I can help you with?” You can also say that you will help them through any difficulties.

No lecturing

Another point to keep in mind is that teenagers hate being lectured too or inundated with ‘solutions.’ A approach that takes account of this is help them think for themselves so they can make good decisions.  For example, you can talk about the damage that bullying does or the skewed perceptions that pornography creates or the dangers of sexting. You can ask them about how it makes them feel and how it will affect them.

In short, you help them arrive at their own conclusions and also help them think critically about negative online activities that their friends may be involved in and the likely outcome of those activities. 

Dealing with the challenges

It’s also important to help them feel that they can deal with the challenges thrown up by negative online experiences. This also gives them confidence in other areas of their lives. If they’re being bullied for example, you can listen to their fears, and reassure them it’s not their fault and help build up their confidence by reassuring them that you'll face the problem together.

Clearly, there may be times when you need to make a firm stand, for example, if you find them swooping on deep web websites and scooping up bundles of illegal drugs or engaging in other forms of nefarious activity.  However, by taking an approach that involves respect, listening and support they’ll be much more ready to listen to you if you do have to put your foot down.