The internet provides a myriad of benefits to adults and children. It can be a great social and learning tool; children have almost instant access to a wealth of information and can communicate with their peers around the world. Playing online games helps to develop hand-to-eye coordination, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Any household that does not have access to the internet is, in many ways, placing their children at a serious disadvantage.
Many schools set homework online, parents increasingly need to pay for school meals and trips via an online system, and even Universal Credit requires online access. It's clear that the internet is an important part of modern life and one which plays an increasingly important role in the lives of children. However, the internet is not without its risks.
How do children access the internet?
Children have embraced the new technology. According to research carried out by the Ontario Centre for Internation Governance Innovation, one in three internet users are children aged between 3 and 16. Ofcom reveals that almost 1 in 4 of 8 to 11-year-olds and 75% of 12-to-15-year-olds have an active social media profile. And, more concerningly, 25% of children have experienced a negative and upsetting encounter on a social media site.
The fact that these figures are so high shows how widely children have access to online devices.
In the UK, the majority of children have access to at least one WiFi-enabled device. Popular devices are tablets, smartphones, gaming devices, laptops and desktop PCs. Children may not own a device themselves but may regularly have access to a parent's smartphone or tablet, for example – and there is a multitude of appealing apps designed to be used by children from practically birth. Many such apps can be downloaded for free so cost is not a barrier. It's easy to understand the appeal to parents – these apps provide instant entertainment on long boring car journeys or waiting in airport departure lounges, and keep young children quiet and amused in adult-centred restaurants.
Talking to strangers
Most of these apps and websites are excellent resources for children. There are colourful well-designed apps that help children learn another language or maths skills by playing games, apps that play music, and apps that play games to suit all tastes. Many inexpensive or free apps allow online communication and, as many children have the ability to quickly install multiple apps, it can be very difficult to keep track of their online activities.
If you are new to the world of installed online apps for children, you might be surprised to learn that children do not need to actually log in to an external website to communicate with strangers and potentially come to harm. One of the greatest challenges faced by today's parents is how to monitor their children's online activity and to ensure that they stay safe online.
If you are the parent of a pre-teen, you will probably have heard of Roblox, one of the most popular gaming websites for children aged between 6-14 years. Roblox is a multi-game platform that allows users to design their own games and play a wide range of existing games with other users – one of the most popular is a virtual reality world where users can take on different personas. Children can connect with their friends or via strangers, receiving messages via online chat or gaming headsets.
Parents across the UK have recently been shocked to discover that many of their children had online friends of whom they had no knowledge. With over 30 million users across the world using the gaming platform, children are believed to be vulnerable to being targeted and groomed by predators. Police in Kent warned parents about the dangers of the game's sometimes inappropriate content – characters walking around naked and asking other players to perform sexual acts.
Parents have reported children receiving messages asking them to meet up in real life, which is very concerning. Many primary and middle schools in the UK have written to parents informing them about the risks posed by Roblox and similar platforms such as Minecraft – but the question remains – how should parents control their child's online use when the majority of a child's classmates are gamers and it is increasingly viewed as an important part of their socialisation? After all, the benefits of these games where users chat with friends – improving collaborative, communication and problem-solving skills – are valid.
Fortnite Battle Royale is another hugely popular gaming craze. It's a strategy survival game where groups of players work together to collect resources and build shelters – a bit like Minecraft. You may also notice your child doing some (quite irritating) dance moves at random moments, such as the 'Swish' – these are derived from the game.
Some parents are concerned about the violence on the survival mode, where contestants shoot each other, but the graphics are pretty unrealistic. By far the bigger problem is the fact that Fortnite is as addictive as a highly addictive drug and many parents report that the problem once kids go on it they don't want to come off it – it's basically far more exciting than real life. Its age rating is currently 12 plus but many far younger children play it.
Popular social media networks
FaceBook, YouTube, SnapChat and Instagram are all widely used by many children and young people, although there are reports that FaceBook usage is declining among under-25s. All these sites are primarily designed to appeal to adults – the minimum age for FaceBook is 13 years – and it is down to parents to try to ensure that suitable content appears on their child's news feed.
YouTube has been in the news in the last year as some parents realised that their preschoolers were becoming upset after inadvertently watching spoof Peppa Pig videos in which the cartoon pig and her family meet graphically violent endings. This demonstrates how easy it can be for any child to access inappropriate online content.
WhatsApp is an instant messaging system often used by children who have access to smartphones. The main risk posed by this app is that friendship issues and bullying can follow children home.
One of the main dangers of social media sites is the havoc that they can play with your child's mental health. It can feel as if everyone is having an amazing life filled with parties and crowds of perfect-looking friends. Filters which make everyone look unrealistically perfect can exacerbate feelings of social exclusion. Bullying and peer pressure via social media is another common problem and some parents may have little idea of how to combat this. Some children may develop unrealistic expectations of having to be perfect, which can lead to mental health issues in adolescence. It's important to talk to your child about how the images presented on social media are often very different from the reality.
How to monitor your child's social media
You may find the following tips useful:
– Don't let your child have a social media account until they are 13 – and possibly not even then unless you think they are emotionally mature enough to handle it. It's not compulsory, and your child may even be secretly relieved that you have taken the decision out of their hands. Interestingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that many teenage girls are starting to turn their backs on social media, saying that it causes too many arguments and complications.
– Talk to your children about the issues surrounding social media.
– Consider banning devices from bedrooms. If your child's online screen time is confined to the main family living area, it will be far easier to keep an eye on what's going on, and your child will hopefully be less tempted to try and bypass any settings.
– If you have a young child and have social media apps on your smartphone, use a password to protect your device and all the parental controls at your disposal. Contact your internet service provider for advice.
– Be very selective when it comes to friend requests. Make a point of checking your child's contact lists every now and then and add yourself as a friend.
– Educate your child about online safety – about the importance of not clicking on unfamiliar links and set clear guidelines and rules. Make sure it's clear that social media use is conditional upon your child respecting these rules. You're paying the bills, you make the rules!
– Teach your child not to disclose personal details online, such as their date of birth, address, home phone number etc.
Online threats from radicalism and extremism
When children make friends online, their inevitable lack of maturity means that they take things at face value and are often highly susceptible to coercion and manipulation by ill-intentioned strangers, who deliberately set out to target vulnerable youth, harnessing them to their cause. This applies to both ends of the political spectrum.
The NSPCC has issued some good clear guidelines to protect children from extremists. To summarise:
– Communicate with your child and do all you can to keep talking to your child if you suspect they may be swept up in dangerous new online friends
– Encourage your child to show you the websites they visit most frequently.
– Talk about your child's online friends and get your child to add you as a friend too – this means that you will be able to keep an eye on things
– Discuss boundaries – language, online insults, what to do when 'banter' goes too far' and check that your child knows how to report online abuse
– Consider installing parental controls on their devices – this may not work if your child is a tech-savvy teenager who is easily able to bypass them, which is why keeping the lines of communication open is so important
– Check the privacy settings of their social media accounts
– Although children view online friends as genuine friends, it is worth repeatedly pointing out that it is far easier for strangers to lie online and create completely false identities. Show them recent news reports about Russian trolls hijacking forums and successfully manipulating many people in both the UK and the USA.
– Teach your child never to overshare and to be good digital citizens. Just as you teach your child to have good table manners and to wait for the green man before crossing the road, it is good practice to teach children the dangers of sharing material online; whether this is a video of them singing on YouTube or selfies with a friend and how to conduct themselves on an online forum. These days, we understand that online material is never completely eradicated so it is unwise to ever post anything that you wouldn't want a future employer to see.
All this might seem pretty daunting and you might think that it is easier simply to ban any screen time or limit it to DVDs and TV – after all, you didn't have any screen time when you were a kid and coped just fine! However, this would be doing your kids a disservice. Children need to learn to navigate the often complex online world in the same way that they eventually need to learn to walk to the shops on their own. It's part of growing up – and social media, particularly for teenagers, should no longer be dismissed as a waste of time or a distraction. Any teenager without access to social media is hugely socially disadvantaged. Moreover, as teenagers become adults, the same social media channels will probably become their core business networking tools. It has never been more important to help your children to use the internet intelligently.
How to deal with the risk of blackmail and extortion
Teenagers need to be aware of the crimes of blackmail and extortion, especially 'sextortion' – a crime which involves a criminal adopting a fake identity, befriending victims online, coercing them into sharing sexual images and then extorting money or sexual favours from the victim.
Sometimes, minors are bullied into performing sex acts online. Cyber-blackmail is the threat of sharing damaging information with friends, family or employers.
Tips to help your child from becoming embroiled in this nightmarish situation:
– Teach them never to share any sexual images online – no matter how convincing or genuine the person might appear.
– Advise them to tell someone if they think they are being blackmailed or coerced. Tell them that it doesn't matter how embarrassed or ashamed they feel – you understand and will help.
– Collect screenshots of any incriminating evidence.
– Finally, report the crime to the police.
Online bullying and trolling
Online bullying or cyberbullying is a form of harassment that takes place via electronic media. Bullying can target an individual or a group. Here are some examples of online bullying – it is estimated that one in 4 children will have experienced one of these forms:
– Sharing pictures without the subject's permission with malicious intent – designed to humiliate or upset the victim
– Abusive comments – these can include rumours, gossip and threats
– If your child is a victim of cyberbullying, it is important that they don't respond to the perpetrator. Instead, gather as much evidence as possible – screenshots, time-stamped photos of Skype conversations or text messages – before the bully has a chance to delete them.
Once you and your child have gathered the evidence, decide whether it should be reported to the school or the police. Schools are obliged to deal with cyberbullying even if it has taken place off-site and out of school hours. Again, it's very important to take all the evidence with you as otherwise there is very little that can be done. It might also be a good idea to inform your internet or telephone service provider.
The phenomenon of trolling
What is a troll?
An internet troll is a person who deliberately disrupts a thread on an online chat forum.
There are many different types of trolling, with various degrees of severity, but they can inflict a lot of psychological damage.
Some trolls make up stories for attention and enjoy causing arguments and discord by planting comments that are intended to derail a thread. Trolls often post inflammatory and upsetting comments.
A list of different types of common or garden trolls can be found here. Trolls are notoriously hard to deal with and are often skilled at posting just below the threshold that will get them banned.
If a troll is targeting and upsetting your child, they should be advised to block the troll and report to the site administrator. If a troll is committing a crime, for example, by posting hate speech or threatening violence, the police should be involved. For trolls that are simply annoying, advice differs. You will often hear the phrase ' don't feed the troll' which means ignore the troll which thrives on attention. Learning how to deal with trolls is a life skill – after all, annoying people can be found everywhere, including the workplace.
Learning the lingo
Parents are often baffled by internet lingo and some children will take advantage of this and use unfamiliar works and abbreviations to hide their intentions from their parents. Here are some common acronyms and phrases:
Cheddar – money
NSFW – not safe for work, in other words, content that you almost certainly wouldn't want your mother seeing either
PIR – parents in the room
KFY – kiss for you
BAE – babe or before anyone else
Hooking up – nowadays this has very sexual connotations
GMOC -Get naked on camera
LMK – Let me know
LMIRL – Let's meet in real life
MSM – mainstream media
KK – OK
NIFOC – naked in front of a camera
NM – never mind
Skurt – get lost
Throw shade – look at someone in a nasty way
Tool – an insult, someone who is a nerd or a geek
WTTP – want to trade photos?
YOLO – you only live once
Teen slang evolves quickly, but there are apps you can use to decode unfamiliar acronyms, which are also frequently updated! The Urban Dictionary is also worth checking out, although it can sometimes be inaccurate. It can be hard to get the balance right – after all, older teens need some privacy when chatting with their friends. However, while they live under your roof, you are responsible for then and it is a good idea to keep an eye on their online activity from time to time.
How to monitor your child's online activity
Keeping your child safe on the internet is the priority but it can be difficult to do this without being overly invasive. Luckily there are some great tools and apps that can help you. Mobicip (Android, Windows and iOS), for example, is a straightforward piece of software that allows you to filter content, monitor web and app activities, block certain sites and more. It's designed to replace your current browser.
Other options are mSpy, Nischint, uKnowKids and WatchOver. WatchOver, in particular, is a great app if you are on a budget as it only costs £4.99. It's limited to the iOS, but it's highly recommended as it automatically takes screenshots of your child's device every 60 seconds and stores them for 48 hours so you can check them at your leisure. WatchOver also produces reports of all your child's activity, including messages and browsing data – and all this can be viewed from your phone.
Most schools in the UK and the USA often offer free e-safety courses to parents from time to time. Try and attend these if you can – they are a great way of staying up to date with the latest expert advice.
Online courses are also available:
The NSPCC course costs £30 for a 3½ hour course that you can access at your own pace. It promises to give you all the tools you need to protect your children.
Educare offers a police-approved course that costs £17.30 for approximately 2 hours. You'll learn the risks and dangers posed by online technology and how you can effectively safeguard and advise your children.
Some final safety tips to share with your children:
– Start talking about online safety at a young age – don't leave it until there's a problem.
– Practise good online behaviour – if you wouldn't say or do it face to face with a stranger, don't do it online.
– Once you've written something, it can't be deleted.
– Always use parental controls on devices for young children. Installed correctly, they will prevent your children from accessing inappropriate websites.
Children today were born in the digital age and find it almost impossible to imagine a world which wasn't online. It is the responsibility of parents and carers to raise children to be digital citizens to reach adulthood having a good understanding of how best to navigate the dangers and protect themselves from online threats and abuse.
Claire Meyer runs www.giftedgeek.co.uk – a science, tech and geek website