Since the internet first went live to the world in 1991, there is no question that it has changed the way that we live our lives. Generation Z is the first generation to have never known the world without the internet, and children are more reliant on it with every passing year. In fact, 65% of young people say that they would feel disconnected from the world, if they didn’t have access to the web.
Whilst access to the internet has moved society forwards exponentially, giving us access to all of the world’s knowledge in a split second, it has also made it easier for us to communicate from a distance.
Social networks are a little younger as a concept, with the first online blogs appearing in 1999 and social networking behemoth Facebook first appearing in 2004. However, the fact that they have been around for most, if not all, of young people’s lives means that children are much more sophisticated than their parents in the world of social networking.
All of this means that it is important that parents and guardians are aware of the dangers of the internet for children. Where a child may well be mature enough to understand and use the internet, they may not be able to cope with the discussions and ideas that they find there.
Four Online Risk Categories
The types of issues and dangers that your child could find on the internet will vary greatly depending on their age, gender, and other social factors, but most issues will come under one of four categories:
Conduct refers to danger that children could face online as the result of their own behaviour. It is natural for people to feel safe, and somewhat anonymous, when they are online, even when they are using a social networking profile with their name and picture on.
The disconnection that you feel behind a computer screen means that it can be easy to forget that there are real-world consequences for the things that you say online.
It is crucial to remind your children that everything they say online leaves a kind of digital footprint that is difficult, if not impossible, to erase.
Children must also be wary of strangers and avoid giving out personal information to people that they meet online.
There are things that can be done to make the internet safer for children, such as parental locks and antivirus software, but it is inevitable that unreliable or age-inappropriate content will occasionally slip through.
It is important to talk about how to avoid this with children, as well as discussing the consequences of accessing other inappropriate content, such as copyrighted sports broadcasts or movies where the publisher have not given their consent for it to be viewed in that fashion.
One of the downsides of social networks and an always-online culture is that bullies and abusers have more opportunities to contact children. Children should be aware of how to maintain their friend lists and update them by removing and even blocking unwanted people.
Go through your child’s privacy settings to make sure that they are difficult for strangers to approach. You could also discuss the tactics that adults could use in order to groom your child, and when to report a person to yourself or someone else in authority.
This relates to younger children especially, as they are the most likely to be unaware of the hidden costs of certain games and apps.
One of the more inappropriate forms of online marketing is that that is aimed at children, which could easily convince them to sign up for or pay for something. Make sure that family cards and accounts are kept off of shared computers and tablets, and teach children to ask first before making any online purchase.
Lessons Children Can Learn About The Internet
There are hundreds of thousands of small lessons that children will learn about the internet and social networking over time. However, the three most important lessons for any child to understand before they are allowed to browse the internet on their own are:
- Everything you post on the internet is potentially there forever. Whilst it is possible to delete things from your profile, there is no way to tell if it has been screenshotted and shared by someone else beforehand.
According to research, 36% of young people admit to sharing screenshots of other people’s photos and messages on a weekly basis. Young people need to make an informed decision before posting anything, including comments, that they wouldn’t want to follow them around for the rest of their lives.
- You should never share personal information on the internet. This includes your full name, address or the school you go to.
Children should also be aware that they shouldn’t share their passwords with anyone, and how they can recognise phishing scams designed to elicit their password from them.
- People are not always who they say they are. This can be a tough one for children to grasp, especially if the person wanting to be their friend is a school friend, teacher or someone they admire.
Teach them to ask questions before accepting friend requests, to ensure that it is the person they think it is. They could make a game of it amongst their friends and come up with a password or something similar.
Lessons Parents Should Learn About The Internet
Simply browsing the information available on the internet is a minefield for children, with most Google searches potentially just one click away from something dangerous or inappropriate. As adults we have learned how to modify the way that we browse to avoid this, but children often lack this level of perception.
This link offers a range of child-safe browsers that can help children to browse safely without the risk of stumbling across anything unsuitable. You can also utilise the parental controls offered by your internet service provider to lock down your own private connection to child-friendly sites and content.
You can find detailed information about setting up filters on the big four internet providers in the UK – BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media – here.
For the parents of children who are already in school, social media is likely to be your biggest concern. Kids want to be able to connect with their school friends and get involved in the groups and activities their peers are involved in, so it is only fair to allow them to do so – once they are old enough (most social networks suggest teens and onwards) and with a few modifications to ensure that they are safe.
Make sure that your teens know how to use their social platforms’ privacy settings so that they can limit their posts to the people that they choose. This guide offers in-depth information on locking down your profile on most of the major platforms.
Different rules and safety measures will apply for different platforms, but two of the biggest social networks are also the two with the most capacity for danger, so we will discuss these in more detail.
Twitter is a social media site where users post short messages (called ‘tweets’) publicly. The platform is notoriously difficult to police as you can’t prevent other people from contacting your child.
The site is famously populated by trolls, parody accounts and imitators who post offensive and disturbing content, or may try to convince followers to do things they otherwise would not do.
It may be useful to explain to your child what verified accounts are, and to look out for the blue tick against the name of any celebrity they are following to ensure that it really is who they say they are, and can be trusted.
Twitter has a rule that users must be at least 13, but clearly this is impossible to police as well, so educating them is the most reliable way to keep your child safe.
Teach your child how they can report or block users for offensive or upsetting posts. Twitter has in-depth guidance on reporting abusive behaviour and advice on how to block another user, which is a great catch-all for the actions of one specific person.
To be more thorough, users are able to mute specific words and phrases, which should wipe anything that includes these from their newsfeed, and helpfully also prevents posts from the sorts of people that use those terms from appearing as well.
Children must also turn on their follow requests. This will allow them to view a profile that is trying to follow them, before accepting the request, and then only allow this person to see their posts if they know and trust them.
Facebook is a little easier to monitor and control, thanks to users needing to accept friend requests in order that they can access their profiles. As with Twitter follow requests, explain to your child that they should only accept friend requests from people that they know and trust, and can clarify that this is actually the person that they think it is.
The biggest danger for Facebook accounts is Facebook Messenger, as message requests can be sent by anyone, regardless of whether or not they are friends with the child.
The best way to get around this is Messenger Kids, a free service that replaces the standard Facebook Messenger service, with parents as the gatekeepers, receiving notifications in your own Facebook account, and having the ability to change and monitor the settings from there as well.
Messenger Kids allows parents to choose the contacts that their child can communicate with, and also has a feature called Supervised Friending, which lets children choose their own contacts, but with notifications sent to you, the parent, as well.
Since the inception of the internet, parents have been worried about cyberbullying and, unfortunately, it is still a significant problem. Cyberbullying can be a lot more than just kids from school taking their in-school dramas and rivalries into the online world.
Trolling is a newer concept that involves people using an online persona to deliberately upset or aggravate internet users, and can often be done by strangers in a non-discriminatory fashion, potentially catching your child up in the process.
Some of the signs that your child is being bullied online are:
- Being withdrawn from family and friends/spending a lot of time alone
- Low self-esteem
- Not wanting anyone to look at their phone/tablet/laptop
- Making excuses to stay away from school and social events
- Changes in personality
- Losing weight or changing appearance.
The best way to deal with the threat of cyberbullying is to make it completely clear to your child that they can tell you anything, and that they will never get into trouble for telling you a problem they are having online.
On the other side of the coin, you should be prepared to be firm with punishments if you discover that your own child is bullying others online. Children are far less likely to bully others online if they know that there will be real-world consequences for their actions.
You can find out more about cyberbullying, from a site designed to be easily understandable to children, here.
Quick Tips For Internet Safety
Many parents find that an internet safety procedure they can refer to is a useful way of staying on top of these issues as their children get older and their internet usage changes.
Here are some of the things you can check on in just a few moments.
- Ask your child to show you the social media apps they are using and ask questions about what they are, how they work and what your child likes the most about them.
- Go through the various privacy setting of the apps and platforms your child is using to make sure they are locked to trusted friends only.
- Teach your child to turn off their ‘geo-location’ so that they are not unintentionally sharing their location with everyone they interact with.
- Turn off ‘tagging’ or make sure that your child is notified and has to approve tags before they are tagged in posts and images.
For more information and resources about internet safety for your children, look at: