The issue of children's online safety has been in the news again, with a report from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) suggesting there is a new and 'alarming trend' of grooming and actual abuse taking place on the internet.
As with any story that tells us our children may not be safe, there is the the temptation to get a bit hysterical about it – but the fact is, the web, social networking and all manner of online communications are here to stay, they will be a very prominent part of our children's future lives, and there is plenty we can do to keep our kids protected.
Life online and life offline are not so different!
Undoubtedly, the most important thing to do to help keep our children safe online is to talk to them, and to teach them the dos and don'ts of cyberspace from an early age.
Internet usage is so much a part of life (now, and increasingly so) that the ground rules for it should not be an aside, or an afterthought once we've got good manners and going to bed on time sorted.
Think about it: we teach our toddlers to play nicely, and not to be unkind, we teach the importance of stranger danger, and we tell children they must not take things that don't belong to them. When they start school, we tell them if they are being bullied, they must tell us or a teacher. We set ground rules about the time they're allowed to spend watching TV, and what they are and are not allowed to watch, and so on and so on.
All these rules can and should be applied internet usage routinely – the internet is NOT a place where children have free rein, so come up with some commandments:
• Do not use the internet to bully others
• If you are being bullied, tell me immediately
• Do not trust strangers, how ever friendly they seem
• If anyone says anything to you online which makes you feel uncomfortable, log off straight away and tell me
• Don't ever arrange to meet someone you have met on the internet, and if someone suggests this to you, tell us
• Do not download content illegally
• Don't abuse our trust by going to websites you know you shouldn't
• Don't ever share personal information about yourself online
• Online activity ceases at X o'clock.
Mutual trust, respect and openness is paramount, especially as children get older.
The rules might need to change as time goes on – while the advice for younger children to only have online access on a family computer, in a shared space, is very sensible, older teens doing homework on a laptop might want it in their room. Judge the situation accordingly. And don't forget, there's also the internet equivalent of 'lock and key' with parental controls (more below).
Don't be intimidated by cyber space and social networking
The statistics seem to change all the time but there are, apparently, more than 32.5 million Facebook users in the UK. It would suggest that many parents are already well clued up on the inner workings of social media – however, less than 20% of those users are over the age of 45, so currently age is almost certainly a marker for how well social networking is used and understood.
If you've never used any sort of social networking site before, and your child wants to, see to it that you know what it's all about because that will arm you with the knowledge you need to keep an eye on things and also offer your child advice when it's required.
You might find that there are local adult training courses available to you, to teach you how it all works. Or, the BBC offers online courses which explain the basics of social networking.
A friend allowed her daughter to join Facebook on the day she turned 13 (and 13 is the minimum age allowed) on the proviso that they had to be 'friends'. The girl's activity is visible to her mum, and mum promises not to do anything embarrassing – it's worked for them very well!
These days, with tablets, games consoles and smart phones, the internet can be accessed anywhere – but did you know that just about every device you can buy will come with in-built parental controls?
It seems that not many parents are using them – research by Ofcom has shown that less than a third of parents whose children have internet access on their phone have enabled internet safety filters.
Learn how to use them (they're pretty simple and either pin or password protected) and get them set up before handing over the device to your child. For your computer, you can purchase special parental control software online. The control set ups will allow you to restrict access to certain websites, apps and content. You can also limit the amount of online time available, and see the websites your children have been visiting, or what they have been searching for.
You might feel funny about 'snooping' – but perhaps you won't have to. Just knowing that mum and dad COULD see what they've been been looking at online might well be enough to prevent a child from visiting sites they shouldn't.
There's no need for us to feel we have no control over our children's cyber existences. We can allow them the freedom they desire if we have equipped them with the knowledge they need to stay safe and to make good judgements. Think U Know is a great website for parents to visit with children, of all ages, for well targeted advice about staying safe.
How do you keep your child safe? Any tips that worked for you?