Digital Dangers: How To Keep Your Children Safe Online

27/08/2017 17:37 BST | Updated 27/08/2017 17:37 BST
Inti St Clair via Getty Images

School's out for summer and, in typical British fashion, the weather's been pretty lousy.

For me, the prospect of a six-week summer break from school would have meant cricket in the park, football in the street or, during periods of inclement weather, stuck inside with only two TV channels for entertainment.

While I have no doubt children will be spending lots of time outdoors this summer, they have plenty more to divert them in times of boredom than I ever did - including the internet.

Of course it's true that children spend time online in term time but the holidays present an opportunity, unhindered by lessons, to disappear into a YouTube click hole or spend hours sharing selfies on Snapchat.

Ofcom revealed last year how the internet has overtaken television as the top media pastime for the UK's children so it's absolutely vital we give them the tools and knowledge to keep themselves safe.

While the internet has opened up a whole world of possibility and there is undoubtedly some wonderful content available for children, we shouldn't kid ourselves that the online world is any safer than real life.

Dangers lurk on the internet just as they do in the real world and at Barnardo's we know first-hand how children are particularly at risk of online grooming and sexual exploitation.

A survey of our specialist child sexual exploitation services last year showed how nearly two thirds of children groomed online who were referred to us were sexually exploited after meeting the attacker they met online.

Children's internet use has reached record highs, with five-15 year-olds spending around 15 hours each week online and now 90% of households in Great Britain have internet access.

And the rise of smartphone and tablet use means that children's relationships are now increasingly conducted online, often unchaperoned and hidden from view.

Children can be exposed to more adult content and inappropriate behaviour, which might lead to a lack of understanding about healthy relationships and can ultimately leave children vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse.

Children are very susceptible to being groomed online and then sexually abused offline. Feeling safe in their bedrooms at home, they make friends very quickly with people they meet on social media or through gaming and don't regard them as strangers, or see the risks they might pose.

What starts as an innocent and harmless chat can very quickly develop into a dangerous relationship with devastating consequences.

And we're not talking about stereotypical vulnerable victims either; anyone's child with access to mobile technology can be groomed and exploited.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd's recent announcement of an extra £20 million to combat online grooming was a welcome one.

Funding and resources will help to keep children safe and protect them from the devastating damage that our experts see first-hand as they support vulnerable children and help them to rebuild their shattered lives.

This money will not only assist in catching more offenders, but may also build a better picture of the scale of the problem and prevent youngsters at risk from being sexually exploited and abused.

But parents need to be part of the solution too. Research by Barnardo's revealed almost half of young people living at home said their parents only know some of what they do online.

Recently the Children's Commissioner Anne Longfield recommended parents should regulate their children's social media and internet use in the same way as sugary or fatty foods and drinks and not allow them to binge.

It's crucial parents make their children aware of the dangers online and explain how they can keep themselves safe.

As a father of four these dangers concern me and as parents we must all try to better understand the mobile technology our children use and what they are using it for.

Parents need to talk to their children about relationships and help them to understand the implications of sending explicit material by explaining that nothing they want kept private should be sent by text message or posted online.

Parents can equip themselves with the knowledge to start having these conversations with their children by reading Barnardo's Be Safe Guide. They might be different from the stranger danger talks and 'home by tea time' decrees my parents issued when I was young but the world has moved on since then.