With Safer Internet Day taking place this month (10 February), it's the perfect time to consider how safe our children are whilst communicating or playing with friends online...out of sight of our watchful eye.
How much do you as a parent know about cyber-bullying? Although we may try to impart the key message of 'stranger danger' and 'don't talk to strangers on the streets' to our children from an early age, now that we live in a connected world, so this needs to include a digital dimension too.
We recently carried out a series of in-depth interviews with children, aged between five and 11 years old, and their parents, to explore their experiences and perceptions of cyber-bullying. The research has revealed some interesting results, most notably that parents don't appear to be talking to their children early enough about the dangers of cyber-bullying, despite the fact that children are using online platforms and messaging services from a young age. Although devices in many family homes have parental controls on all connected devices, to block access to web sites that are deemed inappropriate, this doesn't stop the potential for friends, friends of friends, or even strangers, to slip through the net and cause upset to our children.
Children from the age of five are in fact using shared school platforms, instant messaging, social gaming and even photo-sharing sites - all places we may consider to be generally 'safe'. However, in reality this is exactly where children may be most exposed to the risk of cyber-bullying, and we might not even know about it.
When we asked children and their parents about the risks of cyber-bullying, many weren't even aware what a cyber-bully was. Some perceived them to be people who made others sad, whilst others deemed them to be a cyber-bully because they were unhappy themselves. It was also clear that parents didn't always feel comfortable discussing the subject, or even armed with the necessary knowledge to educate their children about the dangers that may face them online.
Since digital interactions have become part of the fabric of our lives, it is vital that we speak to our children from the very first moment they start using connected devices. This can enable us to tackle any issues before they become a problem. We should encourage them to talk to us about any unpleasant experiences they have online and look out for warning signs that something might be wrong. This ongoing dialogue will provide a framework for what they do online, helping to keep them safe as they get older and the way they use the Internet changes.
Here are some tips on how to start developing this safe framework.
1. Talk to your children about the potential dangers. This should start at an early age - as soon as children first start using Internet-connected devices. Get them to apply the same family/strangers filters that we encourage them to develop in the real world.
2. Encourage them to talk to you about their online experience and, in particular, anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened.
3. Set clear ground-rules about what they can and can't do online and explain why you have put them in place. You should review these as your child gets older.
4. Use parental control software to establish the framework for what's acceptable - how much time (and when) they can spend online, what content should be blocked, what types of activity should be blocked (chat rooms, forums, etc.). Parental control filters can normally be configured for different computer profiles, allowing you to customise the filters for different children.
5. Don't forget to make use of settings provided by your ISP, device manufacturer and mobile phone network provider. e.g. most phones allow you to prevent in-app purchases, so you can avoid them running up hefty bills when they play games.
6. Protect the computer using Internet security software. Good security applications don't just block malware, but let you block undesirable numbers, filter content, etc.
7. Don't forget their smartphone - these are sophisticated computers, not just phones. Most smartphones come with parental controls and security software providers may offer apps to filter out inappropriate content, senders of nuisance SMS messages, etc.