With autumn fast approaching, schools have been back long enough for pupils to settle in and university students are about to embark on the hazy journey through Fresher's Week. But as they pack their bags, these days they are just as likely to fill them with connected devices - such as smartphones, tablets and laptops - as they are with pencils and notebooks.
Recently it has been revealed that the average young person carries an estimated £270 worth of gadgets as they cross campuses and playgrounds, and a fifth will have more than £400 worth of technology in their bags. This demonstrates just how reliant on technology we have become as a nation. Children use technology to gather research for projects, type essays and e-mail their teachers with questions. Many schools have implemented full-scale virtual learning environments, meaning technology is now seamlessly integrated into school life. But whilst it can help aid research and communication for education, and encourages students to understand the digital world, it can also be the root of serious online threats. With more and more students connected 24/7, the harder it gets to protect them from everything and everyone in their digital lives.
It's important to note that the growing reliance on connected devices now means that bullying is no longer confined to the playground. Today, about 17% of all pupils have been victims of cyber-bullying attacks. Although it does not involve physical violence, online bullying can often be even more intense than traditional bullying because it's anonymous and, because people are constantly connected, it is more invasive than a face-to-face interaction.
So with the new school year in full swing, here are my top tips on how to make sure your children stay safe online - no matter how many gadgets they have.
• Educate your children, it's imperative that we all learn about the dangers of the online world and talk to our children about them. This discussion should start as soon as a child picks up a device and continue as they get older and their needs change. Technology-based filters alone cannot protect them; education continues to be the most important defence a parent has against online threats. Talk to them about the potential dangers: for example, explain the importance of passwords and keeping personal information secret; and that, just as in the real world we don't talk to strangers, they shouldn't do so online either.
• Talk to them about their online experiences to ensure they know you're as involved in this aspect of their life as any other. This establishes a dialogue about online experiences that will mean that, when they use the Internet independently as they get older, they will understand the risks and will have absorbed the 'online common sense' that you've developed when they were younger. Encourage them to talk to you, and other appropriate adults, about their online experience and anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened.
• Install Internet security software on their devices and make sure all devices are covered - even their smartphones. A smartphone is essentially a mini-computer, and is just as vulnerable to cyber-attacks as a PC or laptop. A family-focused software solution is the ultimate safety net, protecting children effectively when parents are not around or from threats adults may not yet be aware of; but it is equally important that children understand how to protect themselves. This requires knowing what to look out for, how to block unwanted approaches and how to avoid distressing content.
• 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 be configured for different computer profiles, allowing you to customise the filters for different children.