29/12/2017 15:49 GMT | Updated 29/12/2017 15:49 GMT

The Digital Parent – New Year’s resolutions

Christmas morning is often a time reserved for the annual battery hunt. We have all been there, where every effort is made to find those crucial batteries that will transform a lump of plastic into an interactive toy capable of distracting the children for at least an hour!

What we mean by interactive however has changed significantly. I still remember getting a Star Wars Imperial AT-AT walker that with batteries would move a set of guns back and forth. Today, interactive has a very different meaning.

A recent study found that one third of parents were planning to give their children a smartphone or tablet this Christmas, providing the means to communicate with anybody anywhere, and at any time of their choosing. But how can parents ensure that their children are safe online when using their Christmas presents?

A key New Year’s resolution for any parent in this situation must be taking steps to successfully manage and monitor children’s behaviour online.

Taking control

The mobile phone is not really a phone anymore. Think about your phone, it not only makes and receives phone calls, but gives you access to social media, can start a car, check your bank balance, and whisk you away to any racing track in the world behind the wheel of any number of super cars. Giving children access to this world can prove to be incredibly addictive, and with the average age of a UK child owning a phone as seven, we have to ask whether ‘smartphone rehab’ will become the norm.

The natural response when faced with such hard facts is for parents to simply remove the device altogether. Whilst this may prove to be successful in the short-term, the challenge here is that much of children’s online behaviour is hidden from parents. According to a study that looked at the behaviour of teenagers, “over half (53 per cent) of teens admitted to wiping their browser history and 49 per cent viewed online content away from home to keep their online behaviour hidden”.

So how do you have a conversation about online behaviour when there are active attempts to hide activity? One positive is that many of these devices include a parental control capability, and there exists a multitude of third party applications that can even provide a richer level of insight into what your children do. Managing and monitoring this behaviour is important, since it provides the opportunity to have conversations about their safety when online.

According to Internet Matters, the online safety basics for parents consist of:

- Getting in control of parental controls

- Managing privacy settings on apps

- Having regular conversations

- Checking children know the rules

Whilst it can be daunting to try and find the various settings for every device, as well as remembering every password for the controls, it is essential in providing a safer experience for children when online. It is also likely to prevent a very unwelcome bill. Restricting children’s ability to make in-app purchases means you are unlikely to be presented with demands to pay thousands of pounds because the child wanted a couple of thousand gems!

All great literature is one of two stories where a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town, according to Tolstoy. Giving children a gift that lets them go online achieves both, where they can go on remarkable journeys every day, but it also allows strangers into their lives. It is therefore essential to spend the time to make these newly acquired purchases ready for your children, while also maintaining a regular dialogue about online safety. If you don’t know where to start, there are a multitude of resources available such as:

- Get Safe Online

- The UK Safer Internet Centre

- Online Safety with the NSPCC

- Thinkuknow, an education programme from the National Crime Agency’s CEOP Command

Of course these are just a small snapshot of the available resources, and there are many more that provide tutorials and advice on maintaining a safer online experience. However, I would strongly recommend a visit to Bletchley Park. Not only is there a wonderful online safety exhibition, but children can even walk in the footsteps of past codebreakers – perhaps inspiring them to become the next generation of code breakers and online threat hunters.