From bullying to pornography: How to keep your children safe online

How do we grant our children access to all the good the internet offers while keeping them safe? As Susie Mesure discovers, we are having to learn parenting anew

A child zooms down a pavement on a scooter, heading straight for a busy road. A mother, her shouts ignored, is sprinting to catch up. And just in time he stops dead, his hand reaching up for the button on the pedestrian crossing.

Scary stuff, but teaching kids to stop at busy roads is basic parenting. Now think back to the last time you blearily handed a young child your iPad at 6am, or left them playing on the CBeebies website while you knocked up dinner. Or, for those with teenagers, thought nothing of leaving them all evening to ping messages back and forth on BBM, Facebook, Snapchat, ask.fm or Omegle (no, me neither). How many children, the internet at their fingertips, even know to look out for a red man, albeit a virtual one?

Because yes, the web is a wondrous thing but that isn't to excuse its dark side. Or to think that your children can hide from its worst excesses – at least, not indefinitely. Cyber- bullying, grooming and pornography are all real concerns, as is the pressure girls feel under to exploit their bodies by sharing intimate images. The head-in-the-sand approach won't work when it comes to dealing with the unsavoury, which is why there is a growing discussion about how best to protect children as they head into the online wilderness.

First, just remember: "The online world is like another high street for kids and you need to be in it and parenting in it." So says Vicki Shotbolt, who heads the Parent Zone, a broad-church family-support group that recently launched the UK's first courses about how to parent in the digital age.

Catch them young and you'll be surprised what children will share with you: that's the straight-forward advice of anyone working to help keep kids safe online. No, you'll never stop children typing "sex" into Google pretty much as soon as they can spell it; nor will you prevent teenage girls from asking the internet how they can be thinner, prettier, better liked. But you can get them to talk to you about it, which is often more than half the battle.

True, the headlines can look grim, and the stories are all too often tragic: an inquest last month heard how Tallulah Wilson threw herself in front of a train after her self-harm Tumblr blog was taken down – at the request of her mother. But experts believe that is no reason to try to impose blanket bans on the internet, either in the form of content filters or, as the Government's mouthpiece on the subject, Conservative MP Claire Perry, would have it, getting parents to switch off routers and confiscate devices.

"The internet has become the new battleground in tensions between children and parents," says Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at London School of Economics, and director of the EU Kids Online Network. "Most of the issues are about parenting rather than the internet."

Bans and filters just won't cut it when kids can visit a mate's house or use a 3G network to check out sites that parents would rather imagine don't exist. Take Pornhub, a pornographic video-sharing website that Shotbolt – who has a 14-year-old son, so presumably knows what she's talking about – says is something of a secondary-school rite of passage. She recalls a recent survey by the snappily acronymed Atvod (the Authority for Television on Demand): "They couldn't find a single 14-year-old who hadn't seen hardcore pornography so had to keep asking younger children. That's a real worry, as that's where young people are getting their sex education from."

The images that a younger child might stumble upon online are likely to be a lot less vivid, but it's impossible to "un-see" something, points out Siobhan Freegard, who runs the Netmums internet forum. "We had a mum saying her daughter had seen a picture of someone drowning puppies, which just popped up in her Facebook feed under "cute puppies"; the child cried herself to sleep for weeks afterwards."

And consider that from helping Captain Barnacles and Tweak rescue sea creatures on the CBeebies' Octonauts game, kids are but one click away from the BBC News homepage, complete with god-knows-what mind-scarring main image. A search for "cats" on YouTube, meanwhile, could easily pull up a video of someone doing something very nasty to a furry friend. I, for one, hadn't even clocked that I should have activated the website's basic safety feature – the "safety mode" tab at the bottom of the screen – before my son searched for the "dinosaur song" that his Reception Class teacher had been playing. (And that's without categorising myself among the "14 per cent of parents whose three- and four-year-olds know more about the internet than they do" – a startling stat from a 2013 Ofcom report into how children and parents use media.)

Facebook has made it easier to report upsetting comments, or people on a fishing expedition to befriend underage strangers (Rex Features) Facebook has made it easier to report upsetting comments, or people on a fishing expedition to befriend underage strangers (Rex Features)
A recent Netmums survey, which quizzed 825 children aged seven to 16 and 1,127 parents, found that more than half (57 per cent) of all kids had stumbled on inappropriate content, with one in 11 looking for it deliberately.

Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility in IT at Plymouth University, recounts what had upset primary-school children online according to a recent survey he'd done. "They said 'people being mean' and 'animal videos'; those RSPCA adverts are quite harrowing. Some said 'a project on the Victorians'." The Victorians? "They'd searched for Prince Albert and if you do an unfiltered image search, you get pictures of genital piercing."

That, he adds, explains why "filtering is never going to be a complete solution." That said, "Filtering is the best technology can offer, which is why kids need to be talking to you about what they have seen. They should minimise whatever has upset them and tell an adult. Hopefully the adult is informed enough not to go hysterical."

Shotbolt thinks the trouble is partly that, "Parents are not very confident how to parent in digital spaces. Most parents learn from their parents or their peers, but in this context you can't because no one has done it before." And being over-vigilant isn't the answer. "Research shows parents don't know where the line is between stifling kids' creativity with technology and keeping them safe," she adds. She is adamant that it's never too young to have an "age-appropriate" conversation. "Don't forget a little-y won't have any idea what the internet is. You need to micro-manage."

If this sounds daunting, remember there are parallels with television: just as you should k interact with a child about what they've been watching, so you should talk to them about what games they're playing. "Some games are great; some are not," Professor Livingstone says. "It's hard to offer rules in the abstract, but are they making them use their imagination or showing them unpleasant images – which can be girls with slim waists and long, blonde hair."

Other dangers are commercial: apps that require in-game purchases to advance. "Parents need to share the activity for a bit. They need to know what's on offer." (Note to self: play the "Bloons Super Monkey" app that's become my five-year-old son's firm favourite if he's allowed a stint on one of the classroom iPads.)

Virtual "stranger danger" is less of a worry for young kids than you might imagine because most interactive sites where you play against other people, such as Moshi Monsters, are heavily moderated. Facebook has made it easier to report upsetting comments, or people on a fishing expedition to befriend underage strangers. Freegard's own daughter was nearly caught out by someone who'd randomly stumbled on the same name as one of her daughter's classmates. But, as the Netmums co-founder recalls, even though they sussed out the ruse – thanks to her daughter talking to her mother about her suspicions – "literally that very same evening, she comes running down the stairs saying, 'Justin Bieber wants to be my friend!'"

Which isn't to denigrate Facebook; it's sometimes a case of better-the-devil-you- know. Professor Livingstone points out that, "As kids move away from Facebook, they're finding lots of sites that are really dodgy." (Once I'd Googled it, I learnt that Omegle's selling point is that users "can talk to strangers", anonymously. The mind boggles.)

The crunch point is invariably the move to secondary school. That's when celebrity online becomes everything, when validation hinges on 100 "likes". "The internet ramps up young people's extreme behaviour and risk-taking, which is part and parcel of being a young person," Shotbolt says. That's because, as she puts it, "With the internet, you don't get a consensus of opinion. Nobody is confident that they're doing the right thing."

Check list for every age group

Under-fives

* Start setting some boundaries. It's never too early.

* Keep devices such as mobiles out of reach and set passwords/PINs that they don't know.

*  Check the age ratings or descriptions on apps, games and online films before letting your kids play or watch them. Play them yourself.

* Explain your technology boundaries to grandparents/ babysitters.

*  Remember that public Wi-Fi (such as in cafés) might not have Parental Controls set.

* Set your homepage to something appropriate, such as CBeebies.

* Try not to use technology as a virtual babysitter too often.

Six-to-nines

* Create a user account on the family computer with appropriate Parental Controls and tools such as Google SafeSearch.

* Agree a list of websites they're allowed to visit and the kind of personal information they shouldn't reveal online (such as their school or home address).

* Decide time limits for the internet and playing on games consoles.

* Bear in mind what older siblings might be showing them online.

* Talk to other parents and don't be pressured by young children into letting them use certain technologies if you don't think they're old enough.

*  Familiarise yourself with age ratings on games, online TV, films and apps to check that your child is accessing only age-appropriate content.

10-to-13s

* Make sure you've set some tech boundaries before they get their first mobile or games console.

* Talk to them about what they post and share online: written comments, photos and videos are all part of their digital footprint, and could live on the web forever.

* Discuss the kind of things they see online, even, and especially, porn.

* Stop your children from signing up for a Facebook profile or YouTube page before they're 13, which is the minimum age.

* Remind them that they shouldn't do anything online that they wouldn't do face to face.

13-plus

* Don't think it's too late to reinforce boundaries or teach your child anything about technology.

* Talk to them about how they might be exploring issues related to their health, wellbeing and body image online.

* Discuss how they behave towards others and what they post online, and don't shy away from tricky chats about porn, bullying and sexting.

* Let your son or daughter control their own budget for things such as apps and music but be strict about how much they can spend.

* Discuss things such as downloading and plagiarism so they know what's legal.

* Adjust the settings on Parental Controls in line with your son or daughter's maturity.

* Accept that eventually their life is their own and they need a degree of privacy to live it. Vow to stop rummaging through their Facebook page.

Source: 'Digital Parenting' magazine, published by Vodafone

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