Whose responsibility is it to keep your child safe online?

 The internet is very dangerous. Children should be banned from computers until they’re 18.

I have no idea what I clicked, but the damned computer just took me away from what I was viewing, and onto some totally random site!

Snapchat isn’t dangerous – the images are gone in an instant.

Don’t worry about Facebook. As long as they’re not on Grinder you’re fine.

All things that have been said to me recently. As a parent who knows a fair bit about social media, I thought we would have it sorted when the time comes for our children to begin their online footprint. Yet as the day looms large when Actually Daddy and I will begin the discussion with our eldest about which phone is appropriate for a 10 year old, I realise that we have a lot to learn if we are to keep up with her. And if that’s true for us, who work in online marketing and social media, how on earth is everyone else going to handle it?

The social media jungle

Vine, TunePics, Tango Text, Sportlobster, Keek – it goes on, and on, and on… New social apps pop up seemingly every day. The non-internet savvy parent could be forgiven for retiring to bed with a large whisky and hiding under a pillow, such is the task of understanding it all. But we can’t. Like no generation of parents ever before, we need to learn about the arena our children are in, so we can guide them, supervise them, prevent them from getting it wrong.

Or do we..?

Yesterday I was party to a round table discussion with AVG Technologies, the internet security business, and Childnet International, an organisation which works with children and schools to maximise both the benefits of the internet to children, and to ensure it’s safe use. AVG recently undertook some research which demonstrates that, although e-safety is covered in the vast majority of UK schools, too much of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of teachers who are not always fully confident with the internet themselves. The findings speak for themselves:

  • 50% of UK teachers think that schools should provide better training on use of the internet
  • Nearly two thirds of teachers have not been formally trained to teach internet safety
  • 38% admitted being approached by their students with concerns around internet safety issues, with cyberbullying and access to inappropriate content being the most common student concerns.

Tellingly, the vast majority of teachers feel that parents are too reliant on schools to teach their children about e-safety, with 38% feeling that parents themselves don’t know enough about how to keep their children safe online.

Are parents unwittingly putting their children at risk online?

Interestingly, one of the anecdotes relayed across the table yesterday was an example of that scary game “What can I find out about you online?” Tales unfolded of children whose photographs, schools, home addresses, and extra-curricular club times were all transparently discoverable with a simple internet search. All because of a few posts on social media, or the wrong privacy settings. It is that easy. I found nothing on my own children, but then they are still in single digits, and I’m careful with my settings and images. I also know enough to check that when my friends post about my children having fun with theirs, their privacy settings don’t put either child on the internet for all to see. But it won’t be long before those children begin digital footprints of their own, and children aren’t as cautious as their parents.

Things you should do to keep your child safe online

Although the tempting option is to run away, parents need to educate themselves before they can guide their children. A teacher acquaintance recently told me that children should be banned from social media, citing an awful mistake one of her students had made that had resulted in expulsion. My view is different. Not only will children find a way to access the things parents forbid (remember how you did that as a child?), but banning them from online sites is banning them from joining the conversation with their friends; it is restricting how they learn; and over-policing their activity will drive them further and further away from mainstream sites that you understand, in their search for a private life.

I prefer to show my children everything I can about the internet and social media while I can, while they’re young enough to care what their mum and dad think. Here are some things you can, and should do to make sure the internet is a safe and enjoyable resource for your child:

  1. Consider setting up parental controls on your home broadband service. The 4 big internet providers in the UK provide customers with free parental controls which can be easily activated at any time. You can view a short video on how to set up your parental controls here. This should prevent most of the accidental clicking, or curious searches, from landing on sites you would rather your child did not see.
  2. Check your gaming consoles for internet access settings too – many parents are unaware that their X-box is connected to the internet.
  3. Take some time to go through the settings on your own, and your child’s smartphone and tablet. Location services is one setting that I have massively controlled on mine. An instagram of your child at their school fair? You do not want to add a location to that! The UK Safer Internet Centre gives a helpful guide on how to manage settings on mobile devices, and on gaming consoles.
  4. You’ll also find guides to privacy controls on the social media sites your child is most likely to be using here. And yes, Club Penguin is a social media site.

Childnet also recommend starting the dialogue with your children before it becomes an issue. When I see an online argument get heated, or individuals in private forums making unpleasant comments about others, I tell my children. I don’t recite it word for word, obviously, but when something bothers me, I let my family know what the implications of that behaviour are. Because if the first time they hear of an online spat is when it happens to them, how will they know how to react? Here are some things you might want to ask your child, to get the conversation started:

  • Do you know what things you shouldn’t say online? Never give your real name, address, or school details, etc.
  • What would you do if you saw something online that made you frightened or uncomfortable? Always tell a trusted adult.
  • How would you feel if you saw someone being bullied online? What would you do?
  • How do you think we could use the internet productively to enjoy time as a family? Could we all learn something together online?

So, what kind of parent are you? Do you prefer to keep children away from the internet unless they’re supervised? Do you cross your fingers, leave them to it, and hope for the best? Or do you think you can embrace the online arena and guide your child through your own experiences?

AVG Technologies will release more findings from their research conducted with teachers on Thursday, at the Child Internet Safety Summit in London. I’ll keep you posted on what I learn there.