From homework to games, research projects to connecting with friends, the internet's a huge draw for children and a valuable modern-day resource. It's also a potentially dangerous place to hang out.
But while technology continues to change and evolve, the principles of keeping young people safe are the same online as they are offline. It’s all about positive parenting, says the OU’s Jenny Simpson, of the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education & Language Studies. Here are seven top tips to keep your kids safe online.
1) Positive parenting is key
You can only drive children around for so long before you have to let them take the bus alone. And the same principles apply when children and young people are online, says Jenny.
Keep an open dialogue with your children, let them experiment in a safe environment, talk about what they’re doing and make it clear they can come to you and talk to you about anything. Educate them to be confident and safe online and set sensible boundaries. The strategy of following positive parenting stands the test of time and while the technology and online platforms change, the way we parent children – fostering good lines of communication, openness, honesty and support – remain the same.
2) Foster good habits online and lead by example
As well as talking to your children about using the internet, you need to lead by example. Sit down with them, surf the net together, talk about the information you find, ask them about headlines and what they believe to be true. The more you do together, the more you’ll understand how your child makes use of the Internet. Be consistent. Use the internet in the way you’d like your children to, safely and responsibly, and set the example.
3) Factor in age and development
Children can surf the net and engage with online games from as young as three or four-years-old. At this age the internet and devices like tablets can aid development, helping children get to grips with colours, shapes, letters and numbers in an interactive way. Set parental controls so young children can’t accidentally view something they shouldn’t and sit down and surf the internet together.
Adolescence is often a time of experimentation and learning as they go, particularly in terms of relationships and identity; it’s all part of their developing into an adult. You can help by setting sensible parental controls, bookmarking regularly used sites on family devices, and talking to them about online activity. As a child enters adolescence, this presents another opportunity to have a ‘cyber discussion’ and set boundaries together.
4) Set parental controls but don’t forget to talk
There are a wealth of tools, technologies and apps out there that can help keep children safe online, but don’t make it all about restricting them. While there may be apps out there to turn the home wifi off in an evening while you’re out for dinner, remember there’s is a balanced to be reached.
Children will sometimes find alternative ways of gaining access to the internet, outside of the home. This can be happen through the use of their friends’ mobiles and in public places like your local library. Therefore, it’s important that your child is just as safe online when away from the family home as they are within it. This requires a sensitive balance between the use of apps and trusting your child.
5) Make it a family affair
Show children good ways to use the internet: bookmark regularly used ‘safe’ sites so they don’t have to search and get distracted by adverts and pop-ups. Set up joint playlists and accounts for music. Do research together and try apps out on each other. The more you use the internet as a family – and talk about it – the more confident children will feel to experiment safely.
Jenny says: “Sit down, get active online with them and show them how the internet works: talking about headlines, if they believe all that they read and how to judge what’s trustworthy. Talk how, when and with whom to share information. A basic rule of thumb is encourage your child to introduce you to the people they know in their online world, this will allow you to gauge whether the burgeoning friendship is real or not."
Agree on a screenname/username/nickname for your children to use online. Stress the importance of not giving personal details out, and never to strangers.
6) Report suspicious activity
Remember, you’re not alone. There is a wealth of information available on safer internet use and plenty of ways you and your children can report suspicious activities. If there’s anything you’re not happy with, or you’re uncomfortable about the behaviour of other people online, report it. You can report it directly to the site being used and to a variety of third-party organisations. If you want to find out more, visit a blog by leading researchers on the task of parenting for a digital future.
7) There’s no such thing as a typical victim
Research shows that those who are vulnerable offline are vulnerable online, says Jenny. And who’s to predict a moment or period of vulnerability in the life of any child? As Sonia Livingstone, a leading researcher in this field states, everything that is harmful to children can be found online and is amplified by ease of access. Talking to children and making it clear they can come to you if there’s a problem is the best way to keep them safe. You can find out more about the impact the internet has children’s lives in this video playlist: a series of short interviews with Sonia Livingstone. And there's more information on OpenLearn about safe sharing of information and cyber security.