Saturday 10 December 2016

15 ways to keep children safe online

In this digital age, empowering your child to be safe online is imperative, writes Alex Cooney and Cliona Curley. You'll need to understand the internet environment and its dangers, set clear boundaries and be part of the process until they have the maturity to go it alone on the internet

Published 08/11/2016 | 02:30

Internet safety - you can take steps to protect your child
Internet safety - you can take steps to protect your child
Supervise your child's online activity

The Internet provides unprecedented opportunities for children to communicate, create, learn and develop new skills. Of course we want our children to benefit from all that technology can offer, but this must be accomplished without putting themselves or others at risk. As parents, we also need to be aware of dark side of the internet which can include loss of privacy, exposure to harmful content, cyberbullying, and at the extreme end of the scale, online grooming and extortion.

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Protecting your child in this digital age may seem like an insurmountable challenge but try to keep it in perspective: would you let your five-year-old walk to school alone? In reality, you'll probably walk alongside them for years, have multiple conversations about stranger danger and the rules of the road before eventually letting them loose, with clear instructions on the route to take (and probably still under your watchful eye).

Not sure where to begin when it comes to safeguarding your children? Here are 15 steps that will go a long way towards stronger, smarter and safer kids online.

1 Start the Conversation Now

The single most important thing that you can do is to make it normal to talk about what they're seeing and doing online: what YouTubers they like, mean comments or behaviour that they have seen and how they would cope with it. Just as in the 'real' world, talk to them about what is okay and not okay to do online. Encourage them to look after their friends. Check out our website at www.cybersafeireland.org for more suggestions for conversation starters.

2 Do your Research

As with any other aspect of parenting, you need to understand the environment in which your child is operating, and any associated risks. If your child wants to set up a social media account or to play a specific game, check out websites such as www.webwise.ie, www.childnet.com or www.commonsensemedia.org for guidance on risks, minimum age, privacy settings etc.

While PEGI (age) ratings on games and apps are a useful indication of whether a game is age appropriate, be aware that some games with a PEGI rating of 3 may still contain chatrooms where your child could be conversing with complete strangers. Ideally, try apps and games yourself, or check them out on YouTube.

3 Set Clear Boundaries

If you agree that your child can use a particular app or game, make sure that you are involved in the process. Download and set it up together with maximum privacy settings. Discuss any concerns that you may have about that game or app and agree the ground rules. For example, that they can't accept friend requests from people they don't know in real life.

4 Supervise your Child's Online Activity

A study by the National Anti-Bullying Centre in 2015 found that less than 20pc of parents are supervising their child's online activity. Children may not have the maturity to make smart decisions or the resilience to deal with online nastiness or harmful content. If they are using devices, it should be under your watchful eye. Agree how you will monitor what they are doing and saying online, eg. checking their messages every night, or reviewing their friends list on a weekly basis. Continue to have the conversations with them so that as they get older, you can find the right balance between keeping them safe and respecting their privacy.

5 Look out for Signs of Cyberbullying

One advantage of having those constant conversations with your child, and supervising their online activity, is that it makes it much easier to spot any changes in their behaviour. These changes may indicate other issues, but if they suddenly seem nervous around their device or are angry or depressed after being online, cyberbullying could be the reason.

6 Watch out for Signs that they are Cyberbullying

Quickly switching screens when you are around, avoiding discussions about what they are doing online or using multiple accounts or different names on internet profiles may indicate a problem. Whatever you suspect is going on, wait for a good moment to discuss calmly and without pre-judgement

7 Use Privacy and Safety Settings on Apps and Games

Most apps and games have settings to control who can see your content or who can contact you. These are rarely set by default when you first install a social media app. If you allow your child to use an app or game, ensure that you research the privacy settings. Download the app or game with your child and get them to show you how smart they are by working out together how to turn on privacy settings.

8 Know who has Access to Your Child

We often hear about the dangers of strangers having contact with children on social media, but consider also who can access your child when they're gaming online. Make it a rule to review your child's friend lists on a regular basis. Not sure how to do this? Ask your child to show you and go through it together. Be suspicious of anyone they say is a "friend of a friend" if they haven't met that person in real life.

9 Don't Share Location unnecessarily

The location of where you have taken a photo is often stored by smartphones or tablets. Do a search on how to turn off geolocation settings for the camera on your child's device (and your own). Social media and messaging apps also love to share your location. Look at your device or app privacy settings to turn this off. Most new phones will have this setting turned on as the default position. You'll need to leave on for apps like 'Find my iPhone' and, of course, Pokemon Go!

10 Look into Parental Controls on Devices

Check the 'Restrictions' in the iPad and iPhone Settings App to enforce age ratings on downloads, switch off apps etc. You can do something similar on Android tablets by setting up a restricted profile. There are parental-control options for PCs and laptops running the Windows operating system and it's also worth checking out any safety features that are available from your broadband or phone provider.

11 Explore App Restrictions

Did you know that you can filter out (reported) adult content on Google searches using Google Safesearch? You can do the same on YouTube by enabling 'Restricted Mode'. There is also a separate app called YouTube Kids which allows you much greater control over what younger kids watch, including a timer to limit time spent on the app.

12 Where Possible, Create Device Free Zones and Times

Back in the day, you could keep the PC in the kitchen/living area. This is harder to do in the age of portable devices. It's still a good idea to ban technology from the bedroom, especially at night. Ensure that online gaming is under your watchful eye as well as within earshot. Extra vigilance is required when children are using headsets. Keeping devices away from the dinner table and out of the car can be challenging, but is worth it just for the conversations that you will have when your children eventually accept that this rule is here to stay.

13 Model the Behaviour Yourself

Do as I do, not just as I say. Modelling behaviour is always more effective. That means that you think about what you're posting before it goes online, and that you don't even consider bringing your devices to the table.

14 Let them know you are Always There for Them

Children tell us that they won't talk to their parents when something goes wrong online in case they get into trouble for something they have said or done. Their greatest fear is that a parent will take the technology away. Actually removing devices or apps is often a bad idea for parents to do, as this could drive online activity underground. It would also like result in them never coming to you again when something goes wrong. Talk them as often as possible about what to do when things go wrong, and make it clear that no matter what, you are there for them.

15 Don't Panic

Being a parent is never easy but you don't need to be an expert to do this. Start the conversation now, explore what apps and games they are using and get stuck in yourself. You'll soon realise why kids love the internet so much.

* Alex Cooney and Cliona Curley are founders of cybersafe Ireland. For more advice and tips please visit cybersafeireland.org

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