12 chats to have with your child about online safety this Christmas
If your child is getting a new device, now is the ideal time to talk about the perils of the internet, writes Cliona Curley
Once the presents are bought, the turkey is stuffed and the littlest ones have received sufficient reminders that Santa's elves are watching, it's time for parents to take a breather and look forward to a few days of downtime with the family.
This is a great time to have some conversations about online safety. Of course, if your child is getting a new device this Christmas, it's important to look at what technical settings or parental controls are available on that device, and apply them before you hand it over.
What is even more important is to set the rules around usage, start having regular conversations, and keep an eye on what your children are doing online. The more engaged you are with their digital lives, the better, and the more that you can empower them to use technology in a positive way.
Sometimes it can be hard to know where to start. What you need is not one big conversation, but to find a way to make it normal to talk about what they are doing and seeing online. Don't wait until something is wrong, take every opportunity to find out what they like and don't like about the internet, who their favourite YouTubers are, and what apps and games they like best.
Discuss what is okay and not okay to do online. Here are 12 ideas for conversations that you can have over Christmas with your child, or save for later, depending on their age and how much they are online.
1. You can always talk to me
A great start at any age is to talk about what to do if they come across anything on the internet that worries or upsets them. Even if they only have occasional access to watch a quick cartoon, explain that there are things online that are not so nice and that they should always come to you and tell you if they come across anything that worries them. As they get older, these conversations will become more specific, for example, to discuss online pornography.
A study by the NSPCC in the UK last year found that by age 11 or 12, 28pc of children had already viewed it.
If they are spending time online, at some point they will likely either seek out or accidentally come across harmful or disturbing content. They will be more likely to tell you when this happens if you are having regular conversations about it, and if your response is to listen and discuss openly, rather than removing access to an app or device.
2. Keep your personal information off the Internet
Another message that you can give at a very early stage is the importance of keeping personal information to yourself when online. Ask them to think of all the things that their friends in real life know already, such as their full name, address, school, age, birthday, email address and phone number.
There's no need to share this information online. Often people do this without thinking, by including some of it in their social media account bio or profile, or in the background of a photo. Ask your child whether they would share any of this personal information with a stranger on the street. If not, then why would they share it online?
3. Use privacy settings and don't add people you don't know in real life to your friends list
As well as encouraging the use of privacy settings, it's good to check in with your child regularly about who they have added to their friends list for different apps and games. Privacy settings restrict who can contact them or see their content to a list of friends but will not protect them if they accept friend requests from people that they don't know in real life.
Discuss who they interact with online and how we need to be especially careful when dealing with people that we don't know in real life. If they are gaming online, you may find that they have added friends that they have met while gaming to their social media friends lists.
4. Turn off location sharing
Children are often unaware that the cameras on their smartphone or tablet is embedding location information into their photos, and that social media apps are also often sharing their location. Remind them to turn off location sharing whenever possible, on each device but also for individual apps. Do a Google search with your child and learn how to turn off location sharing for individual apps on their device, especially for the camera app and any social media or messaging apps they are using.
5. Social media and messaging apps are not really free
Many of us sign up to social media and messaging apps, without considering what we are giving away. These apps are usually free, but actually there is a cost, and that is our data. When we click "yes" on the terms and conditions, or when our child does, we are often signing away rights to our information, which is gathered, shared and sold so that targeted advertising can be pushed at us.
Always use privacy settings to the maximum extent, and check within the settings of each app to see how you can prevent your data being more widely shared or used than it is.
It's really important that children grow up knowing the value of their information, and thinking about how much they are giving away online, either to the technology companies, or to random strangers who may be able to see what they are posting.
6. Think about who you are sharing with and what information is out there about you
It is a good idea to explain the difference between apps on which you are using privacy settings to share with real-life friends, and the more public apps such as YouTube where people share with the world, and often go out of their way to build up a following of strangers. If a stranger approached them on the street and asked for a video of them, they would run a mile, and yet they will publicly post videos of themselves online without hesitation.
A good rule for children on more public platforms is not to show your face and be very mindful of what information you are giving away about yourself. Remind them of the need to ensure that their digital footprint is positive, and that universities and employers do Google searches on prospective candidates. A comment that you leave on someone's page, or the photos that you post on a night out with friends, may not give the best impression of you.
7. Anyone can set up a fake profile using real photos or videos of someone else
A useful conversation to have early on, but with constant reminders as they get older, is that people are not always who they say they are online. If your child is gaming online, ask them who they are playing with. We find that children sometimes place tremendous trust in those that they play with regularly online, even if they don't know them in real life, and may be sharing lots of personal information with them, or adding them on their social media accounts.
They also often follow celebrities, such as YouTubers or footballers, on social media, and may be taken in by fake celebrity accounts. They should be very suspicious of any unsolicited attempts to add them, or of a celebrity adding them back after they have followed their page.
8. Be the same person online as well as offline
Children often talk to us about how some friends behave so differently when they are gaming, with toxic comments that they would never make in real life. An important reminder for kids is to be the same person online as offline. This goes for anything they do online. If you wouldn't say it to someone's face, don't say it at all. Ask them if they have encountered this.
Another great conversation starter is to ask whether they have seen comments online where someone is called "ugly". Talk about how they would feel if someone said it about them, or someone that they care about, and why it is never okay to make negative comments about how someone looks online or offline.
9. Find a healthy balance between technology and real life
Another conversation that you can have - and have possibly already had many times - is the importance of balance with screen time, and why they should avoid gaming or any screen time at night. Even in the holidays, sleep is hugely important. Keep consoles out of the bedrooms and try to avoid any screen time right before bed so that the brain has a chance to switch off.
If your child is on social media, another good conversation is on how over-reliant our self-worth can become on the number of "likes" and shares that we get for what we post online, and the importance of not allowing this to impact on how you feel about yourself. A great way to open these conversations is to ask them what they like and dislike about gaming or social media.
10. Greater respect for rules now will result in greater freedom later on
It's also worth talking to your child about age restrictions. Most social media apps are for over 13s. Despite this we come across huge numbers of pre-teens using these apps. Similarly, lots of very young children that we meet are playing games rated as adult only.
Children will always be in a hurry, and usually want to keep up with their peers. You need to judge what is best for your child and the right age for them to be on social media, have their own device or play a particular game. Whatever level of access that you allow them, you can motivate them to follow the rules that you set by suggesting that they will only get greater freedom later on if they have built up your trust. The CyberSafeIreland Family Agreement can be downloaded and printed from the parents' section of our website and can be a good way to start this conversation.
11. How to deal with online bullying and make sure that they do not become part of it
Ask your child if they have ever seen nasty comments online, and how they would feel if those comments were directed at them. Most of the time there is no eye contact when people are online and as a result they don't see the hurt that they are causing.
We recently published a great blog on our website with suggestions from DLR Libraries for books that help to build empathy and resilience in children. This can be a great way of starting the conversation. It's also a good idea to discuss what to do if they are bullied online: don't respond, take a screenshot, talk to a trusted adult and use blocking and reporting facilities online. Talk to them about the importance of standing up for others, and encourage them to come to you if anyone they know is having a hard time online.
12. What to do if a chat group turns nasty
If your child is using social media or messaging apps, discuss what they would do if they were in a chat group and the conversation turned nasty or inappropriate. A lot of children have told us about situations in chat groups which have made them uncomfortable but that they weren't sure what to do. In some instances, they had done the right thing and chosen to leave the group, but had been added back in repeatedly. Children will face tricky situations online and it is important they don't react in haste but know that sometimes it is better to chat with you first and that you'll figure things out together.
Cliona Curley is Programme Director of CyberSafeIreland, the Irish children's charity for online safety. For more information, and additional resources for parents, visit www.cybersafeireland.org; Twitter @CyberSafeIE; www.facebook.com/cybersafeireland