Wednesday 22 May 2019

Five expert tips to keep your kids safe online

Now that school's out for summer, the lure of the internet is larger than ever. It's a great time to remind children of online safety, writes Cliona Curley

Surf smart: Rather than taking a ‘leave them to it’ approach, engage with your children’s online lives
Surf smart: Rather than taking a ‘leave them to it’ approach, engage with your children’s online lives

With the recent heatwave, we can be forgiven for thinking that summer is already here. For most primary school children however, it really begins this week when national schools break up for the summer holidays.

And with this long-awaited break comes a change in routine. Children have more free time on their hands and less structure to their day.

Parents might also be feeling more flexible about how much time they allow their kids to spend online and occasionally even grateful for the distraction that devices can provide. The internet plays a huge part in many Irish children’s lives.   

But online safety is still paramount and this is a great time for parents to put safety on the agenda. CyberSafeIreland spoke to thousands of nine- to 13-year-olds last year and found a majority o them were already using social media or gaming online. But these are not safe environments for children to be left to fend for themselves without boundaries, support or supervision.

So where can you start as a parent this summer?

1. Have regular conversations about how they use the internet

The internet offers opportunities for children to keep in touch with friends, some of whom they may not see in person over the summer.  Make sure to have regular conversations with them about how they use the internet to connect with others and set rules around it.

They may also be more inclined to expand their circle of friends as they meet new people in summer camp or if spending more time interacting or playing games online. Remind them that you don’t know who someone is unless you have met them in real life. It’s important to apply the concept of stranger danger to their online lives. Sit down with them when they are gaming and ask who they are playing with. Review their ‘friends’ lists for any apps or games and ask how they met each person on it. Check that they are applying privacy settings to restrict who can contact them and who can see what they post online.

The more you speak to your child about what they are doing on the internet, the easier it becomes. We find that many children are incredibly resistant to talking to their parents about what they see or hear online even when it greatly upsets or worries them. Their greatest fear in life may be that a parent will ban them from a particular app or from their device. Have regular conversations and do your best to keep the channels of communication open.

Above all, tell them as often as you can that they can always come to you if they are worried about anything, and that you will figure out a solution together.

2. Beware the boredom factor

Children with a lot of time and freedom on their hands may decide now is the time to launch their career as a YouTube or star, posting videos to build up a following of loyal fans. We meet countless parents who have no idea that their young child is openly posting videos on YouTube or similar apps, and others who don’t understand why this may make their child more vulnerable to bullying and exploitation.

Children may also use this time to experiment with the latest apps. House Party is one that is gaining popularity at the moment and its main attraction seems to be getting into a group video chat with people outside of your immediate friends list. Know what apps your child is using and what risks they present.

3. Know what they are up to in other people’s houses

Children are sometimes introduced to new apps or games that are rated over 18s such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto in a friend’s house, much to the horror of their own parents.

If your children are spending time with others, it’s a good idea to have that awkward conversation around acceptable internet use with a childminder, childcare facility or their friends’ parents before they set foot out of the door.

4. Find the balance between technology and real life

Let’s face it, if we gave kids the choice, many of them would opt to spend the entire day on their devices. Yet if we find alternative fun things for them to do which involve exercise and fresh air, they may complain beforehand, but they’ll probably love every minute of it.

Compare their moods after a trip to the beach or activity park compared to an afternoon holed up indoors with their gaming consoles. Keep an eye out for changes in behaviour that may be signs that they are online too much. Set time limits and most importantly, offer alternative activities.

Help them to form healthy habits around technology use while they are young by promoting and modelling a healthy balance yourself.

You could also try a digital detox as a family. Leave the devices at home when you head off for the day or on holidays or put a ban on them during time together.

5. Don’t leave them to it

While we all have fond memories of the glorious freedom that the summer months brought us many years ago, these are different times. The internet is not your back yard, or a safe cul-de-sac in which kids can kick a ball or chase each other round till the light fades.

It is a land of opportunity and wonder for children, but they do not yet have the maturity or ‘smarts’ to deal with everything else it can bring. They will only develop these by having you on the journey with them.

Always keep a watchful eye on your child when they are online and don’t forget to ask them why they love it so much. The more engaged you are with their online lives the better so take time to explore the online world together. You may be surprised with how much fun you can have.

Cliona Curley is programme director of CyberSafeIreland, a not-for-profit organisation that delivers online safety education to primary school children and their parents. For additional resources for parents, visit;  Twitter @CyberSafeIE;

Irish Independent

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