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Safer Internet Day

All parents want to protect their children, and the experts explain how they can do that online as well as in real life

Computers and the internet are part of the very fabric of modern children's lives.

So much so, that a recent survey by internet security company AVG found that more young children know how to play a computer game than swim or ride a bike.

But just like the basic skills of cycling and swimming, kids who use the internet need to learn to do it properly.

And that means doing it safely - which is what Safer Internet Day (February 8) is all about.

The day is internationally co-ordinated by Insafe, a European network of Safer Internet Centres, which has adopted 'Virtual Lives' as the day's theme.

As well as encouraging children and their parents to look at how they present themselves in online spaces ranging from social networking sites to role-playing games, the theme aims to highlight the fact that most people now spend some time on the internet.

Insafe's project co-ordinator Janice Richardson points out that horror stories in the media about the dangers of the internet for children, such as paedophiles grooming them, and cyberbullying, may make parents frightened of their children using the internet.

"There are huge opportunities online, but very often if parents think there are risks, they think it's too dangerous and they ban it.

"Our objective is to get parents and children talking about online technology, going online together, and making this a very open part of life."

Richardson stresses that the same behavioural rules apply on the internet as apply in real life.

"We're normally worried if a child does something excessively and neglects other activities, and it's exactly the same with excessive use of online games," she says.

"Speaking to strangers, and giving information out about ourselves - awareness of these dangers isn't new."

A key part of this year's Safer Internet Day is the launch of the booklet Play and Learn: Being Online, which is an activity book for four- to eight-year-olds.

It features age-related online activities, and information and advice including how to keep safe, who to share information with, bullying, etc.

The booklet targets a crucial age range, as figures show 75pc of children go online well before the age of seven.

As well as teaching children about the internet, many parents want computers themselves to help restrict children's access to certain content.

Most basic computer programs include built-in parental safety controls in the system preferences, where parents can state which content they deem inappropriate, and the computer will block it.

Richardson says such built-in controls are useful, but fairly elementary, and suggests the best way for a parent to control their child's internet use is to put the names of websites they're happy for their child to browse in a favourites list with their child's name on.

"That way, a child can very safely go online, I would say from the age of about four, because it's already set up for them."

She says parents should regularly refresh the list, pointing out: "If a child has positive activities to do, they won't look for negative activities."

Parents should also set computer rules, she says, including how long it can be used for, and when.

And it should be drummed into children not to give out personal information, such as their name, address, phone number and email address, online.

Richardson insists that children are safe on the computer if they strictly follow the no personal information rule.

Perhaps the most important internet safety measure of all, however, is a trusting relationship between parent and child.

"There are risks with a lot of things in real life, and it's the same online," says Richardson.

"If your child trusts you and shares his internet experiences with you, there's nothing for parents to be frightened of."

The day's slogan of 'Internet: it's more than a game, it's your life', reflects the fact that recent research found 83% of children use computer games.

A leaflet for parents will be available on the Safer Internet website on the day, and Will Gardner, chief executive of Childnet International, explains: "The message is that games are fun, and they can be educational, but internet safety applies to them.

"Issues such as the risks of talking to strangers or cyberbullying also apply to games."

He stresses that a key message to older children is that there can be offline consequences for online actions.

"We increasingly hear about older children being worried about their online reputations. They need to look after that.

"Always be respectful of others, be careful what you say online, and always think before you post."

He says children should keep any evidence of cyberbullying, talk to someone about it, and officially report it if necessary.

As well as built-in parental controls, software can be bought for extra protection for young computer users.

But Gardner adds: "These tools can help, but they can't replace education and parental involvement to make sure children know how to navigate this environment safely."

He adds: "The internet is fantastic, but there are potential risks. Let's make sure we're all using it safely and responsibly."

:: For internet safety information, visit www.saferinternet.org.uk

:: For a copy of the Play and Learn booklet, email info-insafe@eun.org

PA Media