| 9.3°C Dublin

How to keep your child safe from online predators

Amidst the current debate about kids' digital lives, psychotherapist Stella O'Malley explains how parents can limit the risks on smartphones


Protection: Kids under 13 will soon need parental approval before they can sign up to online gaming and social media

Protection: Kids under 13 will soon need parental approval before they can sign up to online gaming and social media

Protection: Kids under 13 will soon need parental approval before they can sign up to online gaming and social media

When it comes to children, smartphones are anything but harmless devices - they hold the keys to the seediest night club, sex shop, brothel and worse that you or I have ever attended. Any child who has free access to the internet is in a significantly more dangerous position than children whose access is limited. I know children might be sensible enough to know there are certain elements on the internet they should avoid, but many parents and children disregard the depths of cunning that becomes instinctive to predatory adults.

Paedophiles used to pretend they had a vocation so they could get at children, while others became experts in the sport of their choice to obtain access to them; these days paedophiles become incredibly knowledgeable and skilled at using apps like Musical.ly, Instagram or certain Xbox games, just so they can impress their prey.

These predatory adults insinuate themselves into the conversation with their wit, knowledge and sly praise. It doesn't take long for the predator to figure out which children have unlimited, unsupervised access to their devices and these are the children they hone in on. When predators interviewed in a jail were asked what made them choose one child over another, almost all of them stated that they go for the kids who won't tell on them. Worryingly, the most common reason why children don't tell their parents about sexual solicitations online is they are afraid their internet usage will be restricted.

It was recently revealed that convicted paedophile Matthew Horan made contact with girls as young as nine through social media such as Snapchat, Instagram and Kik. It is relatively easy to exploit a young child - parents know the different ways to catch out young kids when they really want to and, just like most predators, this is what Horan did. Once he obtained inappropriate pictures from one 11-year-old girl, he blackmailed her for more content. Horan told this girl he would send these pictures to everyone she knew if she didn't do as he said. The little girl said she would kill herself; Horan continued to press her for more images.

Thankfully, with the array of parental controls available to parents, children no longer need to be left in a vulnerable position - however, even today, too many parents find the whole parental control thing a bit overwhelming and so they often bite their lips, hope for the best and look away.

But parental controls such as Net Nanny and iKydz are created to make it easy for even the most computer illiterate parents to set the controls in the household. Indeed, these controls will even shut off certain devices at prearranged times so they can prevent a lot of family fights too. Because it's not only unwanted sexual attention that is a danger to children with smartphones - anyone with a compulsive nature should also be wary of this relentlessly addictive technology.

With new laws making the digital age of consent 13, children under that age will soon need parental approval before they sign up to gaming and social media. This makes it reasonable for parents to argue with their children that smartphones aren't appropriate until they are at least 13 years old.

Do kids really need a smartphone? No, they don't and they only think they need one because they believe their friends all have one. It makes much more sense for parents to initially provide their children with a 'dumbphone' so they can feel part of things with their mates and also be contactable if they need to be.

Although 'feeling part of things' is important for children, this doesn't mean they should have unsupervised and free access to the online world. It is much safer to allow your children freedom around their physical environment than to allow them free reign on their devices. As time goes by, parents can allow the child to move on to a 'not very smart phone' - that's a phone that isn't very expensive, has a slow connection to the internet and, as a result, doesn't provide instant access. This means the child isn't so easily lured into the amazing and addictive world of instant images and videos.

A child should only be allowed to have a smartphone when they have reached a certain level of maturity. If the child is not mature enough to have a comprehensive discussion about the darker elements of the internet, then they're clearly not mature enough to have a smartphone. If, on the other hand, the parent can openly chat with the child about the insidious and sly methods predatory adults use to beguile young children to connect with them, then perhaps the child is knowledgeable and responsible enough to be able to handle a smartphone, a tablet or free access to the internet.

Parents who work in high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley tend to restrict their children's access to technology. Steve Jobs' children had limited access; the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, bans his beloved nephews from using social networks; Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, bemoans the impact of social media on children's brains.

The jury is well and truly in: we know that unlimited and unsupervised access is dangerous and unhealthy for children and it's now up to parents to act on this knowledge.

Irish Independent