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Protecting your children from the dangers online

With huge numbers of children expected to get gadgets connected to the internet for Christmas, the experts give advice about keeping them safe online

By Lisa Salmon

Today's tech-savvy kids are more likely to put an internet-enabled gadget on top of their Christmas wish-list than a traditional toy.

But while such gadgets might keep children entertained for longer than ordinary toys, the downside is they come with risks parents need to be prepared for.

However, parents often just leave their kids to surf the net without any guidance or control, and that can be dangerous - particularly when you bear in mind that a recent Ofcom report found children's internet use had reached record highs, with youngsters aged between five and 15 years spending around 15 hours a week online - overtaking time spent watching TV for the first time.

Even pre-schoolers, aged three to four, are spending more than eight hours a week online, up an hour and a half from six hours 48 minutes in the previous year.

So much time spent online means keeping children safe while they surf is paramount, warn experts.

"Many children will receive internet-enabled devices, including tablets, games consoles and smartphones this Christmas, so it's important parents are proactive about taking steps to keep them safe online," says Julia Fossi, head of Child Online Safety at the NSPCC.

But with a resource as vast and complex as the internet, how does a parent who may have little or no idea how to handle technology, tackle online safety?

Parental controls are a great starting point, says Fossi, who explains that such controls can be used to block upsetting or harmful content, control in-app purchases or manage how long children spend online.

"It may feel daunting, but you don't need to be a technical expert," she promises.

"Parental controls are easy to set up and help is available to get started."

Parents who have no idea where to start, can ring the NSPCC and O2 helpline for advice (0808 800 5002).

It sounds simple, but just talking to your child about what they do online and how they can stay safe is another crucial part of keeping them safe.

"Alongside setting parental controls, the best way to keep your child safe online is to talk to them about online safety and give them the tools and support they need to stay safe," says Fossi.

Having a family discussion to set boundaries and agree what's appropriate is the best way to start, and Fossi advises: "Explore the internet together and have open and regular chats with your children about their digital lives to help you understand the risks they face."

When talking to children about online safety, it's important to stress the need to keep personal information safe, warn Douglas and Estelle Lloyd, co-founders of Azoomee, a digital entertainment app for children to watch, play and learn safely online.

"Kids love to take photos and share them with their friends, and while we know as adults how to adjust privacy settings and monitor what we share online, children don't always understand the consequences," says Douglas.

"To tackle this problem, explain to your child how quickly content can be shared across the web and how sometimes it can be accessed by individuals other than the intended recipients.

"The key message should be that you should be very careful about what you share online."

Estelle warns that tackling cyberbullying is complicated because it can potentially be seen and shared by everyone.

"A useful way of tackling this is to explain to children the power of the written word and that it's harder to take it back, particularly if you can't delete it," she says.

"By teaching children to think very carefully about what they write, they'll be more likely to report online bullying."

Some of the information found online is at best uncorroborated and, at worst, pure fiction. It's important parents make sure their children understand that just because something is on the internet doesn't necessarily mean it's true, right from supposed 'facts' to people's claimed identities.

"Broaching this subject with a child isn't easy," says Douglas, "but I find the best way is to encourage them to question where the information or an image has come from and the likelihood that it's real."

With social media, Estelle advises parents to look for a platform where children have a sense of independence, but which also have an element of control through tools such as approved invites, co-viewing rights or parental locks.

"Taking small steps with this will help children learn how to navigate chatrooms safely and understand how online communications should reflect friendships offline," she says.

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