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How can I keep my family safe online?

girl on laptopThis year, the Office for National Statistics reported that 99% of Great British homes with children have an internet connection. Therefore, it’s very likely that your family is already spending a fair amount of time online — after all, the internet offers a whole host of ways to socialise, learn and have fun.

However, there are also a number of risks that families — and children in particular — face online. For example, cyberbullying is a common problem and it’s quite easy for kids to stumble across mature or inappropriate content.

Of course, as a parent or guardian, you’ll want to make sure that your children are safe and feel comfortable when browsing the internet, but this can seem like a daunting task if you aren’t up to date with the latest technology. That’s why we’ve put together this helpful guide, which offers a lot of the information you’ll need to ensure that your kids are safe when using their phones, tablets, and computers.

 

How are your children spending their time online?

Using the internet can open up a world of possibilities for your children. They’re able to connect with their friends, search for information, play games, and talk to people with similar interests. Some of the most common ways in which they’ll be spending time on their computers, phones and tablets include:

  • Playing games through websites, apps, and game consoles on their own or with others
  • Connecting with and chatting to people through social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter
  • Watching videos on YouTube
  • Using search engines such as Google to find information
  • Sharing images on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest
  • Writing posts and responding to people on forums or message boards

All of these activities can be dangerous in one way or another, but there are a number of things you can do to reduce the risks associated with your children spending time online. This should begin with a discussion about the dangers they could encounter.

 

How should you speak to your children about the risks they face online?

Before you allow your children to use the internet, you should establish a set of rules or guidelines that you all agree on. You might want to revisit this as they get older and acquire more freedom.

Here are some things that you should consider discussing with them, depending on their age:

  • Encourage them to share their experiences with you.
  • Let them know that they shouldn’t reveal their passwords to anyone, no matter how much they trust them.
  • Explain that age restrictions are in place for a reason and you would like them to be abided by. So, for example, they shouldn’t have a Facebook account until they’re at least 13 years of age.
  • Stress that they should trust their instincts — if they feel uncomfortable about anything they’ve seen or that has been said to them online, they should know to tell you.
  • Insist that they never give out any personal details, such as your address or phone number, and where they go to school or like to play.
  • Ensure that they know to respect others online. They should be aware that their behaviour shouldn’t change because they’re online.
  • Teach them that online friends might not be honest about who they are and, therefore, should not be met in person.
  • Let them know that some of the things they read on the internet won’t be true and that they should ask you if they’re ever unsure.
  • Make sure that they know to respect others’ property online. Let them know that making illegal copies of things like music or video games is just like stealing from a physical shop.
  • Talk to them about the dangers of sending inappropriate photos or posting them online.

 

What precautions can you take to help them stay safe?

Even after you’ve spoken to your children about staying safe online, there are some extra things you can do to protect them. Here are some of the most popular options available to you.

Limit their time online

You can decide how much time you’re comfortable with your kids spending online, then set a daily or weekly limit and let them know about it.

Of course, there may be times when you want to be more lenient — after all, not all screen time is created equal. So, if your child is working on a piece of homework or creating something like music or art, there’s no harm in letting them spend more time online than usual. Having rules in place is always a good idea, but if your children use the internet in a range of different ways, you’ll benefit from using your judgement to decide whether they always need to be enforced.

Additionally, you’ll find it a lot more difficult to control how much time they spend online if they have their own phones, tablets and laptops. So, consider the consequences carefully before giving them this level of freedom — you should be confident that they’re mature enough to handle it.

Put parental controls in place

You can use parental controls to help prevent your kids from seeing mature and inappropriate content online.

One of the easiest ways to set them up is by configuring them on your internet router. All of the traffic for your network flows through this, so implementing controls here can be very effective, as most inappropriate material will be stopped from making it to your kids’ devices. Although, if you take this course of action, absolutely all of the content that comes through your router will be filtered, which means that your own internet browsing will also be affected. Therefore, you should consider this option properly before deciding whether it’s right for you.

On a computer or laptop, you could also use third party software, such as an internet security suite, to control what your children can access online. To ensure that you have this option, choose security software that comes with built-in parental controls, which can be activated when necessary.

If you’re new to configuring parental controls or have never installed security software on your computer before, we can help. Just contact us today to discuss your requirements.

Teach them to use privacy settings

When your children are old enough to have their own social media accounts, you should ensure that they’re using the most appropriate privacy settings. This will allow them to control how much of their personal information is on show and who can see the things they post.

When your kids start to set up their own social media accounts, sit down with them to agree how much information should be shared on each. Then, adjust the privacy settings to reflect this. As you go, explain why this is an important part of staying safe online, as this will help them to fully understand the situation. Hopefully this will deter them from making any changes to these setting without your knowledge.

 

What risks will your children face online and how can you deal with them?

While your children can gain a lot from having access to the internet, there are a number of risks they face online. Here are some of the most prevalent ways in which they could be at risk, and how you should approach the situation if they encounter any of these problems.

Cyberbullying

Bullying that takes place through electronic channels — for example, via social media websites, instant messaging services, or text — is known as “cyberbullying”. As most young people now have access to mobile phones and the internet, the problem is more common than ever and, according to DoSomething.org, 70% of students report seeing frequent bullying online. Although, only 1 in 10 of the victims of this abuse will tell a parent or trusted adult.

If you suspect or learn that your child is being cyberbullied, you need to proceed with caution. They could feel isolated and be in a very vulnerable state, so it’s important that you don’t do anything to aggravate this. Gently ask questions to determine how long this might have been going on for, who is involved, and what has actually been happening. Then, if there is evidence of the bullying — text messages or online posts, for example — ask if they will show them to you and document them in case you need them at a later date. If the material includes a realistic threat of physical harm, you should report this to your local police as soon as possible.

When talking to your child, you need to make it clear that you understand what they’re going through and are there to help. You should also stress that the onus is entirely on the bully and that they’ve done nothing wrong.

Once you have all of the information you need and understand the situation completely, you should help your child to take preventative measures, such as reporting and blocking known bullies on the relevant platforms. Also, if you think it is appropriate and could prove helpful, you might want to contact the parents of the bullies, or speak to the headmaster of your child’s school.

If you’re overwhelmed by the situation and are unsure of what steps you can take to help your child, contact Family Lives who will be able to give you guidance. You can call their helpline on 0808 800 2222.

Communicating with people they don’t know

Online games and social media platforms make it incredibly easy for children to chat to and become ‘friends’ with people that they’ve never met face-to-face. This is especially common in the UK where, according to the NSPCC, children have the second highest number of social networking contacts in Europe.

So, just as you might have taught your kids about stranger-danger and the fact that they should consciously avoid unfamiliar people who try to approach them in real life, it’s also important that you explain the risks involved with meeting people on the internet.

While speaking to people online can be harmless for the most part, it can put your child at risk of being bullied, groomed, or coerced into sharing personal information. Therefore, you need to speak to them about what is and isn’t appropriate. You should also ensure that the channel of communication remains open so they feel that they can come to you if they’re worried about something they’ve experienced online.

Depending on the age of your children, you might get some peace of mind from only letting them use the family computer in a communal space, so you can keep an eye on who they’re speaking to. Of course, it’s much harder to keep track of what they’re doing once they have their own mobile phone or tablet, so it’s wise to talk to them about these risks early on.

Grooming

When someone attempts to build an emotional bond with a child to gain their trust with the intention of abusing or exploiting them, this is called grooming. While this can happen in person, it’s becoming increasingly common online, as groomers are able to seek out potential victims through social networking sites and chatrooms, or forums that focus on young people’s interests.

If your child admits that something has happened online which made them feel unsafe or worried, consider the situation before deciding whether you should report this to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. Or, if you’re unsure of what to do and just need someone to talk to, contact the NSPCC who will be able to advise you.

Inappropriate content

Whether it’s by accident or because they’re curious, it’s very easy for children to stumble across unsuitable content online. This could include violent or race hate materials, pornography, child abuse images, or dangerous advice encouraging eating disorders, self-harm or even suicide. Fortunately, you can reduce the risk of your children encountering these kinds of websites to a certain extent.

Start by taking some of the precautions listed above, such as implementing parental controls and positioning the family computer in a busy area of your home. You could also point them in the direction of search engines that have been designed specifically for children, such as KidsClick, KidRex and Kiddle.

If your children use any online services, look into whether these come with their own parental controls. Netflix, which offers four maturity levels ranging from “little kids” to “adults”, is great in this sense, as you can individually edit the maturity level of each profile on your account. This means that you can select different options for your children, depending on how old they are.

It is, however, important to remember that your children will eventually have their own phones and laptops that you won’t have any control over. Therefore, it’s also vital that you have a conversation with them about the kind of online content that is and isn’t appropriate. Not only will this educate them, but it will also open a channel of communication so they’ll be more likely to come to you when they come across something that makes them feel uncomfortable.

If you think your child has accessed material online that is illegal, you can report it using the ‘red button’ system offered by the Internet Watch Foundation. Additionally, you have the option of reporting the website in question to your internet service provider, who might take steps to block access to it.

Ignoring age restrictions

Social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit and Snapchat have a minimum age requirement of 13. However, more than three-quarters of UK children aged 10 to 12 have at least one social media account, a BBC Newsround survey has found. So, if you’re looking to stop your children from signing up for social media accounts before the age of 13, you need to educate them about why these age restrictions are in place.

For example, there are laws that prevent websites from collecting personal information from those under 13. However, if your child ignores these restrictions and signs up anyway, they are no longer protected.

Also, it takes at least 12 years for a child’s brain to fully develop the cognitive structures that enable them to engage in ethical thinking, according to The Huffington Post. This means that it can be difficult — or even impossible — for them to properly grasp the effect their actions can have on others. So, if they join social networking sites before the age of 13, there’s a chance they’ll come up against challenges, such as cyberbullying or harassment, that they’re not prepared to deal with or respond to.

Additionally, all of us — children included — can make mistakes. But, if these mistakes are made online they can last forever. So, if you’re worried about your child’s reputation being damaged by an inappropriate message or problematic post they’ve published online without thinking, it’s best that they stay away from social media until they’re mature enough to handle it.

If you do suspect or find that your child has lied about their age to sign up for a social networking account, you can report their profiles to the relevant websites who will be able to disable them for you.

Gambling and/or running up debt

Most legitimate gambling websites have strict measures in place to ensure that their users are over 18, but minors can still slip through the cracks. Therefore, if your children have access to a debit or credit card, they could start gambling online if they’re tempted by the special offers and promise of prizes.

If you do find that your child is gambling online, it’s important that you put a stop to it right away. Hopefully this is before their newfound hobby causes any lasting damage. If you report the problem to the website(s) in questions, they should shut their account down for you.  

If you aren’t careful, children’s games that can be played on tablets, phones or computers could get you into financial difficulties, too. For example, according to The Telegraph, a 7-year-old boy racked up a £3,911 bill while playing Jurassic World on his dad’s iPad late last year. And this isn’t the only case of parents being stung by a large bill that has accumulated through in-app purchases that their children have made without their knowledge.

Of course, younger children will struggle to understand the value of money. Therefore, if you want to prevent this from happening to you, you could benefit from using parental controls that disable in-app purchases and the downloading of new games.

Though, again, it’s worth remembering that your children will eventually have their own computers. So, as well as disabling the option to buy things on the devices you lend them, you should teach them about the dangers of spending real money on games by accident. This will help them to avoid any problems when you’re not there to check up on them.

Sharing personal information

There’s a whole host of reasons why both you and your children should refrain from sharing too much personal information online. For example, if you share the right details you could become a victim of identity fraud. Or, if you share that you’re going to be away from home for a while, you could come back to find you’ve been burgled. Here are some guidelines that will help you to prevent this from happening.

Don’t post anything that you don’t want everyone to see

Although you might all have the most appropriate privacy settings activated, your family still needs to be careful about what they post online. This is because there is nothing stopping friends or followers from showing your posts to others, and it can be difficult to keep track of exactly who can see your profiles.

This means that sharing inappropriate material or complaining about people over social media could get you into trouble. Therefore, to avoid encountering any issues somewhere down the line, you should resist posting anything that you would rather somebody didn’t see.

Don’t make location-specific posts

Checking in on Facebook and posting photos with geotags on the likes of Instagram in real time isn’t a great idea — especially if you’re away from home for an extended period of time. Telling the people who follow you online that you’re away from home lets them know that your house is empty, which could increase the chance of your house being burgled. So, while everyone will love seeing the holiday photos that you and your children have taken, it’s best to wait until you’re back before posting them online (with a caption that mentions you’re home).

Keep personal details to yourself

Fraudsters are always on the lookout for ways to get a hold of personal details. So, if you or your children publish certain pieces of information online, such as your dates of birth and address, you’ll be handing over some of the material they need to scam you.

Cyber criminals also acquire personal details by sending scam emails in an attempt to trick you into replying with information such as your bank details. This is known as phishing and is relatively common. Therefore, whenever you or your children open an email, you need to be vigilant and ensure that any correspondence is legitimate before you reply, click any links, or open any attachments.

If you do hand over your details, only to realise that you’ve made a mistake, get in touch with the organisation or business that the scammers were impersonating as soon as possible in order to protect your family and finances from potential harm. They might be able to solve the problem and put measures in place to protect others from falling victim to the same scam.

 

While there are some risks associated with spending time on the internet, it can also be incredibly rewarding. And, in this increasingly digital age, there’s little use in trying to keep your kids offline for long. So, take in all of the information above and start putting measures in place to ensure that you’re all as safe online as possible.