How to Keep Children Safe in Cyber Space – An Updated Guide For Parents

This guide was created by Daniel and Claire and forms part of Claire’s Corner.

This guide has been created to help keep children safe online. It is aimed at new parents and/or those parents who just want to review and update their information about contemporary online threats.

Technology is constantly changing and it’s good practice for parents to keep up to date with how children access and consume information across the internet.

A good example is online gaming; ten years ago this was in its infancy but now generates more revenue than the music and movie industries combined.

Also, messaging used to be a case of sending sms text messages from one phone to another. Nowadays there are dozens of apps children can use to communicate, many of which use encryption for privacy and can be accessed anonymously.

Interesting Fact

Online gaming is so popular that it’s worth more than the video and music industries in some countries.1

Children and Internet Access

Statistics gathered by the NSPCC confirm that: 1 in 3 Internet users are children; and that almost 1 in 4 of 8 to 11-year-olds and 3 in 4 of 12 to 15-year-olds has a social media profile.

In order to digest these figures, it’s helpful to reflect on the sheer variety of ways children can gain online access. Naturally, there is home and school access via laptops and desktop PCs, but more informal and unsupervised access can come via games consoles and handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Another issue with mobile devices is that they can connect to the Internet in two different ways:

1. Via a home or public Wi-Fi connection

2. Via a mobile (cellular) network

While a home or school Wi-Fi network should be relatively safe, a public Wi-Fi connection may have less security features – or none at all. And though mobile networks are generally safe, it can be hard to understand what data usage is occurring, and thus easier to run up unexpected bills.

Interesting Fact

One in three internet users are children.2

Anonymous Contact With Strangers

While children can deliberately put themselves at risk by accessing an inappropriate external website, many families are used to children downloading and using content made available via free apps installed on a phone, tablet or family computer. Though this content is intended to allow children to learn, communicate with friends and have fun, it’s not always the case that people who make contact and befriend children online are who they say they are.

To take one example: A popular gaming site such as Roblox attracts children from 6 to 14 years of age who design and play games, often adopting personas as part of the fun. If a child’s school friends are all playing online, parents will feel pressured to allow their own child to participate. This is an anonymous digital environment where meeting existing and genuine new friends is part of the appeal, yet it is very difficult for an unwary child to be sure those keen to socialise are as honest as they may seem. In such situations, it should be understood that if children are to enjoy such experiences safely, then parents too will have to stay on their toes and keep an eye on their child’s interactions online.

Interesting Fact

Nearly one-third of under 16s play online games with people they have never met in person.3

Social Media

Social media broadly encompasses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram, as well as more specialist forums, chatrooms and WhatsApp messaging. Such sites are primarily designed as adult facilities for text and visual communication and make it easy for users to share and recommend content. Facebook, for instance, allows children of 13 upwards to open an account without their parent’s consent. So it is again down to parents to keep an eye on what children are doing, and who their regular contacts are.

Social Media and Expectations

At its best, sharing views, gossip and lifestyle experiences on social media is just a healthy extension of normal school playground and community friendships. But where things may not be going well socially, continual contact via social media apps can quickly exacerbate what might otherwise be passing unpleasant moments which are quickly forgotten, thus ramping up the pressures, especially on isolated individuals.

Furthermore, modern life often seems to cultivate celebrity culture factors such as perfect good looks, material possessions, social friendships and more. The use of visual filters and effects, for example, can make some ‘streetwise’ individuals look much more attractive than they really are. So children with little confidence may soon feel under enormous pressure to develop a certain body image, which can in turn have a seriously disturbing effect on their own mental health as they try to manage totally unrealistic expectations of all kinds.

Interesting Fact

Suicide rates among teenagers in the 15-19 age group have doubled in less than 8 years according to the United Kingdom’s Office For National Statistics.4

Some ways to manage and monitor children’s social media experience:

– No social media accounts until you judge they are ready. Minimum age 13 is a guideline, but it’s your child and your call. Stress the emotional maturity you want; don’t let age 13 become the unquestioned expectation; but reward progress and development as it occurs.

– Don’t start with Internet access in your child’s bedroom. Get them used to going online in family spaces where they can be monitored informally.

– Password protect any mobile devices with apps a young child wants to access, and make use of the parental controls available.

– Vet any friending requests carefully and frequently check contact lists. Be aware too that following your child on social media as a friend is a sensitive, low-key way to keep tags on what is happening on their account. And also make sure your child knows why they should never share personal data such as a date of birth, or address and phone number.

– Teach your child to be responsible and stay safe online. Make the rules clear and understood, and wherever possible use anything doubtful or potentially harmful as a teaching opportunity to let your child learn how to deal with such things, and to underline the fact that such threats are real.

– Manage your child’s online world exactly as you would manage their real-world experience. Allow more freedom as they grow more mature and responsible. For instance, older teenagers need to feel they have privacy, but ultimately it must always be a situation you are comfortable with.

The Risk of Radicalisation and Extremism

The NSPCC report that almost 1 in 4 young people have encountered racist or hate messages online, and internet matters.org say that 1 in 10 children know someone in a gang.

Childhood can be a time of raw emotion and children lack the experience and maturity to make balanced, rational judgements. And that, in a nutshell, is why radicals and extremists of every persuasion are so keen to influence and recruit youngsters to their banner. Parental vigilance is more a matter of staying in touch with your child’s online activities at a distance which is appropriate to their age, and in a way which promotes the advantages of staying smart. Just snooping on your child may mean they resent your interference and make it less likely they will turn to you if they need help.

Here’s an NSPCC checklist:

1. If you have suspicions, keep talking to your child.
2. Persuade your child to show you their most-visited sites.
3. Discuss your child’s online friends – and if you can, get yourself added to your child’s list of friends for monitoring purposes.
4. Confirm your child knows how to report online abusers, and talk through appropriate language and how to deal with jokes and banter which may cross those lines.
5. Know and agree the privacy settings your child uses on social media.
6. Keep online authenticity a live issue and share any news reports of online deception.

Out of curiosity, your child could search and discover radical content, or meet others who might persuade them to view such sites. Though mainstream social media such as Facebook and Twitter may be where an initial contact occurs, a child would soon be asked to move to lower profile discussion platforms (Kik Messenger, Whisper etc.) where users can more easily retain their anonymity.

When a young person is becoming radicalised, there are certain developing behaviours you may notice:

– an opinion that their religion, culture or beliefs are misrepresented and oppressed,
– an inclination to dismiss mainstream media reports and believe in conspiracy theories,
– a search for identity and a need to develop affiliations,
– becoming evasive about who they talk to online and which websites they visit,
– switching screens whenever you approach their online device,
– appearing to have phones or devices others may have given them,
– showing signs of emotional volatility. (internet matters.org)

Unfortunately, many healthy teenagers also go through similar phases, so parents need to know their child’s general disposition and look out for disproportionate behaviour which seems to be escalating.

Interesting Fact

Of the 6093 individuals referred to the United Kingdom’s Prevent program, over 36% were for Islamic extremism and 16% were for concerns about right-wing extremism.5

Over-Sharing Personal Information

As regards sharing content, encourage your child to adopt safe practices which reflect responsible digital citizenship and take into account the potential future consequences of unwise decisions. Make sure they understand that content which appears online may never be completely deleted or destroyed.

Once again, it can be worthwhile sharing and talking about reports of the unforeseen consequences of sharing photos and videos online. Things which may seem no more than harmless fun when enjoyed amongst friends can take on a whole new context when circulated widely for strangers to see – and the lack of judgement this implies will not help your child later on as a young adult trying to establish credibility in the job market. So as soon as your child is old enough to reflect on the implications, you should gently explain that social media searches are now commonplace for many employment roles and higher education applications.

Interesting Fact

68 percent of people surveyed by Norton Internet Security will willingly trade in various types of private information for a free app6

How to Handle Blackmail Threats and Extortion

You should ensure your teenage children are aware of the possible risk of falling victim to crimes such as blackmail and extortion. Young people can all too easily be duped by a criminal using a false identity to befriend them online as a ‘grooming’ exercise designed to coerce them into sharing sexual images, or to get them to perform online sex acts. This is swiftly followed by ‘sextortion’ – a criminal attempt to extort cash or sexual favours. There can also be threats to reveal damaging content to family, friends and employers – which is cyber-blackmail, another criminal offence.

Help your child to protect themselves and avoid this distressful kind of situation by:

– teaching them never to risk sharing sexual images online,
– advising them to report any attempts at blackmail or coercion immediately,
– letting them know you will always help, no matter how ashamed or embarrassed they may feel.
– securing social media profiles so lists of friends are not easily accessible to strangers.

If an incident occurs, immediately report the crime to the police along with screenshots of any incriminating evidence you have. Don’t give in to any demands, otherwise more will surely follow.

Interesting Fact

Crimes such as these usually follow weeks of grooming via social media by criminal gangs who will prey on any vulnerability they can find – Detective Chief Inspector Rob Cronick7

Online Bullying

Using electronic means to bully someone is called cyberbullying and might involve social media and messaging apps which are accessed via a mobile phone, tablet or popular gaming platforms. This behaviour is commonly repetitive and can be quite subtle – such as cropping the victim from a photo, or excluding them from a group chat.

Like other forms of bullying, cyberbullying can be awful for any child involved and very difficult for them to even talk about. Text and email are the usual cyberbullying formats, and they can be deployed on social media and gaming platforms.

Besides rejection and exclusion, cyberbullying can also include: harassment and stalking, threats and intimidation, as well as manipulation and defamation of character. There can also be attempts to magnify the harm by publicly posting or sharing sensitive personal information about another person. Cyberbullying activities might also extend to include identify theft, hacking into social media accounts and online impersonation.

According to internet matters.org, 20% of 13 to 18-year-olds claim to have experienced cyberbullying. Online bullies can reach children anytime and anywhere, often while remaining completely anonymous.

If your child experiences cyberbullying:

– ensure they don’t communicate with the perpetrator,
– quickly collate the evidence (e.g. screenshots, time-stamp photos of text messages or Skype conversations) before it gets deleted,
– report the matter to the school or the police (schools must address cyberbullying, even when it occurs off-site and out of hours),
– consider informing your Internet service provider.

Interesting Fact

Almost 35% of teens have been threatened online, while 1 in 5 teens has experienced cyberbullying more than once8

Dealing With Trolls

An Internet troll is someone who persists in quite deliberately posting disruptive messages in a thread on an online chat forum. Sometimes, the material includes threats of violence or hate speech, both of which should be reported to the police. Where a troll specifically targets your child, get them to block further posts and always report the matter to the website administrator.

Trolling behaviour is enormously varied, and some instances may be little more than irritating. Many trolls are just attention-seekers and coaching your child to ignore them and/or adopt strategies to sidestep such disruptions can be a useful life skill to acquire.

Slang and Child-Speak

The cyber world has rapidly evolved a language of its own. Thus you may find your child and other Internet users employing unfamiliar acronyms and expressions – possibly to conceal their online activities. While the Urban Dictionary can shed some light on many words and phrases, here are some examples parents ought to know:

NSFW: not safe for work
PIR: parents in the room
KFY: kiss for you
LMIRL: Let’s meet in real life
NIFOC: naked in front of a camera
Throw shade: look at someone in a nasty way
WTTP: want to trade photos?

Software Monitoring

Software monitoring is no substitute for good parent-child communication, and with older children you should always reassure them that you’ll respect their privacy. Furthermore, cyberspace is a dynamic world where things change very fast, so you must keep monitoring tools up to date if they are to remain effective.

A straightforward multi-platform application like Mobicip (£30.99), which sits in place of your current browser, can filter content, monitor web and app activities, block certain sites and much more. Some other options include Qustodio (£26.95), uKnowKids ($100 per year subscription) and WatchOvers (£4.99). For those on a budget, WatchOvers (iOS only) is a great app which screenshots your child’s device once a minute and can be checked via your smartphone.

Despite the sophisticated monitoring tools now available, remember that many tech-savvy children will not find it difficult to limit, disable or re-configure permissions to negate many of the data-gathering functions this kind of software relies upon.

Internet Child Safety: Online Courses

The NSPCC runs an online introductory course, which you can complete at your own pace. This lasts around four hours, costs £30 per person, and should help you to feel confident in keeping children safer online.

More details can be found here.

General Safety Advice

– Introduce the topic of online safety when children are young – don’t wait until it becomes an issue.
– If it’s not OK to say or do something when you meet a stranger face to face, then it’s not OK online.
– Anything you write or post can never be deleted.
– Set up correctly, parental controls on devices used by young children will prevent them accessing inappropriate sites.

Today’s generation of children were born into the digital age, so online is perfectly natural for them. Nevertheless, parents and carers must ensure these children grow up to become digital citizens with a clear understanding of Internet dangers who know how to protect themselves from online threats.

7 Steps to Keeping Children Safe Online

  1. The NSPCC online training course is a comprehensive guide for parents and we recommend it for all new parents. The NSPCC is a charity so while there is a fee to enroll on the course, all the proceeds go to a good cause.
  2. Install a software monitoring app so you can limit your child’s access to certain (or all) apps at specific times, such as at bedtime, dinnertime and during school hours. We have tested OurPact and suggest this as a good place to start as the app is free to use on one device, it won’t cost you a penny and you can see if software monitoring is something you would like to participate in, before upgrading to a more comprehensive paid plan that includes screenshots, location finding and more granular controls across multiple devices.
  3. Buy your child a phone designed specifically for children. Monqi phones allow parents to control apps, screentime, approve contacts and monitor the child’s activity on the phone – all remotely.
  4. Suggestion #4 is a little old fashioned, but setting aside specific times for online gaming and browsing the internet is perhaps one of the best ways to limit a child’s exposure to online threats. Setting rules earlier in a child’s development is easier than trying to enforce them once a child has become accustomed to accessing the internet whenever they want.
  5. Chat to your child about the repercussions of sharing personal and private information online, such as photos and secrets. Most children haven’t considered the embarrassment that they may feel if very private or personal information, including photos, were to be shared publicly.
  6. Teach your child to be wary of people online that they have never met in person. Photos and fake profiles and personas can lull children into a feeling of safety when the person they are communicating with could be a totally different person.
  7. Online gaming has become incredibly popular in recent years and the best way to understand the threats present is to spend some time playing the game yourself. Many of the games online today are addictive, are offered for free but have in-game purchase options and have social aspects that allow strangers to communicate with each other. With so many games available across s many platforms, playing the same games as your child will help you to understand the threats posed.

References

  1. Online gaming generates more revenue than video and music in the UK – BBC News (2019)
  2. One in three internet users are children – NSPCC 2017
  3. Nearly one-third of children play online games with people they have never met in person – Internet Matters (2019).
  4. Teenage suicide rates double in 8 years. Figures from the Office for National Statistics and reported by INews (2019).
  5. Statistics from the UK governments Prevent referral program (2017).
  6. Norton Internet Security Survey shows 68% of respondents offer private information in return for access to a free app.
  7. Sextortion facts from the UK – The Independent Newspaper.
  8. Cyberbullying facts and figures (2018) from Gaggle.

This guide was created by Daniel and Claire and forms part of Claire’s Corner.