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Children spend a lot of time online these days and if yours have phones, tablets or laptops in the house or at school, they are connected via the internet to everyone else in the world who has one of those devices. Most of their interactions with the internet can be very positive – researching things for school or their interests, socializing with their friends, sharing photos, playing games, learning new things and so forth. But being a digital citizen in the Information Age comes with risks as well, just like ‘real’ life.
Think about all the things you use the internet for every day; recipes, facebook, games, Netflix, youtube, banking, news, shopping, paying bills, weather reports, financial reports, sport reports, maps, apps and family snaps on WhatsApp. Everybody uses it, every day – it’s the biggest social mixing pot in the world, the globe’s largest open forum and servant. It definitely enriches your life in a hundred ways. You understand that any public meeting-place comes with risk; a result of your experience as a citizen of the world. Your kids don’t have that experience to use in their digital forays, and they’ve grown up in a time where the internet is just part of the world they live in – it answers their homework questions and has all their games, shows and grandma on it! How can it be dangerous? While their technical skill may be intuitive, remember that so is their naiveté. It’s important to make sure they are behaving the way you would expect them to in public.
You don’t need to be a hacker to help your kids navigate the internet; understanding what kids do online, what risks are involved and most importantly, gauging whether you feel your kid can handle it, or whether it is appropriate or not are key to a healthy and safe relationship with technology online. There are guidelines available for you to follow when dealing with different types of media, games and services which will be explained here, as well as some legally required age limits for internet services like Facebook and Twitter. Remember, kids can have social media accounts if their parents give permission (and can get them even if they don’t), but that doesn’t mean they should.
A few things to think about:
- Does your child take their device to their room at night? It’s a connection to the world wide web, and it’s in their bedroom. That means it’s also connected to bullies, boyfriends, girlfriends, iTunes, youtube and a lot more besides. Not that you can’t trust them, but it’s a temptation to staying up gaming, chatting and answering facebook alerts at the very least. Do they really need it while they’re in bed?
- Have you checked the ratings on the games they play and the things they watch? The rating system on most media is based upon the content it portrays. If it says 12+, that’s because this content ticked enough red boxes to be for ‘these kids’. Your kid is an individual, and not necessarily in the same place as the inspector when it comes to philosophical and moral judgement. Take a look at the content yourself. You know your kids, is it suitable for them? Do you want them interacting with these concepts, questions and ideals? Should you be interacting with them on these things too?
- Have you played any of the games they play? Play the games they play, even ifit’s only for half an hour. That way, you’ll have an informed opinion about something which may be quite important to your kid (Minecraft parents will know what I mean!) and you can interact with them about it from a place of understanding, and maybe join in with them if you feel you’d like to. While the only real way to be sure of what a game is really like is to play it yourself and experience it, if you’re really averse to gaming, you can watch gameplay footage on Youtube. Just search for the name of the game with the word gameplay. If your kid watches streaming games on Twitch or YouTube (people like PewDiePie and StampyLongnose), these are the people your kid listens to a lot – it might be worthwhile hearing what they’re saying.
- Do they have their own Google/Apple account on their device, or are they using yours? If they have their own, have you checked the privacy settings? Have you checked the adult content filters? If they are on yours, is your credit card linked to it? (More on that later.) Have you noticed any strange ads appearing lately? And it’s not just for device accounts; are they using your Netflix? Xbox Live? PlayStationPlus? Do you have an adult content block?
- Do you know how they communicate online? A recent NSPCC statistic reported that 29% of 12 – 15-year-olds would have an online friend they’d never met, and 12% of kids aged 8-11 could say the same. Most online games have comment sections or forums where you can chat with other players. Skype chat is very popular amongst the 8 – 11-year-olds I know, and older kids use snapchat. Do they have accounts on these services? Do you know who they’re talking to? Do they have any contacts they’ve never met in person?
- Have you talked with them openly about what risks exist online? Kids are curious by nature, and will explore the internet far and wide if left to their own devices. If you talk with them about the things they are doing online, you’re more likely to start to get a clue of when something is up. It doesn’t have to be nefarious content like pornography or Kim Kardashian either; Google search can look up anything you type into it. Anything. On top of that, a discussion about online ‘Stranger Danger’ is a great idea. Remind them that you can pretend to be anyone on the internet, that sometimes there are some people who are looking to trick you – for a wide range of reasons – and that it pays to be cautious online. There are some great videos online produced by CEOPS (the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) aimed at different ages: Jigsaw for 8-10 year olds, and Consequences for kids 11-16. Lame titles I know, but the content is pretty spot on. (You can show older kids both videos and get good conversations going too, though Consequences may come with extra questions from younger viewers.)
- Do they use any services which allow purchases? Some games allow you to buy upgrades and buffs, iTunes, eBay, Xbox Live, PlayStationPlus and Amazon all have shopping built-in. We’ve all heard the stories of kids who bought diggers, cars and Harrier Jump-Jets online, but have you heard of the kid who spent £900 on Farmville or the kid who spent the same on Smurfberries? Don’t be a warning story; secure your online purchases with two-step authentication.
- Do they have social media accounts? Are their privacy settings set to max? Anyone you know will know enough about you to find you on facebook anyway. Or, they will be friends with your friends. Privacy shields up. Don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t actually know, either. It’s ok to have a few messages back and forward before accepting requests to feel someone out or remember who they are. As soon as they are your ‘friend’ however, they are inside the wall and can see everything about you and all of your content.
- What content are they putting online? Once something goes on the internet, it is gone and loose forever. You can never really know how many copies of it are out there, on how many different machines around the globe. There is a famous phrase amongst internet denizens which embodies this perfectly; Digital Permanence. Basically, if you put an embarrassing picture of yourself on the internet or send it to someone else online, you’re effectively sending it off to be copied, and those copies you can never get back. One for you, one for the recipient, one for the online server which stores all the app data. If the recipient sends it on to someone else, it could go viral.
Making sure your kids are safe online is as important as making sure they are safe in the street. This means being engaged with what they are doing online without being controlling or nosey, and it’s a tight line to walk. The key to helping your kids to stay safe online is to have frank discussions about the risks involved in being online, and making sure they have procedures in place to help them navigate the online world. To help you out, here’s a list of things you should bring up in your chats:
- Ask them the questions above!
- Set boundaries with your kids (ideally before they get access to the device) as part of your home ‘User Agreement’. It’s easier beforehand than afterwards, and it sets up the idea that there is responsibility attached to owning a digital device as well as freedom. Also, breaking the User Agreement means they choose not to use the device anymore. It works for Apple, it can work for you too.
- Get them to understand that posting a photo showing where they live or where they go to school can pose a risk. You wouldn’t put a huge sign on the lawn saying you lived here, why do it online?
- Explain that anything posted can be found by others, even if you delete it: think carefully about what you post, as it will be forever. This includes pictures and messages you only send to one person in chat!
- Giving “Friend” status to someone you don’t know is a risk. Who are they? Why do they want to be your friend if they don’t have a good reason to know you? What’s in it for them? What’s in it for you?
- Help them understand that someone they meet online could have a nice photo and say they’re a child – but actually be a grown up just pretending.
- Explain the dangers of ever agreeing to meet anyone in person that they haven’t met before.
- Set up their privacy settings with them online, but be aware there are all sorts of ways around these and kids will work out how to change them back if they really want to. Better they understand why not, than to do it ‘just because’.
- The big ISPs (Internet Service Providers) give out free parental controls – check them out and activate them.
- Enlist older siblings to help protect younger siblings, and keep an eye on them online.
- Check the age ratings on their games and media content. Play some of their games if you can, even if you wait until they’ve gone to bed.
- Facebook and YouTube both have a minimum age limit of 13 – use this to help you explain why you’re saying no to children under that age.
- A good basic rule of conduct is ‘don’t do anything online you wouldn’t do face to face.’
- Older children should have set boundaries for how much they can spend online. Do they really need their phone/tablet/computer while they are in bed?
- Don’t give them access to your card. Just don’t.
Mark Calleja used to teach in primry schools until he realised that maybe instead of helping just one school get better wth computer scinece, he could help all of them.So he started HackLab with PMo in 2014 to try and encourage kids to become powerful digital citizens in the Infomration Age by showing them that knowledge really is power when it comes to technology. He wants you all to become super users of the world around you.