Stressed over the Risks of the Internet? Keep your Children Safe and Protected
Do you have young children who are about to begin using the Internet or already use it? Do your children use chat rooms, instant messaging or social media sites?
While the Internet is invaluable for children in several ways including educational resources for homework, online games, information and fun, there are irrefutable downsides too. At best, the Internet can be described as a mixed blessing and it is up to us as parents to protect our children from potential pitfalls. Children spend a great deal of their time on the Internet (which is now available to them over their Smartphones and other devices too) and it’s important to be aware of the risks and dangers that lurk on the net. As parents, we need to understand the problems that may crop up so that we are better placed to keep our children safe. The risks come in a variety of forms and could include porn, gambling, inappropriate sexual content, sexual predators and cyber-bullying among many others. In earlier days, parents usually knew the people whom their child interacted with on a daily basis. You knew people (and your child knew people) face-to-face and personally. That is no longer the case on the Internet. There is often a big difference between what you see the child doing at home and what they do online.
According to the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), UK, more than 3,000 sex crimes against children were committed in 2016. Moreover, alarming statistics reveal that more than 43.6% of children between the ages of 11 and 16 experience cyber-bullying in some form or the other. This article describes different forms of risks associated with the Internet and explains how you can help protect your child. We will also discuss some general strategies and precautionary measures that help mitigate the risks involved.
Limitations and Dangers of the Internet
- The Internet is an easy place to falsify your identity or lie about your age. Your child could lie about his or her age or another person talking to your child may do so. The difference between the Internet and real life is that you are unable to see the person who is on the other end. Most times, it’s only chatting by typing words. People can and often do lie about their age, name, occupation and so on.
- There is easy access to good as well as dubious websites. On one side, there are educational, informational and entertainment websites, and on the other side there are thousands of violent, macabre and other unsuitable websites which are as easy to access as the reputable ones.
- Information is not always private. Your profile may be set to public (children are not always aware) in which case it can be viewed by anyone. Many search engines index public profiles and your child’s information is open and accessible to anyone. Online message boards, for example, can be easily viewed by others.
- Your child is in control while they’re surfing the internet. They may access undesirable websites while you are not at home or when you’re otherwise engaged. This leaves them free to chat with strangers, post pictures online, provide personal information and so on; all these activities can compromise security.
- The portability of devices makes it very difficult to control access to undesirable websites or interaction with questionable individuals. Numerous apps, Smartphones, Tablets, etc. make it difficult (if not impossible) to regulate access.
The following signs may indicate that your child is in trouble online and probably needs intervention from parents or carers:
- Radical change of interests to obsessive online chatting or interaction. If your child was interested in sport, dance or dramatics and suddenly feels disinterested in these activities and spends all their time online, it’s time to have a talk.
- Changes in eating patterns, moods and behaviour may indicate trouble. This is especially true if your child has been spending long hours online and in chat rooms. Encourage your child to speak to you and to develop outside, healthy interests.
- Your child tries to hide away with his or her smart device and keeps checking messages every now and then. He or she is becoming more secretive than before and they are making excuses to go shopping or to the cinema to meet someone that you don’t know.
Without proper guidance and control, children are likely to be more vulnerable to online threats. It’s also a good idea for parents to learn the language that children use online; you may often see entire conversations written in short-form or abbreviated words. However, parents can consider using holistic internet safety plans and communicating with children regarding the risks and dangers on the Internet.
Let’s take a closer look at some ways in which you can protect your children on the net.
Set some rules
Implementing overly stringent restrictive orders may not always work (especially with teens) and the child may be driven by curiosity. Hence, it may be a good idea to set clear rules similar to the rules regarding supervision of TV time. Allow reasonable time for the children to browse the Internet, but avoid allowing unlimited time whenever they want. Sit down with your child and make the setting of rules a mutual process. Lay down rules about the websites they should or should not visit. For example, you may allow them time to play games, but restrict time on social media.
Do not impose excessive authority, but be firm at the same time. For instance, disobedience should be connected with clearly explained consequences (such as reduced TV time, etc.). Older children may have the tendency to rebel so keep your discussion friendly and explain that you have their best interests at heart. The rules that you set should address some of the following basic issues:
- Are they confident of taking responsibility when they are alone with their smart devices?
- Will they be able to recognise undesirable websites and content?
- They should only make online friends with those people that you know in real life
- They should never agree to meet someone that they have only met online
- They should consider immediately informing you of uncomfortable encounters or bullying behaviour
- Learn how to use privacy settings on apps, social media platforms and software in order to protect passwords, etc. Public profile settings leave your information open to access to the public. Strangers can even find out where you live.
- Avoid posting provocative, racy or inappropriate content about yourself online including pictures
- Try to keep computers in the family room so that you can have greater control over usage times and duration. Also place the computer in a highly visible area (not with the screen facing a wall, for example) so you are able to keep an eye on the content
- If you have young children, keep a close watch on videos because quite a few of them contain profanity
Setting boundaries is important because you, as the parent, are in charge.
Use systems that offer adequate parental control
The simple solution of installing content filtering software and parental controls can still be implemented, but they may not be effective due to evolving net technology; many undesirable websites and content may be programmed to bypass such controls. According to a research study conducted by Norton Online Family, 63% of teens admitted to knowing how to hide content from control software.
This is why it’s important to install a parental control software or firewall that is foolproof and effective in blocking undesirable content. Some well-known options that help you establish control over digital content include Google, Safe Search, Norton Online Family, YouTube Safety, K9, Windows Live Family and Maxthon Kid-Safe Browser, etc. For comprehensive parental control, you can try some paid packages including Qustodio, ScreenLimit and Home Halo. YouTube, for example, has introduced a new YouTube for children app that curates content and restricts access to adult videos. However, this app is not accessible from all browsers.
In addition, you can also consider linking certain websites to a parental control filter. Better still is to set up parental filters on the router itself. This is one of the best ways to control Internet content flow. Many routers are specifically designed to allow for parental control. It’s best to tell your child that you are using monitoring techniques and that they will lose Internet privileges if they disobey the ground rules.
Protect your child from the risks of gaming websites
Most of the time, the risks of the Internet are associated with social media, pornography and so on. But recent research by Kaspersky indicates that 38% of children meet people at gaming websites who are not what they pretend to be. Such individuals also use gaming websites to meet children and solicit personal information. Keep a watch on the gaming websites that your child likes to play on.
It pays to be particularly aware of websites that require payment or funds to use. Keep your credit cards safe and away from your child. If they need to pay for a game or a video, please make sure that they do it with your permission. Credit and debit cards can be easily misused by unscrupulous people, especially if they know that they are dealing with a child.
Counselling and Education
The best and most effective way to keep your child safe on the Internet is to educate them about the inherent dangers that lurk in cyberspace. This will work much better than enforcing parental control apps and software (although you can use them too as additional aids). Explain that public images can be used illicitly and describe the dangers of pornography. Tell them about the risks of communicating with strangers which may result in kidnapping, sexual advances, rape or even death in extreme cases. Obviously, you don’t want to scare them and it will depend on their age, how you tell them and exactly what you tell them. A good way to explain to them is by telling them that just as they wouldn’t give their personal details to a stranger on the road, they shouldn’t give their details to strangers online either.
Discuss the issues involved in a mature, patient and friendly manner. This is likely to achieve more results than tools and technologies.
Support and Encouragement
Teach your children that online opinion, ‘likes’ and approval should not affect their self-esteem and confidence. Social media pressure and cyber-bullying have been the cause of teen depression, stress and suicides. The best way to combat this danger is to train your children to grow up as healthy and confident kids. In most cases, the main reason for posting images online is to gain approval and make comparisons with peers. Tell your children that they are beautiful and that you love them. These simple strategies are powerful and effective in their outreach and your child will automatically be on his or her guard against undesirable interactions, comments or activities on the net.
You have to engage with your child’s online life and take steps that put you in control. Please do remember that at the end of the day, technology is only a tool and is not a replacement for parenting. Parenting does not come with a handbook and can be particularly trying when you are dealing with teenagers. They may rebel or resent what they see as intrusion into their personal lives. Teenagers sometimes become aloof and uncommunicative and you may have no idea of what they are doing online. However, disapproval from children is a lesser worry than exposing them to online risks and, if you have to lay down the law at times, you simply have to do it. Take your children out or play other games with them at home, cook meals together and spend quality time with your children. This way, they will be more likely to open up to you and, at the same time, will discover activities and interests outside of the Internet.
The Internet is here to stay and will be an inevitable part of our lives as well as our children’s lives. The trick lies in teaching them to use it responsibly without imposing overly strict rules. If you disallow the Internet in your house, they can and will access the online world on their friends’ devices and computers. Forbidden fruit is always tasty, especially when we are young and curious.
It may be easier to lay down rules for younger children and they may listen. But the scenario may be different when it comes to teenagers. Being online is part of their ordinary every day social fabric and many are more or less immersed in their online chatting and texting. It’s also true that most teenagers above a certain age have an ingrained sense of self-preservation and may not reveal personal details. However, it’s also true that many teens also hide their content from parents. The truth is that we cannot take these facts for granted. For instance, many children stumble upon pornography by accident. Children should be protected from the dangers of the Internet and parents and carers are the best people to take decisive steps in that direction.