The internet opens up a world of possibility for children: endless entertainment, a way to connect with their friends, and resources to help them learn at their fingertips.
But the internet is not without its challenges. Parents and carers can find it hard to monitor and control their children’s use of technology, especially as the internet is constantly evolving.
Here we consider some simple steps to help your children stay happy and safe online, first at a younger age, and then as they approach their teenage years.
Protecting your 6-10 year old online
Very young children can be drawn to screens like bees to honey. The latest statistics from Internet Matters, a not-for-profit focused on keeping children safe online, show that almost half (44%) of six-year-olds are going online in their bedrooms, while over a quarter (28%) of 10-year olds have a social media profile.
To help your children stay safe online, it’s really important that you lead the way, get involved, and help them establish good habits from an early age. Start with the following steps:
1. Set limits
It can be hard to strike a good balance between the amount of time kids spend on and offline.
The latest guidance from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) does not specify time limits on screen time, but does advise parents to ensure that devices don’t replace sleep, exercise or family time.
While it’s important to be assertive and set firm boundaries, remember to explain to your kids why you’re setting limits and how they will help them form a healthy relationship with technology.
The Children’s Commissioner suggests encouraging children to come up with ways of managing their own screen time, for example, by logging the amount of time they are spending online in a diary.
Charity Childnet suggests creating a family agreement to establish your children’s boundaries, and your expectations, when on the internet - it even provides a template agreement to get you started.
2. Use parental controls
Use parental controls and privacy settings on apps, sites and devices to help create a safer online world for your children.
Internet Matters has very practical advice on how to go about this. It provides step-by-step guides for different devices, search engines, apps - such as YouTube or Netflix – and gaming consoles, as well as the main social media sites.
3. Help your child to become a good digital citizen
It’s easy to feel anonymous online, so help your children understand the impact that their online activity can have on other people. Equally, they also need to be aware who is able to view or share information about them.
To help do this, Internet Matters recommends you talk to your kids about what they value in friendships and discuss kindness and, by extension, the need to be kind online.
You also need to start teaching them about what to do if they feel someone has been treated unfairly online - remind them that they can always talk to you if they have any concerns.
Protecting your 11-13 year old online
As children get older, it can become more difficult to manage their online activity, especially once they get their own smartphone, which happens at age 10 or 11, on average.
Start with the following to help keep your older children safe online:
1. Speak to them
Again, the important thing is to talk to children about their internet use. Internet Matters advises you talk about what they’re doing online and the apps they’re using. Crucially, make it clear how you expect them to behave online, and why.
As with younger children, it can help to talk to them about the things they value,
such as kindness, and how that’s just as important online too. Treat it as an ongoing conversation, not a lecture.
2. Discuss their digital footprint
It can be easy to forget that whenever you go online, you can leave a trail of information behind you. While your pre-teenage or teenage child might be more internet-savvy than you, they still need reminding about the importance of protecting this digital footprint.
So, explain the dangers of posting inappropriate or private content on social media or elsewhere on the internet, and the trail that can be left behind - permanently.
Internet Matters suggests telling them about the ‘t-shirt test’ for photographs, comments and videos - if they wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing it on a t-shirt, then they shouldn’t post it online.
Also, encourage your child to use nicknames online where possible, protect their personal information, and always create strong passwords.
3. Beware of online bullying
Sadly, online bullying is common. This can range from harassment or exclusion to online rumour-spreading.
It really is essential to speak to your children about cyber-bullying, even if you don’t suspect any problems. Make sure they know about the importance of speaking to you if someone is bullying them or making them feel uncomfortable; the same applies if they know of someone else who is being targeted.
You may find it useful to go through the Stop, Speak and Support cyberbullying code of conduct with your child.
Also, the Bullying.co.uk website has lots of advice on how to deal with cyber-bullying, detailing approaches to use on different apps and social media sites.
If you have concerns that your child has been subject to abuse online then report it to the police via the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.
Keeping your child safe online isn’t something you can tick off your to-do list in one go. It’s about constantly talking to your child to understand what sites and services they use, who they’re talking to online, and what privacy settings they have in place.
The more you understand your child’s online life, the better position you’ll be in to help them stay safe while taking advantage of the wealth of information, creativity and entertainment that is available online.