I am often asked by fellow parents what the single most important item on the "managing my kids' online safety" agenda should be:
It depends somewhat on the circumstances, such as the age of your child, what device(s) they have access to and what apps and sites you allow them to use. But if we go with the scenario that your child has access to a smartphone and/or tablet and is allowed to use one or more social media sites/apps, then I would probably start right here - with social media privacy.
Why? It's simple...two factors will greatly influence whether your child's experience in the cyber world is going to be predominantly positive, or peppered with bad experiences: who your child is exposed to and what content and information they receive and share - predominantly on social media.
Let's take the example of 'Amy' from the RTE Prime Time investigation:(http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/1204/664546-social-media-prime-time/)
'Amy' joined a social media account at the beginning of October 2014. For the purpose of research, her account was left open to the public. In less than 30 days she had accumulated over 1,000 friends - 1,000 people who befriended a fictitious girl they could not have possibly known. Within a week, the account started receiving private messages from teenage boys of a similar age who were encouraging her to exchange messages of a sexual nature.
The approaches Amy received then quickly intensified, including contact from adult men in Ireland and around the world who engaged her in extreme and sexually explicit conversations. Text conversations the RTÉ production team observed between one middle-aged man and what he believed was a 14-year-old girl have been described as alarming.
If your child's social media account is not fully set to private and/or your child accepts people as 'friends' that he or she does not know well in real life, then you can expect that same to happen to your child (and unless you find out, your child is unlikely to tell you - for fear you "freak out" and prohibit access to social media).
What should you do?
2. Discuss with your child the importance of NOT sharing private information on social media. This includes information such as where they live, where they go to school, 'we are away on holidays' (aka our house is unoccupied), telephone numbers, etc.
3. Particularly for younger children, you may want to avoid using a photo and username that reveals their identity.
4. Agree on rules with your child on what images and videos they can (or cannot) share.
A note on this: The less private your child's social media account is, and the more 'friends' your child has whom they don't know in real life, the bigger the chances that their images (even perfectly normal, typical photos) end up being re-used on porn sites (as revealed in the same RTE Prime Time investigation references above).
5. Educate your child on the fact that stranger 'friends' are often not who they say they are. Kids will often see what they want to see and believe what they want to be true. And that 15 year old 'cool girls from California' that 'likes to chat with me and really gets what I am going through as a teenager', turns out to be a 16 year old boy or 50 year old man. Either way, they are likely looking to 'swap images', or worse....and yes, it happens all the time.
6. Make sure your child knows they can turn to you if they encounter something upsetting or offensive.
7. Set rules around usage time and where your child can access social media. Studies have shown an exponentially higher rate of cyber bullying and 'sexting' incidents when portable digital devices are used in bedrooms and at night time.
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For practical information on how to manage your child's online and social media safety, go to