A parent's essential guide to keeping your children safe online
Being social is healthy, but strangers are a danger
From Facebook to Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp, social media can cause huge anxiety for parents.
While it helps youngsters build confidence and a sense of belonging, it also comes with risks that you need to help your child understand.
They should know that violent or sexual images are not appropriate, that sharing compromising pictures of themselves could lead to revenge porn, and that real life is not how it looks online.
Warn them too about fake profiles and being groomed.
Instagram, owned by Facebook and with a billion monthly users, has come under fire for not tackling posts that glamorise self-harm.
Make sure your child’s privacy settings are appropriate for their age – ask yourself who can see their profile, and if any apps give away their geo-location. Show your teens and tweens how to set privacy levels, and how to report offensive chat and block bullies.
Also check tagging settings, so when others post pictures of your child their identity is not revealed. And be mindful too when sharing photos of others.
Perhaps, most importantly, explain that people may not always be who they say online. Warn them not meet up in real life, and encourage your child to talk to you if anything worries them.
Be on lookout for bullies who try to make life miserable
Cyberbullying is a huge worry for parents – eight out of 10 fear it happening most over group chat.
Online bullying can take many forms, from sending offensive messages to spreading false rumours – or even hacking in to someone else’s account and sharing their private information.
But how do you spot it? Watch for youngsters who stop using their devices suddenly, or who become nervous or jumpy when online.
Alternatively, kids who become obsessive about constantly being online could be victims too.
At home, watch out for changes in behaviour –becoming sad, withdrawn or angry, or lashing out and coming up with excuses not to go to school.
If they avoid discussions about who they are talking to online, that could also be a clue.
It can be daunting when your child is being bullied but the first step is to identify it and talk about it in a calm, considered way.
Stopping them going online might make things worse – and make them feel more isolated.
Help them deal with it themselves if it is among school friends. Advise them to tell the person how it made them feel and to ask them to remove any offensive posts or pictures.
Ask your children not to respond to abusive messages, and to block the sender and report them to the social network or gaming platform.
Keep screenshot evidence of what has been going on in case you need proof at a later date.
Don’t deal with it alone either. Talk to friends for support and, if necessary, your child’s school – which will have an anti-bullying policy.
You might also want to contact the police. Cyberbulling can be illegal, especially if it involves sharing naked images, known as revenge porn.
The charity bullying.co.uk has a great section on cyberbullying and its effects on kids. Parents can call support services on 0808 800 2222.
And childline.org.uk is a great resource for tweens and teens, with a support system on message boards and trained counsellors.
Other helpful sites include bullybusters.org.uk and, in Scotland, respectme.org.uk.
Set time limits to ensure they live a little offline
Most kids would spend hours and hours online if they could get away with it.
Six in 10 parents worry their kids have no interests away from the internet, with 12-year-olds being the biggest concern.
And 88 per cent of mums and dads say they do take measures to limit their children’s use of devices.
But how much is our own behaviour influencing them? Children model themselves on their parents, so switching off your own devices could help. If you pick up a book they may follow your lead.
It can be hard for kids to hear the word “No” with no explanation – so make sure you voice your concerns about their screen time and have a conversation about why it’s important to limit it. Draw up a family agreement to set boundaries on computer time – and stick to them.
You can find a template for a family contract at childnet.com. If you are feeling really bold, why not unplug and create “screen free” zones at home?
Long gone are the days when a single parental control on the family computer kept your kids safe.
Pre-installed parental controls are available for most smartphones, tablets, laptops and game consoles – but you can download additional software and apps. See internetmatters.org for a guide.
It’s worth looking at a popular app called Forest (forestapp.cc) which helps people beat their mobile phone addiction by growing digital trees.
Users earn credits by not using their phone, then use the credits to sponsor planting real trees around the world.
Find ways to engage with your kids online by finding activities you can do together. These could include apps to keep your kids healthy, such as Plant Nanny, which encourages kids to drink more water, and Zombies, Run! – which gets them out pounding the streets to become a virtual superhero.
Use night settings on phones to cut the amount of blue light from screens, which can keep us all awake. And turn off notification sounds to limit distraction.
Know rules to staying ahead of game
If you’re the parent of a youngster, it is quite likely that you are currently being driven mad by Fortnite.
The apocalyptic survival game has attracted millions of fans – research by Internet Matters found it is played by a third of five to 16-year-olds.
Kids with home consoles play on them for an average of two hours a day, despite 49 per cent of parents worrying about it bringing them into contact with strangers.
It is essential you monitor kids’ game playing – nearly a third of children play online against people they have never met, and mostly on headphones.
Find out what sort of games they like, if the content is appropriate, and the age rating – many are rated 18 for a reason.
Ask who they play online, who they talk to, and the kind of language being used in live chat. And check they know how to report abusive chat.
Make sure they never share personal info, and friends they make are kept inside the game – not added on social media.
And warn them about “griefers”, players who use bullying to harass others as a way to make them lose.
For young children, use airplane mode if available to avoid accidental purchases or connecting with strangers.
Finally, agree time limits – gaming can be very addictive.
How youngsters turn to forums to ‘cut’ themselves emotionally
Self-harm is commonly associated with cutting or burning – but a new trend in recent years has seen youngsters posting online hurtful things against themselves, and provoking others to pile in.
It came to the fore in the UK with the suicide of 14-year-old Hannah Smith. Her family believed she was the victim of cyberbullying – but at her inquest it was revealed Hannah, of Leicestershire, had posted hate messages to herself.
In digital self-harm, children typically set up an anonymous or fake online persona to attack themselves through. They use their comments to provoke others to criticise or defend them. There have been few studies into this form of harm, but a report by the Cyberbullying Research Centre in America found seven per cent of boys aged 12 to 17 and five per cent of girls had participated.
Students who were asked their reasons gave answers ranging from “feeling sad and needing attention from others” to “I felt really bad and just wanted myself to feel worse”.
Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, of internetmatters.org , said: “It has all the hallmarks of self-harm in that the person who enacts it is in a state of high emotional distress and inner-turmoil – feeling isolated, powerless and out of control.
“But rather than seek out a blade, they turn to the online world inviting others to cut them emotionally.”
Although it is difficult, parents should try not to be critical or judgmental. Instead, they should ask their children to let them know when they want to self-harm so they can work through it together.
Log on to selfharm.co.uk for more info and advice, or selfinjurysupport.org.uk , which has a text service for young women, and an any-age helpline.
If you need more help visit your GP and ask for a referral to a therapist.
Blocking porn is not prudish.. it stops kids getting wrong ideas
From April, new restrictions on porn sites will make them more difficult to access, with users needing ID to prove they are over 18.
While 68 per cent of parents say the new rules will “make a difference”, it is important to make sure your children are aware of the dangers.
Every discussion you have on the subject should be natural and straightforward. If you seem embarrassed about sex education and pornography, your child is unlikely to let you know they have seen risqué images.
If they are embarrassed, have them write things down – or talk in the car to help avoid eye contact.
Make young children aware their bodies belong to them. The NSPCC has a fantastic PANTS activity pack (search “pants” on nspcc.org.uk ) with fun games and a funny Pantosaurus song to teach them “what’s in your pants belongs only to you”.
Tweens aged 11-plus are facing puberty, so make sure they know what to expect – it is better they understand from you about their bodies rather than asking online pals while hidden away in the bedroom.
For age-appropriate information on puberty, take a look at amaze.org. And advice for families on staying safe, from ThinkUKnow, is at www.thinkuknow.co.uk .
Pornography can harm children’s confidence and damage the way they treat themselves and others.
Talk to them about positive body image – and make sure they know images of perfection are not real.
Have a conversation about online porn and how its portrayal of women, consent and extreme sexual behaviours can have a negative impact on them.
With teenagers, make sure they know that porn does not often portray sex in real life – and how it can form unrealistic expectations of sexual behaviour.
Again, discuss images of thinness or perfection, and also talk about how to resist pressure from friends. Discuss what a normal, healthy relationship looks like.
In general, use parental controls to block adult content and, if your child has a mobile, ask their network provider to lock out access to adult content.
Find step-by-step guides to set controls and privacy settings on networks, gadgets, apps and sites children use to give them a safer online experience at internetmatters.org
Parent-friendly social media platforms for kids: kudos.com, PlayKids Talk (appsdrop.com), popjam.com, kidzworld.com, gromsocial.com.
Apps to keep your children healthy: Dungeon Runner: Fitness Quest, Habitz, Plant Nanny, Sworkit Kids and Zombies, Run!
For advice on social media use: internetmatters.org, NSPCC.org.uk/onlinesafety, net-aware.org.uk.
For more detail on PEGI ratings visit parentinfo.org
For advice on gaming: internetmatters.org .
We’re the first generation of parents having to deal with this online world and the dangers are not that obvious
By Adele Jennings, mum of two and family blogger at ourfamilylife.co.uk
When my daughter Amber was 12, one of my worst fears came true.
My husband walked into her bedroom and heard a grown man’s voice talking to her over the internet.
She was on her Xbox Live. As open as we have always been with Amber and our eight-year-old son Jacob, we had no idea that Amber could chat to random people from all over the world on it.
I heard my husband Mark say: “Who are you talking to?” Amber’s reply was: “Just a friend in Germany.”
Something didn’t ring true. The voice was that of a grown man, not another kid. A man talking to our 12-year-old.
It terrified Mark and I so much that we cancelled Amber’s subscription – and she didn’t get it back for a year.
Maybe we over-reacted, but we didn’t have a clue what to do at the time.
What became clear is this: If I cross the road, my instinct is to hold my child’s hand. If we go anywhere in the car, I make sure they are wearing their seatbelts.
I can see these dangers.
But online, you can’t see the dangers so clearly.
It’s hard for any of us to wrap our heads around this. We are the first generation of parents to try and understand this online world and the new way of life. I think it’s the biggest gap there has ever been between us and our children.
We don’t have previous generations offering us parenting advice because it has never been like this before.
But what did come of that scary moment with Amber is that we all learned a lesson – and it opened up our conversation to talk about the dangers.
The little smartphone our kids so easily hold in their hands can cause so much joy… but also, so much pain.
I met Prince William at the launch of the Stop, Speak, Support campaign to tackle cyberbullying – a huge issue.
Around 200 British schoolchildren take their own lives each year.
We can’t say those are all down to social media. But it is no surprise to me that the waiting times for the NHS’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, CAMHS, are long – and services in school are at full capacity.
The online pressures children face are clearly affecting their mental health.
The tech and social media giants need to do more to protect them but, as a parent, I know I must do more myself. With not-for-profit organisation Internet Matters, I have made videos for parents on setting parental controls.
And I have tried to learn other ways I can help protect my own children.
I think the key is to allow them to talk to you – and not tell them off for actions that make you uncomfortable. That way they are more likely to respond, not shut down and do things in secret.
We encourage ours to tell one of us if they’ve seen something upsetting or if anyone has been unkind.
We have rules for them, but it is tricky to monitor their every move.
Try to guide them to make sure things like the school badge on a blazer or jumper is not in a picture, and their location is turned off.
These are simple things we would not have thought about before.
But we would never take away our daughter’s mobile – it doesn’t solve the problem, it just puts up a barrier between you and your child.
Don’t forget, this is their world – and this is their “normal”.