The means to protect your tween: Keeping kids safe online
“To be fair, Instagram have done a lot of work recently. There used to be lots of hardcore porn on Instagram; now it’s more softcore,” Michel Colaci sighs.
Christmas is the time of year when many children will get a smartphone or tablet of their own for the first time. For a large number of these children, that will, unfortunately, mean totally unmonitored access to the best and the worst that the internet has to offer.
So if you’re among the many time-pressured parents who gave in to pester power and got your tween a smartphone this Christmas, Michel says the lull between Christmas and New Year’s is the perfect opportunity to spend a little time with your child and figure out a few ground rules, as well as some technological solutions, that means a gentler introduction to the big bad digital world than simply handing over a device and wishing them luck.
Michel, a software developer based in Clonakilty, co-founded internet safety education company immunizeNet in 2013 when his own daughter started secondary school and he realised how lost other parents were in trying to keep up with their kids’ app use.
Surveys of over 1,000 participants conducted by immunizeNet in Cork schools, where they provide interactive workshops to parents and children, have uncovered shocking statistics about the smartphone use of very young children.
Of primary school pupils aged just 8-11:
- 1 in 3 used Instagram (it comes with a rating of 13+, although commonsensemedia.org recommend 15+ for the ease with which private images can be shared)
- 40% used Snapchat (also 13+, while commonsensemedia.org recommend 16+. The recently added “Snap Map” gps-based location finder has caused alarm too).
- Over 40% were not shown any safety settings by anyone
- 1 in 3 had spoken to strangers online
- 2 out of 3 used their devices unsupervised
- 2 out of 3 downloaded apps without asking permission
- More than 10% in this age group said they had sent someone an inappropriate image of themselves.
Parental surveys were bizarrely contradictory. “Over 70% of parents are worried about the apps their kids download, yet 60% still let their kids download apps unsupervised,” Michel says. “80% of parents worried about their kids being contacted by strangers online, and yet 60% of children had their phones in their rooms overnight, even though all research tells us that this is where most incidents of cyberbullying, sexting and grooming occur.”
The recent tragic inquest into the suicide of 11-year-old Milly Tuomey, following an Instagram post where she told followers she had chosen a date to die, raised many questions about pre-teen children accessing social media apps unsupervised. Yet increasingly, small, portable devices whose use is difficult for parents to monitor are how children are connecting with others and developing their worldview.
EU project ‘Net Children Go Mobile’ reports that over 35% of Irish children of 9-16 now have a smartphone as their primary source of internet connectivity, while 27% have tablets. It’s a personalisation trend that’s unlikely to be reversed, and teaching good digital citizenship has become a part of the parenting role.
Michel is regularly called in to assist by distraught parents whose children and teens have fallen foul of privacy problems, cyber-bullying and sexting scandals. The fall-out from children’s misuse of social media apps can be heart-breaking.
“I’ve seen the vilest things you could possibly imagine,” he says. “I’ve been called in where a group of teenagers thought it was entertaining to traumatise a 10-year-old girl over a sustained period of time, where all the little girl wanted was to share stories about My Little Pony.” With three billion people online, you’re going to get everyone from the most wonderful people in the world, to the vilest people in the world.”
And if you bought your child a device for Christmas and let them take it unsupervised into their room with them every night, you’re letting all those people into their bedroom too.
That’s why Michel’s tips for parents begin with setting up some boundaries from the outset. As well as discussing what’s a reasonable amount of time to spend on a device each day, Michel is a firm advocate for getting younger teens to hand over their phone each night rather than having them in their bedroom.
“Phones in bedrooms overnight is a dreadful idea,” he says. “They’ll be tempted to use them, and it will disrupt their sleeping patterns. Put the device away a few hours before bedtime.”
As well as worries around what exactly your child will get up to on their phones at night, recent studies have shown that the blue light emitted from screens disrupts the production of our sleep regulation hormone, melatonin.
“Looking at blue light before bed is a sure-fire way to make more bedtime battles,” Michel says. “Parents are shooting themselves in the foot if they think watching a bit of Netflix is a good way to get their kid to sleep; it’s not.”
Next, parents should discuss with their child what apps are appropriate for them to download.
The majority of parents these days are probably themselves users of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but Michel cautions that there are many other apps kids may access to connect with their friends, and many of them are unsuitable.
Of the parents immunizeNet surveyed, only three were aware of apps like Omegle, Kik, Whisper, Shots, Yellow, YikYak and HotorNot, despite some of them being popular with children, carrying significant risks and being designed for adults.
But on both Android and iOS, there are also options that permit parents to control what apps their child can download, and for younger users, Michel says parents should use these tools.
“With iTunes, there’s a family sharing mechanism where any time a child wants an app, the parent gets notified and has to give permission,” he says. “Google Play has controls that are similar for Android. It would be very risky to let it be a free-for-all.”
If your child wants social media accounts, Michel advises abiding by the age-rating the app has been given, and then to take the time to set up your child’s account with them.
Instead of a photo that identifies them as a young teen, Michel recommends they choose a generic profile picture of a pet, a sporting team or something similar.
“The rule should be that they only have friends and followers who they know and trust in real life,” he says. “I’ve come across sixth class kids with thousands of followers and they don’t know who they are.
Finally, make sure the accounts are private, which is fairly easy on most apps.” Michel believes that, up until a certain age, parents should know their kids’ passwords. “Then, later in secondary school, after Junior Cert maybe, perhaps that’s when you begin to hand over some of that responsibility in stages,” he says.
“They need to learn responsibility and good decision-making too; we need to be careful not to just suddenly let them off at age 18 and expect them to be ok. Like everything to do with growing up, it’s a progression.”
Constant, open discussions about what your kids are encountering online are important, and as in other areas of parenting, so is letting them know that if they have made mistakes, they can come to you.
Michel’s rule for teens who find themselves bullied, blackmailed or approached by predators is simple: “Stop, Block, and tell an adult.”
“I think they need to understand that it’s ok, and that they’ll be helped and supported even if they have done something like send an inappropriate picture of themselves,” he says.
“If they kicked a ball over a fence and broke a window, you’d like them to come to you, so you could help them sort it out. It’s the same here.
They must know you’re there for them. Otherwise, they can get into tight spots and can’t see a way out. And we’ve already seen far too many tragic results from this.”