The internet can be a dangerous neighbourhood for everyone, but children and teens are especially vulnerable. The first line of defence for protecting young people from harm on the internet is knowing what hazards lurk and how to safeguard against them.
Common online threats
Cyber predators attempt to connect with potential victims over the internet, often posing as someone of similar age, background, and social status. They take advantage of the anonymity of the internet, the innocence of their victims, and the lack of adult supervision on social networks, gaming platforms, and chat rooms. The ultimate goal is to lure children into dangerous personal encounters..
Sexting is the term for posting unsolicited and sexually explicit text messages, images, or videos. Sexting can result in humiliation and embarrassment and, in a worst-case scenario, can lead to charges of distribution of child pornography when teens send out explicit images of themselves.
Pornography exposure can rewire young people’s brains and distort their views of intimate relationships. Unrealistic expectations may confuse and hamper a young person’s ability to form lasting romantic bonds in the future.
Identity theft. While it may be true that children and teens have limited financial exposure, cyber-criminals access text messages and other forms of electronic communication to steal sensitive information that can be used to open an account, make a purchase or commit other forms of online fraud in your child’s name.
Cyber-bullying is experienced by anyone being embarrassed, harassed, humiliated, or targeted in some way by means of a cellphone or a computer. Victims can suffer acute emotional distress and tragically, in extreme cases, has even led to the suicide of those on the receiving end of this form of abuse.
10 tips to keep your child safe online:
- Set a good example
- Stay connected
Take the time to get to know what your teens and children are doing online. Let them know that their online activity such as sending emails or text messages, and posting on social media, can easily become public. Insist that these activities be shared with you as well. One way to do this is to make it a prerequisite that you are the first friend your child adds if they want to download a new social app. Supervise and protect young people until they are equipped to make safe choices for themselves.
- Coping with cyberbullying
Children who are experiencing some form of cyberbullying need parents to listen without judgment and to offer unconditional support. Empathise, listen and work together with a teen or child who is experiencing cyberbullying and they will continue to confide in you and seek your support.
- Set up ground rules
Clearly outline your expectations for online behaviour and identify internet safety rules that will help protect your child. Keep phones and other devices in a central place where you can monitor activity and control usage. Identify social networking sites and apps that are safe to use and those that are off-limits. Best-practice advocates suggest these common-sense safety measures:
- Don’t use a public Wi-Fi network;
- Don’t open emails from unknown senders;
- Don’t let others use your phone or computer;
- Don’t accept a friend request from someone you don’t know;
- Don’t click on a link or download anything before checking with an adult;
- Don’t share your name, address, phone number, identity number or personal photos online.
- Deter misbehaviour
When your child does something online that’s hurtful to another person, let them apologise to the offended party by mail or in person if it is appropriate. Teach them that anti-social behaviour has consequences and encourage them to make better choices by limiting their access to the internet for a suitable period of time.
- Put protections in place
Always ensure that privacy settings are up and running on all devices, apps, and any program that your child uses. For example on Facebook parents can help their children chose settings such as “Who can contact me?” “Who can look me up?” and “Who can see my stuff?”. In addition, a Parental Control app can give valuable insights on your child’s online activity and can alert you to potential red flags.
- Review apps, games, and social media sites
Online child predators rely on games and apps that feature user anonymity, end-to-end encryption, file uploads and direct messaging. Before your child downloads something from a website, it’s important to satisfy yourself that it is age-appropriate and above board.
- Teach children about safety and boundaries
Talking to your child about personal safety equips them to stay safe and to get help when a problem arises. Children need to know that it’s okay to say “no” if they feel uncomfortable, even if it’s an adult. This includes teaching them about what pornography is and what they should do if they are exposed to it.
- Look for signs of trouble
Despite the best efforts to provide a safe online environment, sometimes bad things may happen. For this reason, it’s important to keep an eye out for the warning signs that all may not be well, including:
- hiding the screen from others, or evading supervision;
- creating a new email account or social media profile;
- engaging in self-harming behaviour;
- becoming sad or withdrawn;
- losing interest in friends or other activities;
- displaying strong emotional responses after going online.
- Teach children how to get help
Young people need to know that when they experience negative behaviour on the Internet it is important to get adult help. They should tell a parent or trusted adult immediately, after saving any emails or other communications that may be needed as evidence.
Remember that young people are influenced by the actions of the adults around them. For this reason, it’s important to let teens and children see you reaching out directly and respectfully to a person with whom you may have a problem. Let them see your positive approach to tackling disagreements objectively and politely, and without name-calling or rudeness.
While the internet can pose serious dangers to children, it can also open doors that pre-internet generations could only have dreamed about. Teaching children about online safety will ensure that they experience the joys and opportunities to be found on the web securely and without falling prey to its hazards.