The internet is a wonderful resource, but it’s open to abuse. Here are some ways to ensure your child’s safety online.
If you struggle to keep up with your child’s internet activities, you’re not alone. A 2006 survey for children’s charity NCH and Tesco Telecoms found that two-thirds of parents couldn’t define a ‘blog’ - a web diary or notebook that invites comment from strangers on the net.
Even more striking was that only one parent in every 100 believed his or her child regularly visited a blog. In fact, the survey found that one-third of children - some as young as 11 - were logging on to a blog two or three times a week or visiting one of the increasingly popular social networking sites, such as Bebo and MySpace, which allow users to post messages, pictures and videos.
Ten per cent of 11-year-olds said their parents knew nothing about the people they were making contact with online. A similar proportion claimed to surf with no adult supervision at all.
As in any other area of life, if you don’t know what your children are doing, where they’re going or who they’re mixing with, you risk compromising their safety.
The ‘grooming’ of youngsters by paedophiles on the net remains rare, but it’s important to be vigilant. An adult with ill intent using a social networking site can become anyone he wants to be when he’s online - a 15-year-old girl looking for mates with the same taste in music, for example.
Despite its lower profile, internet bullying occurs more frequently than grooming. Threats, harassment and psychological torment via email or in a virtual chatroom can have a devastating effect on a child
So what can you do?
Learn as much as possible about what your child does online. Ask him to show you the sites he visits and to tell you who he exchanges messages with. He may not reveal everything but it’s a good start - at least he’ll know you’re interested. Make sure he knows there’s often a minimum age for those contributing to social networking sites (13 on Bebo and 14 on MySpace, for example).
Explain to your child that he shouldn’t give out personal information to people he meets on the internet. Stress that although he may think of them as friends, there’s a risk (however small) that they’re not who they say they are. Telling strangers his age, phone number, address - even his gender - could play into their hands. And he should never post a photograph of himself. Look together at the NCH Net Smart rules and agree that your child will stick to them.
Talk to other parents about the rules they have for their children. Your child may know not to post a picture of himself on a networking site, but that doesn’t stop his friends posting group photos that include him.
Be aware of how, when and where your child uses the net. This will help you to spot any significant changes -for example, if he spends much longer online than usual, or starts using the internet only away from home. This may well be nothing more than typical adolescent behaviour, but at least you’ll be alert to other possibilities.
Look out for changes that may signal your child is being bullied or abused. These can include loss of confidence, withdrawal from family life, anxiety or argumentativeness, insomnia or lack of concentration.
Talk to your child about the type of site he may stumble across either accidentally or if curiosity gets the better of him. You may find it an uncomfortable topic (and he almost certainly will) but experts at NCH say it’s much more sensible to discuss with your child the possibility that he’ll encounter pornographic material on the internet. That way he should feel more able to turn to you if he feels things are getting out of hand - and he’ll be much less vulnerable to abusers urging him to keep secrets.
Consider installing parental control software on your computer that allows you to block access to certain types of website or to log your child’s internet activity. It can also prevent email traffic from undesirable sources. More information is available from the Internet Content Rating Association.
Check the history of sites your child has visited, and be explicit that you’ll do this regularly. If the history has been deleted, ask him why.
Speak to your internet service provider about its policy on chatrooms. Are they moderated (monitored constantly) by fully trained adults to minimise the risk of bullying or abuse? It’s never a good idea to allow children on to unmoderated sites.
Ask your child’s school whether they teach pupils about internet safety.
Don’t panic if you discover any record of inappropriate pictures or conversations on a computer after your child has used it. Talk to him if you’re worried and seek help if you’re not reassured by what he tells you.
1. Keep your personal info private
You wouldn’t tell a stranger in the street anything personal, it’s just the same giving information out on the Internet. Never give out your address, phone number or email address or any details about your school or college. Don’t send out a photo of yourself, without checking with an adult first and be careful not to give out your A/S/L (Age/Sex/Location) - if someone asks where you’re from, just give your town or region - keep things general.
2. Don’t be too trusting
When you’re on the web, you can’t see who you are talking to and you don’t know if what they say is true or even if they are who they say they are. You need to think sensibly when having a chat with someone. Don’t believe everything you read.
3. Never meet up with anyone from the web
You should never meet up with anyone you chat to on the web, unless you have told an adult about your meeting and they attend with you.
4. Offensive messages
Don’t answer offensive messages. If you read anything that is cruel, rude, racist or threatening then ignore the message - it’s not worth a reply.
5. Be careful what you write
Don’t write anything that could upset people or that isn’t true as it could land you in trouble.
6. Changing your email address
Keep your email address just as secure as your mobile or home phone number and your home address. If you think that a stranger knows your e-mail address, or if you’ve been emailed by someone you don’t know, it’s a good idea to change it. If you have a web-based email account such as Hotmail or Yahoo you need to log onto your account and amend your personal details.
7. Tell an adult you know
If you are worried about something or someone on the Internet, tell an adult you know and trust - your parents, carers or a teacher. Even if you think they might be cross, your safety is the most important thing and they will be able to help.
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