Ahead of today’s Safer Internet Day both my daughter and myself were invited, completely independently, to travel to take part in discussions around this tricky issue. How on earth do we keep our children safe in the sprawling, unregulated world of the internet? She travelled into deepest Somerset along with two other pupil ambassadors from her school and a teacher, while I set off for London to meet up with a small group of fellow bloggers along with representatives from CEOP and Microsoft (not Bill this time, disappointingly!)
The amount of stuff available is mind boggling so the ThinkUKnow website from government agency CEOP (Child Exploitation and On Line Protection Centre) is a good place to start. It offers practical help and advice to parents of children from tots up to teens and brand new there today is their parent’s and carer’s guide to the internet, a light hearted look at what it takes to be a better on line parent. It is CEOP who are behind the ‘red button’ which enables parents and children to instantly report any inappropriate on line behaviour and I was very surprised when I got home to find that my daughter had ‘never seen it before’
Part of the session I attended in London was to introduce the new Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) browser. Microsoft and CEOP have partnered to release a customised browser for parents and young people. It is available for download from today. The customised browser provides children and parents with instant access to CEOP and its wealth of safety information.
We spent the session discussing how best to keep children safe and I was very aware that with my wide age range I really have to keep my eye on the ball. The actions I take to protect my six year old are not going to be the same as the ones I take to protect my nearly 12 year old or her older brothers. At the session there was talk of blocking sites and only allowing access to sites which parents have pre approved and that, of course, works well for Bonus Boy but as we have found out through experience it is not ideal for older children who are trying to do their homework and find barriers in their way. There was also talk of using tools to track children’s on line activity, to keep a record of all the sites they have visited and what they have done while they are there.
I had lots to mull over when I got home and I used it as an opportunity to revisit with my children conversations which we have already had (just as I did when I got back from the alcohol awareness day last year). I asked each of the older ones what they do to stay safe on line:
- I have lots of different passwords and I don’t use the same ones for social networks and shopping (I asked if remembering lots of passwords was a problem ‘No Mum, I’m not old’ Ta love!)
- Don’t be stupid
- If they can’t spell, don’t go on their website. (I spluttered a bit at this at first ‘How rude!’ and then…) If it is grammatically incorrect and has clearly been put into Google translate, avoid it (ah, I see…of course)
- Even the most innocent seeming of messages can hide viruses with hidden links which can take you to websites which can shut down your computer so be alert
- 75% of all text messages and emails are spam so assume it is unless you are absolutely sure (my daughter is spouting figures at me as a result of her day)
- Only accept people you know as friends but don’t accept all people you know
- Behave on line as you would in real life (I took the opportunity here of talking about the dangers of webcams and photographs which you wouldn’t want to share with the whole world and wouldn’t want to come back to haunt you forever more)
It is that last one which I have tried to instil in their heads. If you wouldn’t do it in the street, don’t do it on line. My daughter had a great story from one of her ICT lessons to illustrate this:
If facebook was real life and there was this man you didn’t know wandering down the street with a set of post it notes popping LIKE and DISLIKE onto everything/everyone he came across or if he was saying come over here and look at my photos you’d be suspicious wouldn’t you?
Mr Thinly Spread and I had a long chat after they had all gone off and I really think it is this bit which is important. We both agreed that we would be very uncomfortable tracking the children on line. Our family life is based upon mutual trust and I cannot ask them to trust me if I clearly don’t trust them. We have to give them the tools to look after themselves and allow them to do that while at the same time making it very clear that if there is a problem of any kind (in real life or on line) then they can come and tell us about it without fear of over reaction or inappropriate retribution. (CEOP said many children are worried about telling their parents about something which has happened to them on line for fear they would have their internet access revoked) We have to let them make their own mistakes and learn from them, as we did. As a parent to teens and tweens it is more important than anything else to leave the lines of communication well and truly open, there is absolutely no point my putting parental controls and tracking on a browser and expecting them not to circumnavigate them within 60 seconds. They know more about it than I do. All I would be achieving would be a false sense of security for myself and children taking steps to deceive me – the door to open communication would be well and truly closed.
We’ve made a point of not allowing laptops and computers into bedrooms, all the large screens are in family rooms but with internet ready phones, iPods etc (which don’t come with parental controls on a browser) we have to face the fact that our children are browsing the internet, just as we are. They are walking into town, meeting their mates, staying in other people’s houses and we are providing them with ways of behaving, knowledge of right and wrong…it is no different on line and it is having this conversation with children on a regular basis which is what will most effectively protect them.
So – I will be continuing to protect Bonus Boy completely and to monitor his on line activity. He doesn’t use the internet without one of us being present and exploring it with him. He’s not into Moshi Monsters or Club Penguin (yet) and is content to explore the sites I pop into the browser bar. He has been shown funny videos on YouTube by his siblings and falls about in hysterics at the antics of various cats, chipmunks and squirrels. His brothers and sister are very good at looking after him and turn anything which is not age appropriate off if he is in the room (they can be a bit too protective if I’m honest and I’ll have to remind them to do what I have to do and upgrade every now and again).
I will not be tracking my older children, it would cause resentment and breed mistrust. I will be talking to them often about what they are doing and how they are protecting themselves, just as I do for drugs, sex and alcohol, updating the information and advice as they get older. I will be telling them which kind of sites are off limits and why. It’s common sense – talk to your children and allow them to talk to you.
Protecting Tweens and Teens OnLine, a download from Microsoft is very useful if you want to read more.The CEOP team are available live tonight on Facebook and Twitter (@CEOPUK with the hashtag #parentsguide) from 6 – 9pm to discuss the challenges parents face keeping their families safe on line. If my post has raised any questions in your mind they are the people to talk to!
How are you tackling this issue? Are you controlling every move they make, completely laissez faire or somewhere in the middle muddling along?