How to keep your children safe online
The internet is a daunting prospect for parents, with regular reports of potentially harmful challenges and content putting our children at risk.
The most recent scare revolves around Momo, a ghoulish figure who allegedly appears in the middle of YouTube videos and encourages children to carry out tasks culminating in self-harm and even suicide.
While the accuracy of these stories is disputed (both the Samaritans and the NSPCC say there's no evidence of anyone coming to harm as a result of the Momo challenge), the story demonstrates the anxiety of raising a child in these always-connected times.
In this guide, you'll find tips on how to keep your children safe online and prepare them for browsing independently as they get older.
Have an honest and open discussion
As you would with real life risks, teach your kids about the dangers of the internet in a calm and non-alarming manner. Instead of alarming them, empower them to make safe and sensible choices on their own accord.
One of the best ways to do this is to ask your children what concerns them about the internet. You're likely to get different response based on the age of your child; younger children will generally worry about "˜scary' content while older children may express concern about cyberbullying or social media. This not only starts a conversation but helps you determine what is and isn't appropriate to talk about.
Maintaining an open and honest dialogue with your children is key to a healthy and safe internet experience. Take time regularly to ask what they've been up to and if anything they've seen has worried them.
Supervise your children (especially on YouTube)
You're never more than a couple of clicks away from something potentially disturbing on the internet, so it's vital to supervise your children.
Of course, it's not realistic to sit over your child's shoulder every minute they're online. But it's easy enough to ask them what they're planning to do and then check in every 10 minutes or so.
Your level of supervision will depend on the kind of content they're accessing too. YouTube, for example, is full of videos that may disturb or upset children (even if the content isn't obviously offensive), so it's important to regularly check what your child is watching. Games, on the other hand, are generally okay provided you've set up controls to prevent in-app purchases (more on that later) and they aren't multiplayer.
If they've seen something, talk about it
The internet is so vast that the chances of your children encountering something that upsets them, even if it's fairly innocent to an adult, is high.
Although you can't always avoid disturbing content, talking about it can alleviate some of your child's stress and anxiety. Just remember to remain calm and avoid judging them on content they've viewed.
However, children often remain silent if something has upset them so you should begin the process — even if it's something as simple as saying "if you see something that scares or worries you, talk to us." Alternatively, ask if they've seen anything that has upset or confused them recently and stay alert to any unusual changes in behaviour.
Teach them responsible online behaviour
Like real life, there are certain rules children should follow to stay safe online. We'll list a few important lessons below but the easiest way to think about it, and one that may help your children adapt these rules, is "if you wouldn't do something in real life, don't do it online".
Don't contact strangers directly: Your children are likely to encounter strangers on a regular basis; in YouTube comments, in online games and elsewhere.
This isn't anything to worry about per se but remind your children not to directly engage with a stranger – especially if they're contacted first. Emphasise that not everyone online is who they say they are, even if they're convincing.
Think carefully before posting: Tell your children to assume everything that post is permanent and ask them to consider the potential consequences of a post – not just now but in the future with universities, employers and so on.
Don't give out personal information: Children are more likely to hand over personal information than adults, although not as likely as you'd expect. Remind them not to give out their real name, address, telephone number of the name of their school.
Don't click on links or websites you don't recognise (or ask first): You can restrict certain content using content filters and parental controls but children are still at risk of clicking on potentially virus-laden links or harmful websites. Encourage your child to tell you before they visit a new website or click on a link, and educate them on the consequences of viruses and malware.
To enforce these rules, the NSPCC suggests creating a family agreement outlining the rules for internet usage for both children and parents. You can download a template here.
Educate them on cyberbullying and trolling
No-one wants to expose their children to the darker side of the web but its unlikely to disappear anytime soon, so you should at least tell your children about it.
Teach your children about the risks of cyberbullying and trolling in a sensitive and appropriate manner. By emphasising that this is a common occurance and often conducted by sad, lonely people, its power is diminished and your children are less likely to feel the impact if they are ever exposed.
If you suspect your child is being cyberbullied, follow the same guidance as dealing with offline bullying; ask them how they feel and how they want you to deal with it, emphasise that it's not their fault and tell their school (if another pupil is involved).
Monitor their activity
It's impossible to stand over your child's shoulder and monitor every single thing they're doing, but make sure to keep a regular eye on the content they're viewing and, if they're older, who they're messaging.
There are a few rules you can put in place to ensure your kids aren't accessing anything inappropriate while you aren't monitoring them too:
– Only watch content from verified YouTube channels
– Don't download anything without permission
– Never post or share photos of themselves with strangers
– Set all of their profiles to private
– Never meet up with anyone you've met online.
Understand the apps and content your children are accessing
New apps, content and crazes emerge constantly and keeping on top of it all is tough. It's vital that you do though, as YouTube personalities, social media accounts and even random strangers can be hugely influential on a child's mentality.
The easiest way to do this is to bookmark NetAware, which offers in-depth guides to more or less every social network, game and app around. They ask children and parents to review each app and provide a risk assessment for various content too, including sexual content, violence & hatred, bullying, suicide & self harm, drinks, drugs and crime.
Use parental controls and settings
Parental controls allow you to block upsetting content, control purchases and manage your children's time online.
Most devices offer some form of parental control and internet providers usually provide tools to filter out offensive and harmful content too. Guides to setting up these tools can usually be found on the manufacturer or service provider's website but if you really aren't sure, give the NSPCC's dedicated helpline a call on 0808 800 5002.
Another good tip is to disable auto-connectivity on your children's devices and hide away any Wi-Fi passwords. That way, your children can't connect to the internet without your express permission.
It's important to emphasise that while controls and filters are useful, they aren't a complete solution to online safety. Content like the Momo challenge would likely make it through most filters, so combine your controls with the monitoring and education tips provided earlier in this guide.
There's no denying that the internet contains disturbing and harmful content. However, the threat of this content is often overstated – as demonstrated by the hysteria surrounding the Momo challenge, which may not even exist. Ironically, the panic around the Momo challenge may actually inspire people to create content similar to that reported and has certainly scared children unnecessarily.
So the best approach is to treat every reported threat with a degree of scepticism. Do your research to determine whether or not you feel your children are at risk and, whatever you do, don't share reports or scare stories on social media without having the full facts first – it can make matters worse!
Secure their devices and accounts
This is a tip for adults rather than kids. Make sure all of your children's devices have antivirus software and that accounts are protected by strong and secure passwords (and tell your kids why you're setting these passwords). Scan your children's devices for malware on a regular basis too.
Given the tone of recent media reports, you'd be forgiven for thinking the internet is a lawless place full of people looking to harm children. While those threats undoubtedly exist, it's important to remember that the internet will play an important part in the rest of your children's lives – so don't scare them. Tell them about all the good things the internet has given us and how much easier it's made life. Teach them about the capabilities of technology and debunk any scare stories too.
Most importantly, tell them that – like the real world – the internet is full of good and bad thing, and that it's important to remain vigilant but ultimately to try and enjoy yourself.
We hope you've found the tips in this guide useful. If you have any questions, feel free to leave us a comment below.
And if you're looking for a great value refurbished phone for your kids, check out the musicMagpie Store. We've got thousands of handsets at amazing prices, all with FREE delivery and a 12 month warranty. Why wouldn't you?