Top tips to keep your child or teenager safe online
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Mark Calleja
Mark Calleja is the co-founder and Headteacher at HackLab. He is an experienced school teacher who was recognised by Ofsted as an ‘Outstanding’ classroom teacher in 2014 and is a Raspberry Pi Certified Educator. He has been interviewed about coding on the BBC and the Naked Scientists show.
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Teenage education

Top tips to keep your child or teenager safe online

Children spend a lot of time online these days. If your child has a cellphone, tablet or laptop, she is connected via the internet to everyone else in the world who has one of those devices. Most of her interactions with the internet can be very positive – researching things for school or her interests, socializing with friends, sharing photos, playing games, learning new things and so forth. But being a digital citizen in the 'Information Age' comes with risks - just like in 'real' life.
In Short
You don’t need to be an IT expert to help your child navigate the internet. There are guidelines available for you to follow when dealing with different types of media, games, and services and the big ISPs (Internet Service Providers) give out free parental controls – check them out and activate them.

Facebook and YouTube both have a minimum age limit of 13 – use this to help you explain why you’re not letting your younger child use the platform.

A good basic rule of conduct is ‘don’t do anything online you wouldn’t do face to face.’ Making sure your teenager is safe online is as important as making sure she is safe in the street.

Set boundaries with your child (ideally before they get access to the device) as part of your ‘User Agreement’.

Help her understand that someone they meet online could have a nice photo and say they’re a child – but be a grown up just pretending. Explain the dangers of ever agreeing to meet anyone in person that she hasn’t met before.

The ubiquity of the digital world

Think about all the things you use the internet for every day – recipes, Facebook, games, Netflix, YouTube, banking, news, shopping, paying bills, weather reports, financial reports, sports reports, maps, apps and family snaps on WhatsApp. Everybody uses it, every day – it’s the biggest social mixing pot in the world, the globe’s largest open forum, and servant. It enriches your life in a hundred ways, but you understand that any public meeting-place comes with risk – a result of your experience as a citizen of the world. Your teenager doesn’t have that experience to use in their digital forays, and she’s grown up in a time where the internet is just part of the world she lives in – it answers her homework questions and has all her games, shows, and grandma on it! While your teenager or indeed child’s technical skill may be intuitive, remember that so is her naiveté. It’s important to make sure she is behaving the way you would expect her to in public.

Understanding social platforms used by teenagers

You don’t need to be an IT expert to help your teenager navigate the internet – understanding what children and teenagers do online, what risks are involved and most importantly, gauging whether you feel your child can handle it, or whether it is appropriate or not are key to a healthy and safe relationship with technology online. There are guidelines available for you to follow when dealing with different types of media, games, and services which will be explained here, as well as some legally required age limits for internet services like Facebook and Twitter. Remember, children can have social media accounts if their parents give permission (and can get them even if they don’t), but that doesn’t mean they should.

Online safety checklist
  1. Does your child take her device to her room at night? It’s connected to the world wide web, and it’s in her bedroom. That means it’s also connected to bullies, boyfriends, girlfriends, iTunes, YouTube and a lot more besides. Not that you can’t trust your teenager, but it’s a temptation to staying up gaming, chatting and answering Facebook alerts at the very least. Does she really need it while she’s in bed?
  2. Have you checked the ratings on the games she plays and the things she watches? The rating system on most media is based upon the content it portrays. If it says 12+, that’s because this content ticked enough red boxes to be for ‘these children.’ Your teenager is an individual, and not necessarily in the same place as the inspector when it comes to philosophical and moral judgement. Take a look at the content yourself. You know your child, is it suitable for her? Do you want her interacting with these concepts, questions, and ideas? Should you be interacting with her on these things too?
  3. Have you played any of the games she plays? Play the games she plays, even if it’s only for half an hour. That way, you’ll have an informed opinion about something which may be quite important to your teenager and you can interact with her about it from a place of understanding, and maybe join in with her if you feel you’d like to. While the only real way to be sure of what a game is like is to play it yourself and experience it, if you’re averse to gaming, you can watch gameplay footage on Youtube. Just search for the name of the game with the word gameplay. If your teenager watches streaming games on Twitch or YouTube (people like PewDiePie and StampyLongnose), these are the people your child may listen to a lot – it might be worthwhile hearing what they’re saying.
  4. Do your teenager have her own Google/Apple account on her device, or are they using yours? If she has her own, have you checked the privacy settings? Have you checked the adult content filters? If your child is on yours, is your credit card linked to it? (More on that later.) Have you noticed any strange ads appearing lately? And it’s not just for device accounts; are they using your Netflix? Xbox Live? PlayStationPlus? Do you have an adult content block?
  5. Do you know how your teenager communicates online? A recent NSPCC statistic reported that 29% of 12 – 15-year-olds would have an online friend they’d never met and 12% of kids aged 8-11 could say the same. Most online games have comment sections or forums where players can chat with other players. Skype chat is very popular amongst the 8 – 11-year-olds and teenagers use Snapchat. Does your teenager have accounts on these services? Do you know who she’s talking to? Does she have any contacts she’s never met in person?
  6. Have you talked to your teenager openly about what risks exist online? Children and teenagers are curious by nature, and will explore the internet far and wide if left to their own devices. If you talk to your child about the things she’s doing online, you’re more likely to start to get a clue of when something is up. It doesn’t have to be nefarious content like pornography or Kim Kardashian either; Google search can look up anything you type into it. Anything. On top of that, a discussion about online ‘Stranger Danger’ is a great idea. Remind her that you can pretend to be anyone on the internet, that sometimes there are some people who are looking to trick teenagers and children – for a wide range of reasons – and that it pays to be cautious online. There are some great videos online produced by CEOPS (the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) aimed at different ages: Jigsaw for 8-10-year-olds, and Consequences for Kids 11-16. where the content is good. (You can show your teenagers both videos and get good conversations going too, though Consequences for Kids may come with extra questions from younger children.)
  7. Does your teenager use any services which allow purchases? Some games allow you to buy upgrades and buffs, iTunes, eBay, Xbox Live, PlayStationPlus and Amazon all have shopping built-in. We’ve all heard the stories of children who bought diggers, cars, and Harrier Jump-Jets online, but have you heard of the child who spent £900 on Farmville or the kid who spent the same on Smurfberries? Don’t be a warning story; secure your online purchases with two-step authentication.
  8. Does your teenager have social media accounts? Is her privacy settings set to max? Anyone you know will know enough about you to find you on Facebook anyway. Or, they will be friends with your friends. Privacy shields up. Explain that your teenager shouldn’t accept friend requests from people she don’t know, either. It’s ok to have a few messages back and forward before accepting requests to feel someone out or remember who they are. As soon as they are your teenager’s ‘friend’ however, they are inside the wall and can see everything about her and all of her content.
  9. What content is your teenager putting online? Once something goes on the internet, it is gone and loose forever. You can never really know how many copies of it are out there, on how many different machines around the globe. There is a famous phrase amongst internet denizens which embodies this perfectly; Digital Permanence. If your teenager put an embarrassing picture of herself on the internet or sends it to someone else online, it is effectively sending it off to be copied, and those copies she can never get back. One for your teenager, one for the recipient, one for the online server which stores all the app data. If the recipient sends it on to someone else, it could go viral.
Communicate about online life

Making sure your teenager or child is safe online is as important as making sure they are safe in the street. This means being engaged with what they are doing online without being controlling or nosey, and it’s a tight line to walk. The key to helping your teenager to stay safe online is to have frank discussions about the risks involved in being online, and making sure she have procedures in place to help her navigate the online world. To help you out, here’s a list of things you should bring up in your chats:

  • Ask your teenager the questions above!
  • Set boundaries with her (ideally before she gets access to a device or platform) as part of your ‘User Agreement’. It’s easier beforehand than afterwards, and it sets up the idea that there is responsibility attached to owning a digital device as well as freedom. Also, breaking the User Agreement means your teenager chooses not to use the device anymore. It works for Apple; it can work for you too.
  • Get your teenager to understand that posting a photo showing where she lives or where she goes to school can pose a risk. She wouldn’t put a huge sign on the lawn saying she lived here, why do it online?
  • Explain that anything posted can be found by others, even if she deletes it: your teenager needs to think carefully about what she posts, as it will be forever. This includes pictures and messages she only sent to one person in chat (it can be screen shot and reposted).
  • Giving “Friend” status to someone your teenager doesn’t know is a risk. Who are they? Why do they want to be her friend? What’s in it for them? What’s in it for her?
  • Help your teenager to understand that someone she met online could have a nice photo but could be a grown up just pretending.
  • Explain the dangers of ever agreeing to meet anyone in person that your teenager hasn’t met before.
  • Set up privacy settings with her on-line but be aware there are all sorts of ways around these and some teenagers will work out how to change them back if they want to. Better to understand why not than to do it ‘just because.’
  • The big ISPs (Internet Service Providers) give out free parental controls – check them out and activate them.
  • Enlist older siblings to help protect younger siblings, and keep an eye on them online.
  • Check the age ratings on your teenager’s games and media content. Play some of her games if you can, even if you wait until they’ve gone to bed or watch them played on YouTube.
  • Facebook and YouTube both have a minimum age limit of 13 – use this to help you explain why you’re saying no to your children under that age.
  • A good basic rule of conduct is ‘don’t do anything online you wouldn’t do face to face.’
  • Teenagers should have set boundaries for how much time they can spend online. Does your teenager really need their phone/tablet/computer while she is in bed?
  • Don’t give your teenager access to your credit card or Paypal login. Just don’t.
Share the knowledge
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.