Protecting children from the perils of the online world while still allowing them to interact with tech is a modern parenthood challenge.
Sadly for all of us, reports of harassment and abuse of children online are increasing.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which finds and helps remove abuse content from the internet, said it investigated 361,000 reports of suspected criminal material in 2021.
That’s more reports in a single year than it dealt with in its entire first 15 years of existence between 1996 and 2011.
The IWF said lockdowns had an impact on the figures, with more people, particularly schoolchildren, spending more time online and as a result may have been more vulnerable to cybercriminals.
Denying children access to any and all web-based tech isn’t really possible in 2022, but it’s becoming crucial that parents know what steps to take.
‘Children are being targeted, approached, groomed and abused by criminals on an industrial scale,’ said IWF chief executive, Susie Hargreaves.
‘So often, this sexual abuse is happening in children’s bedrooms in family homes, with parents being wholly unaware of what is being done to their children by strangers with an internet connection.
‘Devices can be an open door into your home, and children can be especially vulnerable to being drawn into these predators’ traps.’
Of the 361,000 reports made to the IWF, 252,000 were confirmed to be URLs containing images or videos of child sexual abuse.
Below are a list of practical ways to protect your children from potential online predators.
Make use of parental controls on your home broadband and any internet-enabled devices in the home.
Almost all devices connected to the web will have some kind of parental lock that allows you to set certain restrictions.
To see how to do this for each device, head to Internet Matters for details.
Remember to check mobile phones, laptops, home computers, gaming consoles and your smart TV.
In terms of your entire home, you may find that your internet provider itself will have parental controls you can put in place for your entire WiFi network.
Ask your children to befriend you on all their apps, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat etc.
Your reason for doing this is to let them know that if they are posting pictures or comments that they wouldn’t want you to see, then it doesn’t belong in the public domain at all.
Check apps and settings
As a follow on from the parental controls rule above, it is worth looking directly at the settings app on your children’s devices to check the permissions.
Default settings might include things like GPS location tracking, public WiFi and camera or chat access.
It’s important to turn these off so your child can’t be identified. Always check device privacy settings and make sure they’re switched on.
Furthermore, many of the big social media apps have special child-friendly versions. These aren’t a silver bullet – but they can be safer to use than the unfiltered adult versions.
Apps to avoid: 10 apps to make sure aren’t on your child’s phone
Just as there are child-friendly versions of popular apps, there are also some shady alternatives that have been flagged as dangerous.
According to investigators at North Yorkshire Police, there are ten particular apps where child grooming is thought to have taken place.
If possible, parents should check their child’s phone to make sure the following apps aren’t installed on it.
Whisper An anonymous app focused on sharing personal secrets and meeting new people.
Calculator % Disguised as a calculator, the app is actually a secret photo vault.
Omegle A video chat website where users are matched randomly with strangers.
Yellow Similar to Tinder, the app is designed to allow teens to flirt with each other.
Ask.fm An app where users can anonymously ask questions and receive answers. The app has been featured in a number of cyber bullying cases.
Hot or Not Strangers rate a user’s ‘attractiveness’ with the aim of real-world meet ups.
Burn Book Anonymous rumours can be posted about people through audio messages, texts and photos.
Wishbone This app allows users to compare kids and rate them on a scale.
Kik Messaging. Kik is a messaging app that allows content normally filtered on a home computer.
Instagram Kids are creating fake accounts to hide content from their parents, according to police. Messages are also deleted once a user leaves a conversation.
The tech giants in Silicon Valley mostly have a rule for children to use all devices in the main room of the house where adults are present, but devices are banned from bedrooms.
This allows for the children to enjoy playing games or chatting online with friends but in the knowledge that their parents will be checking every now and again what they are actually doing and talking about.
It also means that you’re more likely to understand and learn what games or apps your children are enjoying and hopefully share their interest.
Ask for advice if you’re not sure
Thankfully, there are plenty of places to ask for help if you’re not sure what to do.
The NSPCC has trained helpline counsellors on 0808 800 5000 that will discuss any problem with you.
And remember, there are a multitude of other online destinations that can help educate you about what kinds of online tools your children may want to use.
Caroline Allams, co-founder of child safety platform Natterhub, says parents need to be better educated about living life online.
‘The key to real change on this issue lies in education,’ she told Metro.co.uk.
‘Teachers and parents need to work together and properly prepare young people for all aspects of digital citizenship.
‘Through meaningful dialogue about online spaces a normal part of home and school life, we can make children aware of the potential risks, and give them a support network of trusted adults they can turn to if they have a problem online.’
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