Kids online: how can we keep them safe?
On this, Safer Internet Day, some leading experts offer advice on key questions of online concern to parents
5th and 6th-year students in Drimnagh Castle who are involved in an anti-cyberbullying campaign, Let’s Kick it Out. Pictured from left: Eoin Byrne, Emmet Farrell, Thomas Maguire and Shaun McDonnell. Photograph: Dave Meehan
From left: Emmet Farrell, Thomas Maguire, Shaun McDonnell, Eoin Byrne, 5th- and 6th-year students in Drimnagh Castle who are involvedin an anti-cyberbullying campaign, Let’s Kick it Out. Photograph:Dave Meehan
Teenagers’ lives now are akin to those of celebrities – they never know when they might be photographed and where those photos might appear.
That’s an observation by Sarah O’Doherty, clinical psychologist and mother of a teenager, who wonders what impact the ubiquity of social media is going to have on this the first generation to grow up with it.
“As teenagers you are supposed to be able to do stupid things, without any sanctions,” she says. “They are going to be in their 20s and their past is with them – they can’t forget it.”
Meanwhile, John Devlin is one concerned father of two children under 10 who believes parents are not getting nearly enough support from the State to protect children. He is alarmed at the ease of access many children have to violent pornography.
Broadband providers should be ensuring adult-rated content is an “opt-in” service, he argues, rather than putting the onus on families to filter it out, for which they may not have the technological know-how.
We are the first generation of parents to raise children in an internet-saturated era. From toddlers on tablets to teenagers on their phones, its influence, for good and bad, is a whole new parenting challenge.
On this, Safer Internet Day, we ask some experts to address common parental concerns:
Q I know it’s best if a parent introduces the child to the internet but what age should I start?
A It’s very hard to give a definitive answer to this one, says internet safety expert Simon Grehan, who suggests it’s more important to encourage your child to engage in activities that are appropriate to their stage in life.
However, children are going online at an increasingly younger age. An EU Kids Online survey of nine to 16 year olds, back in 2010, found that, on average, children in Ireland were nine when they first went online, although the nine year olds had first used the internet at the age of seven.
Grehan, Webwise project co-ordinator with the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST), knows the first age of use is dropping all the time. After all, children no longer need to be able to read to get into websites.
“Simple and intuitive touch-screen technologies are allowing younger and younger children to play games and access the internet,” he says. “There are excellent apps that can be used by toddlers.”
Webwise.ie has tips on how to “toddler-proof” your tablet, which include setting up parental controls, limiting or preventing downloads, using apps together and turning off the wi-fi so they can play safely offline.
For most parents the more difficult decision is when to let children go onto social networks, suggests Grehan. Most social networks say they are restricted to over-13s, mainly due to administrative complications associated with retaining data on minors.
“In reality many children under 13 years old use social networks with their parents’ permission. In Ireland, well over one-third of 11-12 year olds have profiles on social networking sites. You know your child best; you are best placed to decide if they are equipped to deal with the pressures that come with socialising online.”
Q Where can I get independent advice on security features and do I have to pay for software or will free downloads be okay?
A There are plenty of software options for parental controls and they broadly fall into three categories: virus protection, filtering and monitoring, says Grehan. There are also parental controls built into most operating systems and devices.
All these tools are there to help parents to restrict access to adult content, manage the time their children can spend online and the services they can use, and get reports on their children’s online activity.
“To be honest, these tools can be complicated to use and, at best, will stop your children from inadvertently coming across pornographic content. A lot of these tools are free or have basic versions that are free; others you pay a once-off fee when you buy them, and for others you pay subscriptions.” You can find out more at sipbench.eu.
However, he is concerned that many of these options may no longer be fit for purpose because they were designed for the days when homes had one PC connected to the internet.
It is estimated that an average family will now have more than 11 devices that connect to the internet. This means parents have the laborious task of installing, configuring and maintaining parental controls on all these devices, with settings customised for each different user.
In other countries, such as the UK, network-level filtering options are available, which enable parents to set up restrictions that cover all the devices in the home.
None of the internet service providers in Ireland currently offers this service, he adds.
Q I have three children aged 14 to nine and I can’t keep up with all the developments in technology and social media. Am I naive to think that relying on parenting basics, ie encouraging responsibility and respect, is enough?
A It is more important to have the parenting skills than to be an expert in technology, Grehan agrees, but to be able to have informed conversations, you might want to find out what social networking tools your children are using and what the associated risks are.