There was something about Peppa Pig that didn’t sound quite right, even to an adult ear. The cheeky pig who constantly talks back to her parents and fat shames Daddy Pig on a regular basis isn’t exactly my favourite cartoon character, but for some reason she is a firm favourite with my young children. There is nothing guaranteed to keep them quiet for 15 minutes more than a few episodes of Peppa Pig back-to-back on my phone, the TV or the tablet.
YouTube is full of clips and cartoons featuring Peppa and friends, so my child could find her favourites more quickly than I could. Except the one my then three-year-old was looking at wasn't actually an official Peppa cartoon. It looked like Peppa, albeit a slightly more crudely drawn version. But Peppa's trip to the dentist was a little less educationally-themed than normal, with the "dentist" preparing to extract some teeth.
I’m not sure how that episode ended; YouTube was shut down immediately and quietly deleted from the tablet. But it was an eye-opener about what parents are facing in trying to keep their children safe when they go online.
The temptation is always there. You know that a bit of YouTube or whatever game they’re into will buy you 10 minutes of peace. But you wouldn’t let your child roam unsupervised in an unfamiliar area, so why is the internet any different?
With a multitude of content out there that children can access, keeping your children safe from online harm is a growing concern. Banning your child from going online is tempting, but not realistic. The internet is part of our daily lives, so keeping your child completely isolated from it might be fine while they are five, but it is unlikely to last very long.
"Preparation is key," says Alex Cooney, chief executive of CyberSafeIreland. "We prepare our kids for so many other things in life, whether it's cooking, the road or being careful around water . . . this is another aspect of life that we need to prepare our kids for, and it's becoming increasingly important that we do so. We can't just kind of let them at it and not give them any guidance. They need to be equipped."
Smartphones and tablets mean the internet is everywhere, and with connected games consoles also in the mix, your child may be getting online at an earlier age than you thought possible.
“We have to be realistic as well, right? Kids aren’t always going to be under our watchful eye. They’re going to be in other people’s houses, with other people’s rules,” says Cooney. “So I think that preparation and those conversations that we have with the kids are really important. Because if they see something that upsets them or isn’t right, or doesn’t look right, what we want is that they feel they can come and chat about it.”
That advice is particularly pertinent given the number of online scare stories that have spread like wildfire. Remember Momo? The creepy character was said to be popping up all over the place, targeting children with a dare game that challenged them to do things ranging from messing up their room to attempting suicide. But it turned out that parents were talking more about Momo than children, and there was no proof that Momo had actually been responsible for any suicides.
The truth is, parents should have been more concerned by YouTube and what it was exposing their child to than any dangers posed by Momo.
“That’s not to say online grooming and extortion or extreme cases of cyberbullying don’t happen – they absolutely do,” says Cooney. “But there are also more day-to-day concerns that we need to think about, you know, like, just in terms of what are our kids sharing online? You know, who are they sharing it with? Who are they talking to? Do they understand about their data? Probably not is the answer because we’re not teaching them about it. We’re not teaching that in schools, we’re not teaching them about it at home.”
Ger Brick has visited hundreds of schools to deliver talks on internet safety. He says engaging in your child's online activity is important.
“As parents, we show an interest in every aspect of our children’s lives,” he says. “Your child’s online world is a place they go to socialise with their friends. A place they spend as much time, if not more, than they do playing basketball or football. So why don’t we talk about it?”
How you speak to them is just as important. Laying down rules can be counterproductive – don't go on Facebook, stay away from Snapchat. Brick says these messages are received in a negative way. "We as parents are on the South Pole, plotting rules, worrying and giving out about our children," he says. "Meanwhile, the kids are on the North Pole having great fun." He suggests making it fun by showing an interest and learning about their favourite music stars, for example, leading to conversations where you can engage in their internet life.
Part of it is a lack of understanding about technology and the dangers it brings alongside the opportunities. Cooney sees many parents attend the various talks and workshops CyberSafeIreland put on at school and other locations, and they are concerned about what they can do to protect their children.
‘Addicted to Fortnite’
“So often we’re talking to parents where it’s already a problem. You know, they’re already addicted to Fortnite, or they freak out when when parents say it’s time to come off the device,” says Cooney. “It’s so much easier to have thought through those battles beforehand. I know hindsight is a wonderful thing, but kids need boundaries, they need boundaries in other parts of their lives as well, but they certainly need boundaries on the online piece. We need to think about that. Children with unlimited, unsupervised access are in a vulnerable place.”
Whatever way you approach giving your child access to the internet now, bear in mind you will have to rethink it in the future. What suits now won’t work when they are 14 or older, and need a bit more freedom.
Above all, it’s not about limiting their access to resources online, but more about giving them the skills to figure out what is good and not so good online.
“We want children to be smart online users, they need to be critical thinkers online, they need not to expect everything at face value,” said Cooney. “We want them to challenge stuff and question stuff.”
Advice for parents
Talk to your child
Prepare them early, but in an age-appropriate way. There is no point in scaring them at eight or nine, but you can start to discuss boundaries.
Think about day-to-day issues
What content are they being exposed to online? How long are they spending online? Who are they talking to? What are they sharing? “These are the kind of day-to-day concerns I would say that we need to think about as parents,” says Alex Cooney. “Not to be scaremongering, but this is part of parenting. They are going to need to parent on the online piece as well.”
Use parental controls and privacy settings
Familiarise yourself with them. They may not weed everything out, but they will certainly stop your child from accidentally stumbling across inappropriate content. You may also want to look at disabling geolocation services. And remember, children are more involved with technology, so they may be more tech savvy than you think in a short space of time. In other words, check back regularly to make sure they haven’t disabled the parental controls.
Children need boundaries, and online is no exception. Allowing unfettered access to the internet from an early age could cause issues later on when children are seeking more freedom. “As children get older, they’re going to need more independence, more privacy, it’s gonna be a lot harder to grapple with a 14- or 15-year-old over their internet use,” says Cooney. “It’s going to be much easier to start that when they’re younger and establish the good ground rules.”
Talk to other parents
They are probably facing similar issues to you.
“Don’t try to tackle this on your own, reach out to other parents and say, ‘how are you managing this?’” says Cooney. “You can build a community of support. If you know that a third of the class is not going to get a phone until whatever age, that gives you a bit of leverage.
Tech to protect
Google's "net nanny" will filter out inappropriate or explicit images from your Google Search results. I tried it turned on and off, and there was a massive difference in the results returned – particularly with image searches. It's not 100 per cent, though, and so while it is a good tool to filter out a lot of things, you shouldn't totally rely on it.
Google has a built-in tool for keeping an eye on your child’s activity while on their Android smartphone or tablet. The parent app that controls it all can be installed on an iPhone or Android device, and it will keep an eye on screen time, manage what apps they can use, lock their device and see their location.
Internet-monitoring software that will work on mobile phones, or through your home router to make sure your child isn’t accessing inappropriate sites or spending too much time online. The mobile software works with Android phones and will also control access through wifi networks, so even if your child tries to circumvent the restrictions using their mobile data access, they won’t be able to. It costs €5 per month for up to three Android devices; support for iOS devices are coming soon.
Qustodio claims to be the best parental monitoring software out there. We won’t get into a debate about that, but it does offer some good features to protect your child. It can be installed on iOS and Android devices, and all you need is five minutes of access to the phone. The free version gives you the option to set time limits for device usages, designate restricted times and filter web content. The premium version offers all of that plus the ability to see your child’s location on a rolling timeline, limit access to apps and games, monitor SMS and calls and, on Android devices, hit a “panic button” if your child is out of contact. The premium plan costs $55 for the entire year to protect up to five devices.