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


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.” 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

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?

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.

It will take only a few minutes to get the basics on a site such as

You could also speak to the older children and get them to talk to you about their worries for the younger children, he says.

“But I’d stop short of asking the older kids to police what the younger ones are doing; this is your responsibility.”

Q I have become aware that two girls in my 10-year-old daughter’s class have put up a short film clip of themselves making fun of another girl in the class. Should I alert the principal – even though it was clearly shot at one of the girl’s houses?

A It would be good to talk to the principal, based on the fact that the children concerned are both in that school, says Áine Lynch, chief executive officer of the National Parents’ Council (Primary).

The new anti-bullying guidelines published by the Department of Education and Skills last September for all primary and post-primary schools make it clear, she explains, that when something happens outside school but has an impact on the classroom environment, the school should be involved in seeking a solution.

The school has resources that are available to those families, she points out, and action should be taken in the context of its anti-bullying policy, which every school is now required to have.

“So a response would not be just an individual’s decision of what to do but should be within the framework of the school’s anti-bullying policy.”

The dilemma of when it is appropriate that the school be involved has been going on for some years, adds Lynch, who believes the clarity that the guidelines have brought is useful both for principals and parents. “We know that children’s lives aren’t neatly subdivided.”

Q My 14-year-old daughter has shown me a couple of nasty texts from one of her “friends”. She laughed them off but may be more upset than she is letting on. There is no way she is going to give up her phone so what should I do?

A Part of being a parent of a teenager is learning to know when to jump in and at what level, says clinical psychologist Sarah O’Doherty. Parents can get too involved in online incidents – out of worry, because they don’t know what is going on.

Beware of rushing in, all guns blazing, because friends fall out and it may be temporary. Always bear in mind your child’s perspective – how she could be teased as a result of your actions – but also the wider impact of your interference on her relationships.

“It is not just that text, there is a whole social circle going on around that,” she says. “You could be getting in at completely the wrong level, upsetting everything and making it worse.”

However, O’Doherty continues, congratulate her for coming to you about it and keep a careful watch on her mood for signs of any continuing problem.

As for taking the phone off her, research shows that fear of losing access to technology is one of the main reasons young people don’t report problems. But parents should put boundaries around its use.

“I don’t think any 14 year old should have her phone at night,” she adds, “then at least she is not getting these texts between 9.30pm and 8am.”

Q I keep an eye on what my 12-year-old son is posting on Facebook but he and his friends have started sharing photos through Instagram, which I don’t have access to. I am afraid a photo he thinks is fine might upset one of his friends – or his friends’ parents. What should I do?

A Strictly speaking, it is against the terms and conditions of Facebook and Instagram for him to have an account because he is below the minimum age. However, if you are happy for him to use these services, says Grehan, you should try to agree with your child on what type of content it is okay to share. Talk to him about how it’s almost impossible to remove content from the internet once it’s uploaded, that it can easily be copied and shared. It’s impossible to monitor everything children do, Grehan adds, “so you should be very clear on what they should do if they need help and what behaviour you consider to be acceptable”.

Q My daughter tells me her 16-year-old sister is always “doing Snapchats” with her boyfriend. While I respect her right to privacy, should I say something in case the pics are inappropriate – and, if they are, is there any way that they could be saved rather than deleted within 10 seconds as Snapchat claims?

A It is making a lot of presumptions to think the photos may be inappropriate, says O’Doherty, and this sort of paranoia can arise when parents are frightened because they don’t know about the technology they are dealing with.

Bring it up as an everyday topic, she suggests, along the lines of “Tell me about Snapchat and what goes on,” or just have a general chat about texting.

Snapchat images can be saved, says Grehan. While it is difficult to capture the image on a phone within that 10-second window, there are free apps that can preserve the photos.

So, despite an illusion of confidentiality, the same rule applies when sharing photos through Snapchat as through any other electronic medium – there is a possibility that picture could be seen by many more people than the sole, initial recipient.

War on bullies at Drimnagh Castle

Parents need to realise that social networking is our life now, says a teenage adviser involved in Safer Internet Day.

“Obviously they need to have a watching eye to make sure there is no abuse going on but also to know when to step back and let young people get on with it,” says Emmet Farrell, a member of Webwise’s youth advisory panel.

Letting young people get on with helping to protect each other against cyber-bullying can be effective.

Take, for example, Emmet’s school – Drimnagh Castle in Dublin – where an anti-bullying campaign is running this week. It is building on a pioneering initiative which the school’s student council started at the end of 2012, after a cluster of suicides around the country were linked to cyber-bullying.

The students shot a video for their first Let’s Kick It Out campaign and ran workshops for first-year pupils in the all-boys school. Determined to spread the word beyond their own four walls, the campaign leaders not only set up a Facebook page but also presented their first-year workshop to student councils in other schools to encourage them to run something similar.

Details of the workshop are part of an Up2Us campaign kit, which was launched by Webwise in Dublin yesterday. It gives schools templates for anti-cyberbullying initiatives, explains Emmet, so they can put their own stamp on campaigns but won’t have to start from scratch,

Drimnagh Castle’s first-year workshop includes practical advice, such as being quick to use the “block button” against anybody posting hurtful comments.

“That way they have no way of offending you; they won’t see you on Facebook and they won’t think about you,” says sixth-year student Eoin Byrne.

Do young people not want to know what’s being said, even if it is upsetting?

“In the girls’ schools we found that,” agrees Eoin. “They always wanted to know, even though they were saying bad stuff about them. We were trying to get the point across that you shouldn’t want to know – why should you care about something that is only putting you down?”

Students who read abusive or angry posts about somebody else on a social networking site were encouraged to chip in with a “Hang on, that’s a bit much” sort of comment, says Emmet, who has seen how that can turn a conversation. The student council also set up a confidential email.

Eoin believes these peer-led measures have made a difference. While bullying was never a major problem in the school, he has seen less of it over the past year. The liaison teacher with the student council, Lisa Carley, agrees.

“In general, I think it has changed the vibe of the school,” she says, adding that younger students are more confident now about approaching older students.

Have your say . . .

Parents and young people are invited to share their views with a task force, which was set up last December to look at children’s welfare online.

The Internet Content Governance Advisory Group (ICGAG), which is examining emerging issues around internet content and, specifically, its impact on the lives of children and young people, is running a public consultation until February 28th.

The ICGAG, which was appointed by the Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, has been asked to produce recommendations on the most appropriate relationship between internet and content providers, the State and citizens in protecting children online. It published a consultation paper last month to elicit views of all interested parties.

A copy of the consultation paper and response form is available on or can be obtained by emailing: CAG14@dcenr. or by writing to Internet Content Governance Advisory Group, DCENR, 29-31 Adelaide Road, Dublin 2.

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