Teaching children to protect themselves online

The basics: ‘Children in primary school should not be using regular social networks sites’

Singer songwriter Gavin James, (2nd from right) with students from left; Liam Neeson, Colaiste Oiriall, Monaghan, Lia Grogan, Presentation Thurles and Jason Moore, St. Kevins CC, Clondalkin, Dublin at the launch of Safer Internet Day 2014 in Dublin. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Singer songwriter Gavin James, (2nd from right) with students from left; Liam Neeson, Colaiste Oiriall, Monaghan, Lia Grogan, Presentation Thurles and Jason Moore, St. Kevins CC, Clondalkin, Dublin at the launch of Safer Internet Day 2014 in Dublin. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times


The US authorities last month arrested 14 men accused of operating an online child pornography network featuring images obtained from children on popular social networking sites. The men assumed female identities to connect with more than 250 children ranging in age from three to 17 years in the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Belgium. The network has more than 27,000 subscribers.

It’s chilling for parents with children spending more and more time online. “Stranger danger” is an overstated threat and we know children are at greatest risk from people close to home, but when it comes to the internet, the world of strangers is vast and borderless. It’s easy for those with criminal intent to disguise themselves as innocent web users.

Speaking about the arrests, Daniel Ragsdale, deputy director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, pointed to a trend of children being enticed into sharing sexually explicit material online. “We cannot arrest our way out of this: education is the key to prevention,” he said.

But how can we educate our children in a world where we are the immigrants, and they are the natives?

The Department of Education and Science (DES) is taking child protection online seriously, working with schools and youth groups to help children take responsibility for their own safety online, not just from predators, but from bullies too.

A recent Safer Internet Day event was attended not only by the Minister for Education, but also by Garda representatives, there to communicate the message to students that the internet is not a safe space for bullies or others looking to take advantage of young people online.

Dr Maureen Griffin is a forensic psychologist with specific expertise in sex offender assessment. She lectures in abnormal psychology, online internet solicitation and risk assessment in universities and on Garda and Irish Defence Forces training programmes. However, over the past two years she has spent more and more time in schools, talking to parents, staff and students about internet safety. The demand for her talks is now so great that she is booked up until January 2015.

“There is just so much information out there that parents and teachers don’t know where to begin, so I try and keep it simple,” says Griffin.

Over 13 means over 13
She starts with the law, in this case (appropriately, given the websites involved) US federal law. “The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act states children under 13 can only give out personal information with the permission of their parents,” says Griffin. “Websites such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat are designed for children aged 13 and older. Websites aimed at younger children, such as Moshi Monsters, Moviestarplanet and Club Penguin, require parental permission from users to supply information.”

In short, children in primary schools should not be using regular social networking sites, she says. Of course they are, and in large numbers, because the rules are easy to circumvent. Despite this, Griffin believes these rules should be taken seriously by parents, and primary age children shouldn’t be on social networking sites, other than those designed for their age.

“For a child under 13 to access some of the popular sites, they need to lie about their age,” says Griffin. “The problems with that are various. They are masquerading as older than they are, so those making contacts with them may take them as older. Also, they will be advertised to according to their stated age, and will see ads that are inappropriate. Some children think they are clever by putting their age down at 90 or 100 to avoid ‘creepy’ people online, but they are registered as adults and precautions taken by the website won’t work.

“The age recommendation is there for a reason. These sites are not considered safe for children under 13, and yet I meet such children all the time, as young as first class, who are on social networking sites.”

She believes students should not use social networking sites until they are over 16, when they have a better chance of processing the information maturely. The constructed narratives of the social network page can give the impression everyone else is having a better life than you, she says.

“These sites are made up of images of good times, airbrushed photos and ‘perfect’ lives – young, vulnerable teenagers can come away from that with a very negative view of their own lives.”

Do you know who your friends are?
In order to be bullied online, it often means accepting online “friendship” from bullies in the first place. To address online bullying, young people need to be able to recognise it and have the language to report it. The DES has a classroom toolkit, #Up2Us, to help teachers or youth leaders to work with groups of young people and help them to recognise bullying and deal with it.

The pack includes a case studies describing bullying incidents: the backgrounds, how the bullying develops and its impact. In most cases, bullying is carried out by someone in the victim’s online network.

“Friend requests” can come from anywhere in the world. A child’s contact list on Viber or Snapchat can get out of hand if they are not choosy. “Studies in the US show that a third of children are accepting friends and contacts online that they do not know,” says Griffin. “They could be accepting a bully. Children need to know their friends, contacts and followers. Otherwise, if bullying messages start arriving on Viber or Snapchat, it can be hard to identify the source.”

She advises parents and students to know the privacy settings of the sites they use. “Sites like Instagram are public by default unless you change the settings to allow only your friends to see what you post. Facebook has more detailed privacy settings. Parents need to check these out. There are templates online to guide you through them.” (See panel, right.)

The most likely threat here is not from the likes of paedophile networks but from bullies. “If you open up your online world to people you don’t know well, they can take material you post and use it against you. If you receive bullying content, you want to be able to identify where it’s from.”

Bullies can come from within the closest of circles. Maureen Griffin warns students and parents to take password security seriously. “Students they should treat their password like their toothbrush: share it with nobody and change it regularly. If you give your Facebook or Twitter password to your best friend and you have a row, it can be easily used against you.”

Your web story
One of the key messages we’ve all had to learn in recent years is how to censor our online output to ensure we are not authoring a story of ourselves we might later regret. It’s hard to get a sense of how people regard us online because if someone has seen a picture of us drunk and disorderly, or read a post in which we slag off somebody, that might be their main impression, regardless of anything else we might post.

For young people raised on the internet, a message of self-censorship has been difficult to drive home because the borders between real life and online life are hazy. There is one fundamental difference though: permanence. Something you shout in the playground will be forgotten. Something you write in a copy can be erased. Something you put online can be retrieved and used again and again, to bully you, to discredit you and to leave you open to judgment by people you don’t even know.

“You have to get students to think about what they are putting out there,” says Griffin. “Could this picture be used to make fun of me? Could this comment get me into trouble? Could a bully use this personal information about me or my family to get at me? They need to be aware they can’t take it back. “I see many cases where a child sends a picture through Snapchat, it’s grabbed and posted on Facebook and then used to bully the child. It’s hard for the child to speak out when he or she posted the image in the first place.”

Internet bullying is a hot topic right now and it’s easy to write it off as an age-old problem with a new platform. But Griffin sees the phenomenon at close range and she says it’s a very different animal.

“When I was in school I would have a fight with friend, but by the time I had walked home I would have calmed down. The fight would be over until the next day and usually the heat would be gone out of it. Now a trivial fight starts in school, and when the bell rings it moves onto the phone where students are posting about how horrible someone is on a public forum so others can get involved.

The audience get bigger and the exchanges continue through the evening. It’s at everyone’s fingertips, so small rows can escalate quickly to become big issues. Students can’t switch off and, even if they do, the conversation rumbles on without them. They can’t contain it.”
Start with them on their web journey

Smartphones have made it even more difficult for students and parents to ringfence online activity. Griffin advises against giving primary school children their own phone, especially if it has internet access.

“I’m often asked about security software to block inappropriate content,” says Griffin. “I don’t recommend it because it gives parents a false sense of security. Using the internet is like crossing the road, you just don’t let your children off on their own until you’re sure they have road sense. You have to sit down and talk to them about the internet as you would about sex or alcohol. You’ll learn from them.

“At primary school they want to tell you, they’re so eager to let you know, so start the conversation and keep it going. Keep the technology central – don’t let it drift into the shadows and remember, don’t feel guilty or outdated because your child’s room isn’t filled with technology or because you don’t allow them on Facebook.”

Children and adolescents are naturally curious. While pornography has always existed, the internet has made such content much more accessible and it’s inevitable many children will accidentally, or purposefully, accesses age inappropriate material online. Griffin says your reaction as a parent is important in this scenario.

“Their understanding of the material will depend on many factors including their age and sexual education. For instance, a child may use search terms that have another meaning and accidentally encounter adult content. As adults we can immediately understand what is depicted, but children may process this information differently. So it’s important to talk about their understanding of what they saw.”

Griffin doesn’t recommend banning internet use as a result of such events - you’ll discourage them from telling you the next time. Have a calm talk to establish how or why they accessed the material in the first place: was it curiosity, did friends encourage them, were they looking for answers to something they did not understand?

Getting Information: websites that can help:
To have meaningful conversations with your children about their online activity, you need some information yourself. These websites are straightforward :

isfsi.ie Internet Safety for Schools Ireland was set up by Dr Maureen Griffin and contains resources for parents, teachers and primary and secondary school students.
thatsnotcool.com US website for young school students, with range of topics, such as text harassment, privacy settings, bullying and posting pictures. Uses animations, web discussions and other user-friendly tools.
internetsafety.ie The Irish Office for Internet Safety website. You can also report illegal content through the site.
webwise.ie An Irish website for teachers and parents provides a wealth of information around internet safety, including the new anti-bullying kit for Junior Cycle, #Up2Us, just launched as part of Safer Internet day.

Doing it for themselves: #Up2Us takes on cyberbullies:

While the role of the parent in cyber safety is important, in the end it is the web generation who must take control of their own web lives. Over the past year, a number of schools in Ireland have been involved in projects to take the power back, as part of a larger national effort to raise awareness of safe online practice.

As part of National Safer Internet Day 2014, the Department of Education and Skills launched an anti-bullying kit, #Up2Us, for use in Irish secondary schools . At the launch in Dublin, students from around the country showcased their projects to empower young people online. There were research projects, presentations and awareness campaigns. T wo projects stood out as having the potential for broader reach.

At Waterford County Comhairle Na nÓg, students devised the “Cyber Code” – a campaign aimed at combating cyberbullying, due to be introduced to 4,000 students in Waterford in the coming months.

Following a presentation from the team, students are invited to sign up to a code of behaviour comprising the following three pledges:

I promise to never cyber bully.

I promise to report any cyber bullying I see;.

I promise to be aware of how I present myself online.

The team has backed up the campaign with original research and the students involved are trained to deliver cy ber safety messages to their peers. For more information, visit cybercode.ie.

At Bishopstown Community School in Cork, students have produced an attractive wristband with a built-in USB key. The team have loaded the key with two important documents: one outlining steps a student should take if he or she is being bullied, and another detailing how to grab screenshots of bullying posts for evidence, and how to save them to the Cybersafe wristband. The band can then be presented to a trusted adult.

By wearing the band, students can make a statement about their opposition to bullying. For more information visit cybersafe.ie.

To download a copy of the #Up2Us anti-bullying kit, visit webwise.ie.