Myth-busting | Parents’ biggest internet safety fears

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For some of us parents, the thought of our precious tweens wandering around the online world unaccompanied sends us into a greater panic than popping them on the Number 9 bus into town alone for the first time. There’s something about the dangers around internet safety that paradoxically feel worse than those in The Real World somehow.

So, let’s have a look at some real parents’ fears and try to bust some myths where we can. After all, that internet isn’t going anywhere, is it? Exactly.

Oh, and this is big boy (or girl) stuff. For once, we’re going to stop the lolz and take this stuff seriously. We’ll see you for a joke on the next article but in the meantime – pay attention. It’s worth it.

• Online grooming

The NSPCC definition of grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking. Obviously, this can happen face-to-face as well as online, but there are certain aspects of internet conversations that can make it easier for groomers to take advantage. The main difference is that it’s impossible to know whether someone you talk to online is telling the truth about their age, gender, location or other personal details.

Groomers online have easy access to young people through social media sites, instant messaging apps, or gaming platforms and chatrooms, and can discover a lot about a young person’s interests from their online profiles. Whether online or face-to-face, the goal of a groomer is to gain the trust of a child or young person in order to exploit them.

There are no stats on grooming because often children don’t tell anyone what is happening to them because of shame or guilt, because they don’t know they are being groomed, or because they believe they are in a relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Signs of grooming include being very secretive (including about what they are doing online), talking about older boyfriends or girlfriends, going to unusual places to meet friends, owning new things such as clothes or mobile phones that they can’t or won’t explain, and using or having access to drugs and alcohol.

What can parents do about online grooming?

There are two key things you can do to help protect children from groomers. The first is to talk to them about grooming – what groomers do, how they do it, and how to identify groomers if they think this is what is happening to them. Broader conversations around digital resilience and trust will help (and should be part of ongoing talks with your kids as they get older).

The second is to keep an eye on their demeanour. Again, the NSPCC says ‘groomers will exploit any vulnerability to increase the child or young person’s dependence on them, and reduce the likelihood of the child speaking out’. So keep an eye on your kid’s mood, self esteem and behaviour.

If you’re worried about a child, contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000. If you want to report online abuse you can do so via CEOP.

• YouTube

“I am terrified of my kids watching YouTube videos without me sitting over their shoulder… I always imagine some obscene content is going to pop up. Also, so much of the homemade kids videos are totally weird and freaky.”
Parent of a six-year-old

Well, the bad news is that you’re right to worry. WIRED recently followed YouTube sidebar recommendations down a rabbit hole from safe to risky. Beginning with popular children’s animation Bob the Train, videos veered into Paw Patrol rip-offs and then to a terrifying animation featuring women with Minnie Mouse heads fighting each other in high heels in just 14 videos.

WIRED also found videos containing violence against child characters, age-inappropriate sexualisation, Paw Patrol characters attempting suicide and Peppa Pig being tricked into eating bacon. No matter how great a digital babysitter YouTube might seem on the surface, it’s not worth it.

What about that oft-lauded YouTube Kids app? Although YouTube state that their main channel is strictly for ages 13 and upwards (see the recent claims that YouTube illegally collects data on children) and that anyone younger than that should be using YouTube Kids, there are plenty of really weird videos to view here, too. And there’s no real functionality to allow you to block certain types of content, so it certainly shouldn’t be viewed as a hugely safer option.

What can parents do about inappropriate YouTube content?

If your kids really want to watch YouTube, you’re going to have to watch with them. And if inappropriate content comes up? It’s the perfect opportunity to talk to your kids about what is and what isn’t okay, and to take a shared problem solving approach – ‘a great foundation on which to build a child’s sense of independence and responsibility as a digital native’ according to educational psychologist, Dan O’Hare.

Want a safer alternative to YouTube? Try The Kid Should See This for 3500+ videos that kids will love, plus – ahem! – our own Beano videos always pass parental muster!

• Cyber Bullying

Last year, over 12,000 counselling sessions conducted by Childline focused on online issues, while a recent nationwide survey revealed that 55% of young people have received hurtful comments online, with 18% experiencing cyber bullying.

So what is cyber bullying? It’s an increasingly common form of bullying that takes place on social networks, games and phones. Similar to bullying, it can include excluding children from games and group messages, spreading rumours about someone, posting threats, nasty or embarrassing messages, images or videos, stealing online identities, hate sites, and more. Anything horrible kids do to each other face-to-face can happen online.

Studies also show that kids behave differently online – the detachment of the internet makes it more likely for kids to join in with existing bullying behaviour and/or to stand back and watch it take place. Plus there’s no escape – it can happen at any time of day and wherever kids are online.

Signs of cyber bullying include being afraid to go to school, being mysteriously ‘ill’ each morning, or skipping school, not doing as well at school, being nervous, losing confidence, or becoming distressed and withdrawn, problems with eating or sleeping, bullying others.

What can parents do about cyber bullying?

The Government’s Stop Bullying advice is as follows:
Monitor a teen’s social media sites, apps, and browsing history, if you have concerns that cyberbullying may be occurring.
Review or re-set your child’s phone location and privacy settings.
Follow or friend your teen on social media sites or have another trusted adult do so.
Stay up-to-date on the latest apps, social media platforms, and digital slang used by children and teens.
Know your child’s user names and passwords for email and social media.
Establish rules about appropriate digital behavior, content, and apps.

We also suggest talking about cyber bullying in conversations about bullying and about internet safety – you may need to explain what cyber bullying is or find out what kids already know from peers and school. Make sure kids know who to go to for help if they need it. If your child doesn’t want to talk to you, then let them know Childline is a free and confidential service they can access by phone, email or live chat.

Above all, do stay calm! Many kids are worried their parents will over react and make the situation worse. It’s crucial to get your child to open up to you so that you can tackle the problem together.

• Sexting

Sexting is known legally as youth-produced sexual imagery, which refers to images and video footage that is either owned, shared or created by young people under the age of 18. Because it’s illegal to create or share sexually explicit images of people under the age of 18, even if the person in the picture is you, anyone found to have done this could end up with a criminal conviction.

The danger for tweens is that even a jokey snapshot of their brother’s bare bum sent to a friend could count as distribution of child pornography, and if the person sharing the picture is over 10 (the age of criminal responsibility), they could be in a whole heap of trouble.

Kids who do take pictures and share them with friends, boyfriends or girlfriends, are vulnerable to these pictures falling into the wrong hands, which could lead to bullying or worse. But why do they do it?

Have a watch of this animation, produced by ThinkUKnow (the National Crime Agency’s CEOP Command), which explains the thinking behind it. And head over to the ThinkUKnow site for the other three animations in the series.

What can parents do about sexting?

It’s incredibly important to talk to tweens about why sexting is a bad idea and to discourage them as much as possible, for all the reasons outlined above. Talking to them early might be uncomfortable, and lead to as many questions as answers, but it’s necessary and more effective than leaving it until later – it may be too late.

If an image has already been made, sent or posted, the Childline advice is to try having an honest conversation with the person the image was sent to. Ask them to delete it. The quicker you’re able to do this the better. You can’t control what someone will do with an image, but having an honest conversation can help to make sure they won’t pass it on.

Encourage your kid to talk to their teacher, too, if appropriate as schools have ways of dealing with these sorts of problems and can confiscate mobiles if they believe they have sexual images on them.

And report it. If you’re under 18 and an indecent or nude pic of you is posted online, that’s illegal. You can contact the website directly yourself or make a report about what’s happened to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), who will speak to the website to try and remove it.

• Selfie culture

With over 1 million selfies being shared every day, it’s no wonder the word ‘selfie’ made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. But with 35% of boys and 51% of girls aged 8-17 saying they worry about how attractive they look when they share photos online, there’s an obvious downside to the trend.

Selfies can become problematic when they negatively impact on self-esteem. Although it’s natural for teens to be pre-occupied by their appearance, social media can fuel comparisons with other people, both in terms of physical attractiveness but also perceived happiness.

What can parents do about selfie culture?

Remind your kids constantly that anything they see online is a persona or an illusion, designed to portray a specific side to people and isn’t the whole truth. Discourage them from creating their own fantasy online self, instead encouraging real life connections and genuine discussion around bad days as well as good days. And yes, us adults could learn a lot from this, too! Worth stressing here as selfies can quickly cross over into sexting, so make sure you know how to handle both situations before they arise.

• Digital footprint

The current unravelling of Facebook is bringing to light just how much information is stored about users when we impatiently click ‘yes’ to that cookie message. Although the digital world moves incredibly quickly, it’s not always possible to remove comments, images or videos from the internet if you no longer want to be associated with them. This isn’t such an issue for adults when our careers are already established or relationships more solid, but for kids? Think back to some of the less than savoury things you might’ve got up to as a tween or teen and imagine them archived for posterity, just a few clicks away for all to see. The thought makes our blood run cold.

What can parents do about digital footprints?

Digital footprints are also known as digital tattoos, which describes well the permanency of our online activity.

There are two easy questions to get your kids in the habit of asking before they post.
(i) Would I be happy if someone posted this about me? This should weed out any unflattering images they might share of other people or jokey comments that could be taken the wrong way.
(ii) Does it pass the Billboard Test? Before you post something online, think: would you be happy to see it on a billboard where the rest of your school, your parents, your grandparents and neighbours could see it? If not, think twice about sharing online.

RESOURCES AND HELP

Remember, most social media apps are for kids aged 13 and upwards (read what every parent needs to know about social media) and that navigating the online world is going to be hard for kids. Keep talking and finding ways to build up their much-needed digital resilience.

Kooth offers online counselling for young people

Childline is a free and anonymous service kids can access by phone, email or live chat

Report online abuse via CEOP.

The NSPCC helpline number is 0808 800 5000.