There was the recent case of a child running up hundreds of pounds of debt playing 'Farmville'. The unknown 12 year old squandered his own savings of £288 then used his mother's credit card to pay for £625 of bills he’d ran up playing the ‘free’ online game. The game might be free but buying extra in-game ‘coins’ had cost the boy a fortune
Of course, it’s not just financial concerns – there are more sinister dangers lurking online too. So how can you protect your children? Here are our top tips for internet safety for kids.
Take active steps
You can put barriers between your children and any online risk. Here are a few.
Lay down some rules
Discuss web safety with your child and explain that you need to lay down some rules for their own protection. Good rules include:
- The computer lives in a family room
- If someone accesses an unsuitable link they must tell you so you can delete it from the history folder and add the address to the filter list
- It is never alright to use threatening or abusive language online or in an email
- Take a screen break at least every 30 minutes
- Never download unknown files without seeking your permission
You can set parental controls that stop children accessing certain websites or that set time limits for use (particularly useful if you’ve agreed to a computer in their bedrooms but want to stop them sitting up late at night talking to their friends).
It’s also possible to prevent your family from searching for certain words. Don’t worry if you aren’t sure what you’d ban, most of this kind of technology will come pre-programmed but lets you add to it.
Your internet service provider will probably provide some parental control abilities but you can also buy software from any computer shop that allows you to really control what the kids see on the internet.
It’s also worth making the homepage a child-friendly search engine. That way, there’s another barrier between them and unsuitable content. Take a look at Wisekids.org for a list of leading portals.
Talk to them
Whatever measures you put in place to keep your children safe, nothing beats talking to them about keeping safe. The more webwise they are, the less likely they will be to fall victim to any online threat.
Just like with ‘stranger danger’, very young children don’t need to understand the specific online threats – they just need to be conscious of their personal safety.
Here are some dangers you can discuss with your children and ask them what they think. Remember, a blanket ban on talking to strangers online will be far less effective than getting them to understand that people can adopt false identities on the web.
Who’s who online?
Children are very trusting, so it’s important you explain to them that people aren’t always who they say they are on the internet and that they should never meet any online-only friends without talking to you first.
Likewise, they mustn’t take information or emails at face value – ask them if they would believe an email saying they’d won a lottery they hadn’t entered and encourage them to question that kind of communication.
It’s never too early to teach them about phishing scams, this will stand them in good stead for adult life.
Protect the personal
Do you and your children understand what information is personal and should not be shared?
It’s not just phone numbers and email addresses – information on their family and friends, school and clubs can give a considerable insight into their daily activities, which is a needless risk to take.
See into the future
You can protect your child from viruses, scams and predators – but what about protecting them from themselves?
It’s very hard to delete anything completely from the internet after it’s been uploaded. So, if your teenager is regularly posting pictures of themselves messing about with friends onto their favourite webspace, make sure they understand that these images might follow them into their future lives.
Ask them to be circumspect about what images they make public and avoid publishing anything they wouldn’t be happy for their parent or carer to see.
Be aware of bullies
One of the risks of the internet is that it allows children to be bullied outside of the playground – in their own homes. Insults can be shared with huge audiences relatively quickly, which can be devastating for their targets.
Watch out for your child appearing upset after using the computer or their phone and encourage them to talk to you about any distressing messages that upset them. Offer support if they want to report abuse to your internet provider, website manager, their school – or even the police if it’s serious enough.
Recommend they only use moderated chat rooms, to protect them from bullies.
Don’t forget to remind them of how their behaviour might affect other children and encourage them to be thoughtful to their peers online.
Finally, you don’t want to be too authoritarian when it comes to the internet, your children need to feel they can talk to you, whether something’s made them feel uncomfortable online or if they’ve accidentally bought a yacht on eBay with your credit card.
Where to go if you’re worried
There are a couple of websites you and your family should be aware of. Why not save these in your computer’s ‘favourites’ so the kids can easily find them?
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP) runs thinkuknow where children of all ages can easily report their concerns and seek advice.
DirectgovKids – Directgov isn’t just for adults, there’s a great kids' section filled with information and tips on staying safe online
ChildLine - sometimes children don’t feel able to talk to their parents, especially about bullying. ChildLine has a load of advice and support for anyone feeling bullied online.