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When you become a parent, no one warns you about just how much you will worry about your child. We panic every time they’re out of our sight, when they get sick and when they do absolutely anything without us standing over them watching.
One of the primary concerns of Irish parents is, of course, internet safety. As much as the internet is an incredible resource for education and entertainment, it’s also a mysterious and dangerous place – it’s something we’re constantly being warned about in the media, by schools, other parents and by the horror stories we see on social media.
As internet safety is a fairly new phenomenon, it can be tricky to figure out exactly what we can and should do to keep our children as safe as possible. Most crucially, however, it can sometimes be difficult to ascertain exactly what we’re protecting them from.
What are we protecting children from online?
Existing social media channels are evolving constantly and new ones are popping up on a daily basis. While most of us have just got our heads around Facebook and Instagram, our kids are setting up accounts on apps we’ve never heard of and can’t even pronounce.
This rapid evolution makes it close to impossible for parents to keep up with where the danger lies. And of course, understanding what we’re trying to protect our children from is key when it comes to establishing ways to protect them.
In this article, we’re going to outline what the key internet safety concerns are for parents and what you can do about them.
Danger #1 – Unsuitable material
The internet gives us instant access to any kind of information we want or need. In most cases, this is a great benefit but can raise concern when it comes to our children.
With children as young as two using the internet (according to a recent survey from Netmums), they can easily and instantly access inappropriate content such as violent or sexually explicit images with just a few clicks and without meaning to do so. An Internetsafety.ie report suggests that 25% of all children have come across harmful content online and 11% have seen or received sexual content.
Children can access this content through search engines, but also on social media, through games and other apps. National Anti-Bullying Centre in 2015 found that less than 20% of parents are supervising their child’s online activity.
Without proper education, this kind of material can be psychologically and emotionally damaging to children and can deeply disturb or frighten them. With large amounts of exposure to this content, it can also become normalised, leading to them develop flawed views of themselves or others.
What can parents do?
- The first step is to put practical security measure in place in your home and on their devices. Contact your internet provider to enquire about parental control packages.
- Set up web filters. These web filters are available for all devices and browsers and allow parents to set criteria to control which websites should be blocked.
- Set up Google Safe Search to filter out explicit material.
- Set up safety mode within the settings of your or your child’s YouTube account to filter out inappropriate content.
- Become aware of the apps that your child is using and research them online to find out more about age restrictions.
- As children commonly use the internet outside of the home, you can’t monitor their usage 24/7 – in addition, filters and software are not 100% accurate and almost 44% of children admit to lying about their age to gain access to sites (source – Netmums survey). For that reason, it’s important to talk to your children about using the internet safely and let them know what to do if they see something inappropriate – for example, telling an adult. Keeping the lines of dialogue open allow you both to learn as internet safety continues to evolve.
Danger #2 – Cyberbulling and online abuse
Cyberbulling is one of the most widely discussed internet safety concerns for parents and sometimes it seems like we can’t go a day without stumbling across a horrifying story of children harming themselves after feeling threatened online.
As it’s not something that most adults have had personal experience with, it can be difficult to identify with the intense impact of cyberbulling, which can often be more psychologically harmful than traditional bullying, as it is intimate, personal and private.
Dosomething.org found that 70% of students regularly see bulling online and 43% have personally experienced it. Girls are also twice as likely to experience cyberbullying. Only 1 in 10 victims will talk to a trusted adult about their abuse and, shockingly, victims of bullying are 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide.
What can parents do?
- Keep your home computer in a busy area that you can view.
- Be wary if your child is often emotional, anxious, distressed or upset after being online.
- If you are concerned, you can install social media monitoring software, such as Net Nanny, on your child’s device to keep a closer eye on their online activity.
- Talk to them about cyberbulling as soon as they start using social media and give them examples of how to react. For example, teach them not to respond to threats or abuse, but to save all messages and images and to report it to an adult. Teach them that the victim is absolutely not to blame.
- If you think your child may be cyberbullied, talk to their school. Cyberbulling is also a potentially criminal offense, so you may also need to contact local Gardaí.
- Although we might not want to believe it, it’s also important to note that your child could be the one carrying out the bullying. The London School of Economics reports that 60% of people who bully have been bullied themselves, so talk to your child if you suspect this may be happening. Do not rush to judge but be open to their situation.
Danger #3 – Grooming
The very idea of child grooming online is one of the most chilling thoughts for parents. Internetmatters.org cites that 58% of parents are concerned about the threat posed by strangers online.
The very nature of the internet and its anonymity gives people the opportunity to pretend to be someone they’re not to deceive vulnerable groups, such as children.
Groomers may send friend requests or follow children on social media, slowly building online relationships by engaging with their posts and ultimately sending them private messages. They may offer to buy gifts for children and urge them to meet up in person. In a report from Internetsafety.ie, it was revealed that 28% of all children have had contact with a stranger online.
Grooming can happen to any child but is more common among disabled children and those in care, as groomers use vulnerability to encourage dependence.
What can parents do?
- This is perhaps the most difficult and sensitive issue for parents because, if your child is being groomed, it’s likely that they will be incredibly secretive. The groomer may pressurise the child to remain silent or even blackmail them. Parents therefore need to be careful in their approach and watch out for tell-tale signs before accusing their children of such activity. Signs may be; increased secrecy with their online usage, switching screens when you walk in a room, not telling you who they are talking to, mentioning a new friend that you’re not aware of, using devices that you have not bought them or becoming emotionally volatile.
- Talk to your children very openly about this issue, make them aware that it is serious but do not instil fear, as trust will make them more likely to confide in you.
- As mentioned previously, you can also consider installing social media monitoring software to see who they are talking to.
Danger #4 – Sexting
Sexting is one of the most uncomfortable internet safety issues for parents, but it’s something we need to talk about with our children, as there are serious legal implications associated with sexting and ‘sending nudes’.
Sexting is illegal in Ireland among those under 18. A child is breaking the law if they take a sexual image of themselves or a friend, if they share a sexually explicit photo or if they save, store or possess a sexually explicit image of another child. All cases involving the creation, distribution or possession of explicit images of children are potentially criminal and should be reported to An Garda Síochána
Not only is it a potentially criminal offense but it is an act which could harm children in many ways, even into later life. Even if children and teens believe they are sending sexual images or messages in private to a trusted person, there is always the chance that the image could be shared to others which may lead to bullying and abuse. Images could also end up in the hands of child sex offenders.
Not only do teens share this content within intimate relationships, but can also feel compelled to do so from peer and societal pressure. It’s also a way for many young people to flirt, gain attention or validation from others.
Cases of ‘revenge porn’ (non-consensual sharing of this content) and ‘sextortion’ (blackmail) are becoming increasingly common, which can cause anxiety, depression and feelings of shame among victims.
What can parents do?
- Yes, it’s an awkward conversation to have but parents must take responsibility for educating their children on the dangers of sexting or sending nude images.
- Teach them about their digital footprint and give them examples of other young people and teens who have suffered after posting sexual content.
- Again, as a last resort, if you are particularly concerned, consider using monitoring software to see what your child is doing online. Beware, however, as monitoring your child may breakdown communication and cause distrust.
Danger #5 – Internet addiction
Do you know how much time your child is spending online? Research from Netmums suggest that 72% of parents believe their child spends under an hour per day online. However, a children’s poll revealed that young people are spending at least two hours per day on the internet.
Whilst most children do not have issues with their internet usage, in certain circumstances, too much time on the internet can cause emotional and social problems for young people. A 2015 report on internet use among Irish children, carried out by researchers at DIT found that 46% of children have access to the internet in their bedrooms, 14% go on the internet after 9pm ‘a lot’ and 58% of 15-16 year olds said that they use the internet ‘excessively.’
Large amounts of internet exposure may alter the way children think and behave and cause them to gain dependence on the internet, social media and gaming. In addition, those who spend a long time online will not have the valuable, necessary real world experiences that are essential for personal development
What can parents do?
- The first thing to note is that there is no specific set amount of time that children should be spending online. All kids are different and will use the internet for different things. If, however, the internet is causing problems for your child or family, you may want to consider setting limits.
- Signs of potential internet addiction among children may include; being withdrawn, feeling agitated when there is no internet access, emotional outbursts caused by online frustration, losing track of time when online, prefers to spend time online than with friends, spending time online instead of doing homework or housework.
- It is not recommended to implement a complete internet ban at home, but set manageable restrictions, such as no internet after 7pm or no devices in the bedroom.
- Set a good example – spending less time online yourself will help your children follow your lead.
To find out more about internet safety for children in Ireland, visit the following websites:
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