However much the detractors may hate it, the computer age is here to stay. Its forecast that in the next decade years we will see computer and digital development grow at double or triple the speed of the last one. Artificial intelligence software (AI) such as that operating Alexa and Siri will become more and more capable and as with many other jobs, driving instructors might find themselves obsolete as the onset of self-driving cars gets closer. It’s a choice between embracing technological development or perhaps being left behind in the technological wilderness – perhaps the ‘BE-wilderness’!
Attending a recent safeguarding conference, I listened to Lorin LaFave tell an extremely personal story. Lorin’s teenage son Brett Bedar was groomed online. Tragically this led to his sexual assault and murder. Her harrowing experience is every parent’s nightmare and her decision to share her story with everyone is both brave and inspiring in equal measure.
Lorin’s message is clear:
2. Watch - and if you have any concerns
3. Take Action
The difficulty is that it can be hard for people - even the authorities - to believe that there is danger present when their children are ‘safely’ at home in their bedrooms.
Have you seen the advert? It shows a mum holding open the front door and smiling bemusedly as a multitude of people of different ages and both genders troops past her and up to her daughter’s bedroom. Why are they all headed there? The simple fact is that many of us have no idea who our children talk to or what sites they visit when they are online in cyberspace.
My daughter recently researched and made a short film “Online safety tips” for the Milton Keynes Safeguarding Board. She wasn’t surprised to learn from the children she worked with that even for children of primary school age it is easy enough to ‘get around’ parental controls. What she did find surprising is that the issue which most concerned young people was not that of online bullying or grooming itself, but instead the fear that their opinions might be subtly changed and influenced by what they viewed online. I found this remarkably mature and insightful. Given the amount of ‘fake news’ around and the direction that different stories are sometimes given by those telling them, it is hard to know what opinion to form and whether it is then a reasonable one even for adults, let alone impressionable young minds.
One online danger often completely overlooked is the amount of anxiety that social media can inflict on children. Anxiety releases adrenalin and excessive exposure to it can cause real health problems. Social media apps including Snapchat and Instagram encourage prolonged use of themselves through scoring systems such as ‘streaks’ or ‘likes’. Scores build as users chat to friends or post images. A ‘streak’ score resets if you haven’t messaged a friend within 24 hours and a rotating timer lets the user know they are running close to the deadline. Symbols label you as someone’s ‘best friend’ or highlight if they are NOT your ‘best friend’ in return. On a recent Safeguarding course, I was told that an Instagram picture needs to receive about 49 likes to be considered acceptable. Is it any wonder that currently one in five children suffer anxiety?!
So what can we do as parents to protect our children online?
Firstly, start with your own accounts and actions:
Are your own profiles set to ‘private’?
Do you know actually everyone that you are friends with on social media websites?
What information are you telling strangers about your children, their locations and their activity timetables (not to mention when your house is unattended and therefore an obvious target for thieves while you’re away on holiday!)
I see many pictures of children in school uniforms – these are often easily identifiable. Parents themselves often post online innocently about after-school clubs with times and locations. I see photos or videos of little ones, which might be funny and sweet at the time - when they are 12 or 14 and some schoolfriend has found the same photos and videos and then shared them online, your child might be horrified!
* Research and set parental controls.
It is important to understand how parental controls work because they cannot protect children from everything. Make sure you set these on ALL devices (TVs, games consoles etc), including your own if they are accessible to children. Alternatively, set passwords on your personal devices so that children cannot access them by accident.
* Accompany younger children on computers.
Just as you would if taking them outside to the park or shops, keep an eye on children while online, particularly if they are ‘browsing’.
* Explain the dangers in relation to the real world to inform understanding.
Hackers are similar to criminals who break into our houses – they just break in via our computers. Once in, they can access all kinds of personal information or pretend to be you when writing posts.
* Be honest about the dangers.
Whilst it is important to modify for age, parents are often deliberately vague about online dangers, or simply repeat the warnings that children have heard before. This can lead to children dismissing the information or not appreciating very real risks.
Most children now know they shouldn’t talk to strangers online or meet strangers alone. Few though are aware that these ‘strangers’ may either pose as familiar friends or befriend children over a long period of time in order to gain their trust.
Meeting anyone you have ‘met’ online (including on dating apps!) has a level of risk. Similarly, the harm a person wishes to cause a child can vary.
Older children may have some idea of the risk of ‘abuse’ or ‘sexual abuse’, few are alert to radicalisation, mutilation, being used as a drugs mule or being used to help groom other children.
If older children think they already know it all, check they have thought about these other dangers.
Whilst we do not want to give children nightmares, being alert to the risks can empower children to more accurately assess situations and better safeguard themselves. If they are unaware of the risks, how can they identify a dangerous situation?
* Remind young people that the internet is a PUBLIC domain.
Children and adults alike often appear to forget that what we do online is not only visible to the masses, but is also captured and stored. Once it’s on the net, it’s there forever. These days it is common practice for prospective employers to look at social media profiles before employing people.
* Use privacy settings!
Remind children to use these and check their privacy settings regularly. Sometimes updates to apps can reset privacy settings, so profiles become public again. Make sure your own profiles contain current privacy settings too
Top Tip - There is an application available which keeps all the useful parts of facebook, but stops the pushed notifications so that you control what you want to see. A great time saver! Nudge
* Communication is KEY
Ask your children if and how they need help - and LISTEN to their advice! Children want to feel safe too and knowing they can come to you for support is crucial. If you or they find it hard to discuss certain topics, why not visit websites such as the NSPCC or Safety Net Kids