Internet Safety - Top Tips for Parents

The internet is everywhere and people can easily present the persona that they want to be from the privacy of their own home or the isolation of their smart phone. Sometimes, this persona can be as innocent as presenting oneself as a well-groomed and nicely dressed person rather than the person with uncombed hair wearing their rattiest old pyjamas.

When it comes to internet safety, everyone has to be cautious. Many adults have learned to be wary of emails from banks and credit cards companies that ask for information the real companies should already have. Yet, it often happens that a naive person believes the sender is who they say they are, follows the links in those emails and ultimately has their financial information compromised.

A common Facebook scam involves a person pretending to be someone you know well, having stolen their photo from the real Facebook profile. This pretender will ask you to be their friend and then they will send you an excited message about money they received and all you have to do it follow their instructions and you will receive money too.

Adults do fall for this trick. How much easier is it for a child to be tricked into thinking that their new online friend is their age and interested in the same game or sport or toy as your child is? They can have wonderful conversations about their shared passion.

Online, everyone can play whatever role they wish. When it comes to children, the innocent persona might be an older and wiser child with the latest gadgets and the coolest clothes. Or - and this is where the danger lays in wait - the persona might be hiding true evil in the form of a predator who will lure the innocent child to devastating disaster.

Here are 10 top tips for saving your child from true danger online:

Tip #1 - Parental Controls

Do not rely on a parental control tool. It seems so easy to install a program that will prevent your child from getting into trouble online. Ahh, you think, 'now I can rest easy. There is no way that my child will be going to bad places with that program doing my job for me.'

No. You cannot rest easy. Even if you have a tool that connects your entire household network to its safety net, it cannot always protect your child. But, you assure yourself the same parental control is on my child's best friend's household network too. Why should I be concerned?

The first and most obvious reason why you should be concerned is that your child likely has more than that one friend whose network you believe to be safe. If your child goes to another friend's house where there is no safeguard, anyone can make contact online.

Open wifi networks proliferate and smart phones often have data connections to cellular networks. Once the predator has made contact with your child in the guise of an appealing young person, the gate is open. The messages can easily be sent when the child is away from your safe home network.

This is not to say that you should not use parental controls. They do a wonderful job at protecting children online, but it is important to realise that a child can easily get access away from these controls.

If your child has a smart phone, it has internet connectivity which can be used anywhere the phone can access wifi. It is not enough to provide a phone without cellular network connectivity. Wifi connectivity needs to be disabled as well. A simple basic phone that allows for phone calls serves the purpose of providing the child with the phone to contact you when he or she needs to contact you.

In this day and age, this solution may not be acceptable or possible. It is not a reasonable solution and availability might also be a problem. The older style phones are increasingly difficult to buy and some are no longer supported by cellular networks. Parental controls are available for smart phones and tablets. Use them.

Tip #2 - Be Vigilant

Keep computer access in a public area of the house. Be vigilant. Your child cannot be tracked online all the time for the reasons mentioned in Tip #1. If a predator has made contact, all is not lost. For a predator to harm your child, it takes more than a single contact.

If you set up vigilance as part of your parenting skills, you will be able to monitor the overall online behaviour of your child. The easiest way to do this is to not permit unsupervised internet access at home, where you can see the websites and communications being accessed.

Tip #3 - Social Media Privacy Settings

Check the privacy settings on Facebook. There are other social networks but this is the big one to focus on. The amount of information that goes out into the entire world from Facebook is astounding. If you want to check it for yourself, here's a little exercise. Take someone you know or used to know and who is not your friend on Facebook and do an online search for that person.

People are becoming cleverer about protecting themselves so it may not work immediately with the first person you research online. If it doesn't work, try it again with someone else's name. Even if you are not friends on Facebook with the person, or you are not even on Facebook, you will be shocked at the information it is possible to uncover, e.g. school information, birthday, family members, places they've visited.

Check your child's Facebook privacy settings and set them so that contact is limited to the Facebook 'friends' of the child. Go a little further and make sure that the 'friends' are people that the child knows in real life.

This is also a good time to talk to your child about Facebook and get to know a little bit about their friends and the groups and pages that they like to visit. You may ask to be their Facebook friend but if you are, remember to be careful not to embarrass your child with over-protective or derisive comments on their posts.

Tip #4 - Do as I Do, Not as I Say

Be a good role model. Children have a sixth sense that allows them to recognise when they are being asked to do something that is contrary to the behaviour they witness their parents displaying. If you are glued to your computer or smart phone, they will see this as a healthy and acceptable way of communicating.

While some technology can help protect your children from online danger, there is nothing better than teaching by word and by example, the best way to be safe online.

To emphasise the dangers, be aware that there are paedophiles who revel in the new easy way to target children. They have access to thousands of vulnerable targets so that it is almost as if they are browsing a catalogue for their personal preferences in age, skin, hair, and eye colour, gender, and accessibility.

Put down your mobile phone, walk away from your keyboard, sit down and talk to your child. This does not mean a chosen formal lecture time where you explain the dangers of being online. Make it a regular routine to spend time with your children. Having a technology-free meal time where you share your experiences of the day is ideal.

Tip #5 - Talk Family Security

Make safety chats a part of your home life. As much as we want to, we cannot keep our children packed away in a sheltered cocoon. It is not possible to foresee and prepare for every eventual threat out there on the internet or the tangible world.

The best approach to safety is to teach your child how to protect themselves. If they know how to recognise internet problem areas, and know that they can talk to you about online material that puzzles or frightens them, they are well on their way to being safe online.

Make it clear that they shouldn't give out too much personal information. Letting strangers know your home address and when you are on holiday can be an open invitation to having your home invaded. This is a danger to the whole family and it lets the child know that it is a family concern for safety not merely a parent trying to control the child's online activities for the sake of ruining their fun.

Tip #6 - Talk about Sex

Specifically, talk about sex online, and the dangers of being flirtatious with people they don't know offline, and the durability of posting or messaging enticing photos of themselves. Adolescents may feel the pressure or the desire to send a very private (they think) image of themselves and put their online reputation at risk.

Children are more sexually aware at an earlier age than ever before. Many of them may mistake their awareness for sophisticated understanding of what it means to be friendly online and accept sexually explicit comments from online friends they do not know offline.

It is crucial that children are completely aware that they should never meet an online friend face-to-face in real life without you being with them, even if he seems like the cutest guy or girl they have ever met.

Tip #7 - A Time for the Internet

Limit time online. This is a health issue as well as a safety issue. The internet can be addictive. Internet addiction, also known as "problematic internet use", is being discussed by experts as a real and serious matter. When internet use interferes with a person's daily life, it becomes a problem. Beyond interfering with a child's outside activities, participation in family life, and school work, being online can also affect the development of the child's brain.

Too much time online can affect their health. There have been cases of children being online all night therefore losing sleep. In years long past, it was a common thing for children to take a flashlight and a book under the bed covers and read. This activity was relatively easy for parents to discover. Watching YouTube videos on a smartphone all night might be easier to conceal. Slipping the phone under the pillow is a great deal easier than hiding a flashlight and a book and settling back into bed.

Tip #8 - Be Reasonable

You need to have rules and consequences that are tailored to the child's age and maturity. Children need to know that you trust them. Make it clear that the safety concerns you have are not mistrust of your children but mistrust of predators who prey on children.

Part of parenting is maintaining a healthy line of communication between you and your children. Discuss the reasons for your internet and computer usage rules so that they understand the importance of staying safe.

Tip #9 - Discuss Cyber Bullying

While we are on the topic of online dangers, never underestimate the danger of bullying. Social media is a prime playground for mean kids to gang up on a child and make that child's life a living hell.

Online bullying can be insidious and children who are actively communicating with technology may have encountered it either as a perpetrator or a victim. What may seem like a harmless prank can suddenly become a mean and nasty case of cyber bullying.

Have a dialogue with your child about cyber bullying and see what your child's experience and attitude toward it is. If they are dismissive and think it cannot happen to them or think that it's just fun, make sure they are aware of the consequences both to the harassed victim and to the cyber bullies. Encourage your child to let you know if they are cyber bullied or if they have been asked to participate in bullying someone whom they think deserves to be mistreated.

Tip #10 - Share and Communicate

Share being online with your child and explore their interests together. Aside from being a good bonding habit, it also gives you a glimpse into what intrigues your child online.

It can be so easy to slip into the routine of letting technology take over your life and your family's time together. From infancy, children grow up with the ever-present internet. It's your job as a parent to make sure that your children remain communicative offline as well as online.

Further information and views from Capstone Foster Care can be found here.

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