All parents worry about what their kids are doing on the Internet. And the tragic story of 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall, who was murdered in 2010 by a man who posed as a teenager on Facebook to meet her, only adds to the fear.
But it's worth remembering that cases like this are rare, and we can't really stop kids from using social networking sites so we need to be mindful of the dangers and monitor their activity online. In this article, we've got some useful tips on how to do that.
Some statistics: Kids online
- Research from OFCOM's Children and Parents: media use and attitudes
report shows that in 2013 93% of all 5- to 15-year-olds used the
internet. In terms of age groups this means 87% of 5- to 7-year-olds,
96% of 8- to 11-year-olds and 99% of 12- to 15-year-olds.
- More than half of parents of 5- to 15-year-olds say their
children know more about the internet than they do.
So, what can you do? See our useful tips below.
Cracking the internet code
Some of the words and terms that you might hear may confuse you, so
we've put together a quick guide, so you can sort out your ISPs from
www: World Wide Web; the universe of publicly available websites.
Walled Garden: an area of approved and safe material. There's
normally a host or guide who monitors the service and checks that
unsuitable behaviour, such as bad language, isn't being used.
Jpeg: still pictures.
Mpeg: moving images.
MP3: music file.
Exe: don't download this unless you're certain that this is a
legitimate program you want on your computer. 'Exe' stands for
'execution' (executing a program) and might execute damaging software,
such as allowing in a virus or giving someone unlimited access (this is
also called a Trojan horse) to your computer.
Spam: unsolicited mail
ISP: Internet Service Provider - the people who hook your PC or Mac to the Web and usually provide you with e-mail services.
Filtering software: software used to filter out language or images, or block access to various sites.
What's a search engine?
Imagine Yellow Pages, a dictionary and an encyclopaedia rolled into one, that's like a search engine. Log on to the search engine's site and it will show a search box where you type in the key words for the subject you want to know about. This gives a list of sites which you can enter until you find what you want. The most popular search engine is www.google.co.uk.
Child-friendly search engines
'There are special search engines for children that filter out the wrong kind of material that general search engines might pick up,' says the Internet Watch Foundation. Try: www.kidrex.org.
Which sites are they visiting?
You can check where your child has logged on to under the History tab. On Outlook Express, for example, it's under Window on the menu bar at the top of the page.
What are social networking sites?
You may have heard your child talking about Facebook, Twitter, Bebo or MySpace. These are all social networking sites popular with young people where they can interact with friends from school or clubs, but also meet new people.
The individual usually uploads a photo, writes their name and some personal information about themselves such as their likes and dislikes, where they work or go to school and what music they like. With most of the sites, the amount of information you share is optional so in the most basic of cases it would just feature the person's name. Most also have the option of 'locking' the page so that only your friends can see the content. If you're worried about your child's safety online, this could be a really good option. If their page is locked to everyone but their friends, then there's very little risk.
How do they work?
The sites work by each person creating their page and then gathering friends. A request is put to the user via email or the next time they log-in to the site for someone to become their friend. The person will then have the option to accept or decline this friend, which if accepted will allow them to write messages to each other, share photographs, and perhaps access more information than would otherwise be available. It's a great way of getting back in touch with people who you would otherwise have no way of contacting and also of sharing photos and making quick arrangements with existing friends.
What are the dangers?
The main fear of children using sites such as these is that the information they are sharing can be accessed by strangers, which could put them at risk. An arrangement for going to the cinema between two friends could potentially be read by anyone which would put your child in a specific location at a certain time. This said however, there are a number of ways in which you can ensure this doesn't happen.
Ways to prevent problems
Whilst all of these steps will involve you trusting your child to some extent, these are all issues that you should raise if you know they're using a social networking site:
1. Ask your child if they have locked their profile, and so that anybody wanting to access their page would have to put in a request first.
2. Ask them not to share details of their address, mobile number or school. Some sites encourage you to join 'groups' attached to a school or area, but explain to your child that this could be dangerous and they can still enjoy the fun of the site without giving away such details.
3. Warn them about 'making friends' with strangers, as it can be easy for someone to set up a fake profile and people may not always be as they seem.
4. Encourage your child to discuss arrangements with school friends, and people they know via private messages rather than in the public spaces which are more accessible to others.
5. Join up yourself. The way in which these sites work might sound completely baffling when written down, so what better way to find out what your kids are up to than by getting involved yourself. You will be surprised at how many adults visit sites such as Facebook and Twitter, so why not sign up and start looking up old friends and work colleagues. And if you're confused about how to get going, you could even ask your kids for help.
Make your own page for free on:
How to check and change privacy settings
Each social networking site has ways to change your privacy settings. This means you can control who can see what information and block people.
You need to do this within your kid's Facebook page so you'll need them to log on first. Once logged in on Facebook the privacy settings button is the padlock in the top right hand corner. Click on it and you can change how people see your profile, stop them from seeing photos, or block people completely.
On Myspace the privacy settings button is also in the top right hand corner, above the adverts.
It's a 'room' where you talk to one person or a group of people. It's mostly used by teenagers, but warn them to be on their guard with newcomers introduced by others in the group. There are thousands of chat rooms online, divided into moderated and unmoderated sites, explains Internet expert James Carr-Jones. 'Moderated ones are "policed" and have rules. Unmoderated ones don't.' Check which chat rooms your child visits. Good sites usually have sections for parents. The site should also set out its moderation policy. Parents Online recommends sites or 'safe communities' specifically for
children that are monitored and regulated. Try www.gridclub.com for seven to 11-year-olds.
Read one woman's advice after her 14-year-old daughter became addicted to an internet chatroom, and see what she says about how to control the amount of time your teen is spending in them.
Do's and don'ts
- Don't let kids download files from the Internet without checking with you first. It could corrupt and destroy files.
- Don't let them download Jpegs (pictures). Someone might encourage your
children online to download their picture, but it might actually be a
disguised corrupt file. Instead, go to the sender's website. If they
haven't got one, leave it.
- Do install an anti-virus check, such as Norton Anti-Virus.
UK body the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)
uses cartoons to show five- to seven-year-olds that online friends are
not always what they seem and to keep them safe from online predators.
Why focus on young kids?
The CEOP believes that by raising awareness of online risks at a fairly young age, kids will be better protected as they grow up. CEOP started four years ago by running campaigns in secondary schools for teens and now thinks focusing on younger kids is the best approach to take. This is sadly borne out of necessity, as head of CEOP, Jim Gamble says 'Unfortunately some of the victims we see are very young'.
What do the cartoons do?The cartoons use superheroes to show youngsters that people can pretend
to be different online and to recognise the dangers of giving away personal information and of befriending strangers, even those who pose as friends of friends. This helps them develop safer behaviour online and reduce their vulnerability to abuse. You can watch the CEOP cartoons here.
Top tips: What parents can do
You can find the CEOP's 'Report abuse' button on some websites aimed at kids. If you're suspicious, the best thing to do is to report it. Be aware that social networking sites - Facebook, Myspace and Bebo may seem kid-friendly, and have a minimum age limit of 13 and 14, but this isn't enforced once they're online.
There are more simple things you can do to make sure your child is as
safe as possible when they're online:
- Keep the computer or tablet in a room used by all the family. If it's
- Talk to your child about what they're doing online
- Make sure they understand that they should keep online friends online
- If they want to meet someone in the real world, make sure they take you
- Encourage them to only chat to and webcam with people they know in the
- Limit Internet use to a set number of hours. If possible, stay close
More help and advice
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre's website thinkyouknow.co.uk is designed specifically for parents who want to know more about how their children are using the internet. Alternatively, Kidsmart is a website aimed at children highlighting things for them to watch out for online so they don't get caught out.