Keeping our youngsters safe online

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Navigating social networking sites safely can be difficult for parents and children. But a new online campaign aims to make life easier for both. Chris Bond reports.

IT wasn’t that long ago that adult material was out of the reach of most children.

Pornographic magazines were confined to the top shelves in shops, while the nine o’clock TV watershed gave parents a barometer of what their children should, or shouldn’t be watching.

But it’s a different world today. The watershed might still exist, but the internet has changed the way we live and the rise of social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram has altered the way younger people, in particular, access photos, watch films and interact with one another.

In many ways that’s a good thing, but the sheer proliferation of these sites has brought with it problems that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

We live in an age now where many parents are less internet-savvy than their children.

Even those who know their way around the online world face a dilemma because most children not only use the internet to socialise but also to help with their homework, which makes it difficult to curtail, or monitor, the amount of time they spend on their tablet computers and smart phones.

But while children might be able to navigate their way around websites they don’t know much about viruses, online privacy, phishing, or social networking etiquette.

The internet, as we know, has a darker side and the spectre of online grooming and child sex abuse have become all too real in recent years with several high-profile cases making the news headlines.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, believes that keeping children safe online is “the biggest child protection challenge” facing us today.

His comments come as the children’s charity launched its new Share Aware campaign, aimed at getting families talking about how to interact safely online.

The NSPCC has teamed up with campaign group Mumsnet to put some of the most popular social networking sites among children under the spotlight - and their findings make for uncomfortable reading.

A panel, made up of more than 500 parents from Mumsnet, reviewed 48 of these sites and found that all those aimed at adults and teenagers were too easy for children under the age of 13 to sign-up to.

On more than 40 per cent of the sites the panel struggled to locate privacy, reporting and safety information. Not only that but at least three-quarters of parents surveyed found sexual, violent, or other inappropriate content on Sickipedia, Omegle, Deviant Art, and F my Life within half an hour of logging on to the sites.

On a more positive note those aimed at younger children like Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters, Popjam and Bearville, fared better and parents didn’t find any unsuitable content on them.

As well as speaking to parents, the NSPCC also asked nearly 2,000 children and teenagers about which social networking sites they used.

It found that the main concerns of these youngsters, aged between 11 and 18, was talking to strangers and encountering sexual content. Interestingly, many also thought the minimum age limit for signing up to many sites should be higher, even though they had used the sites when they were underage.

The findings have been used by the NSPCC to create a new online guide to help inform parents about the potential risks of different social networking sites used by children.

Amy Wilson, a mother of three from Leeds, supports the campaign and admits she’s wary about allowing her children to go online. “I have started talking to my eldest daughter, who is 10, about the internet as she is becoming aware of social media, but at this stage I have simply told her she cannot use social media sites at her age. She has accepted this for now, but I am sure she will want to use it in the future.

“At the moment none of my children use social media, but they are aware of cyber bullying and I have heard my eldest daughter talking about friends who have had unkind comments made about them after posting photos of themselves online,” she says.

Amy uses Twitter for work purposes and Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family. “I think social networking is an undeniable part of our social lives now and I think it is better to manage it and enjoy it, rather than deny it and be afraid of it, but to do this some parents need practical advice.”

When asked if she felt confident about how to get help and advice about internet safety for her children Amy says she would turn to the internet. “I have used the NSPCC’s guidelines around talking to my children in the past so would turn to them again for help in choosing the right language,” she says. “If you talk regularly to your children about keeping happy and safe already, then the conversation about staying safe online is a simple extension of that.”

Peter Wanless, the NSPCC boss who led the Home Office inquiry into historic child sex abuse claims, says it’s important that parents talk to their children about being careful online.

“Children are taught from an early age that it is good to share but doing so online can be very dangerous. This Christmas many children will have been given a smart phone, a tablet computer, or a games console.

“So it’s the perfect opportunity for parents to have that important conversation with their children about who they are talking to and what they share when they socialise online,” he says.

“We know that children do take risks online, sometimes without realising it, and we know some parents feel confused by the internet.”

Will Shaw, ChildLine schools services manager, agrees and believes that the onus rests with the parents to make sure that their children are aware of the potential consequences of taking risks online.

“Parents have a pivotal role to play in all this. We teach our children how to cross the road and how to swim, but do we teach them how to be safe online? I’m not sure we do.”

Which is where the campaign comes in. “Many parents feel detached from what their kids are doing online, they find it a bit mystifying and we are trying to demystify and untangle that web,” says Shaw.

“Our guide is basically a whistle stop tour of the sites and apps that children are using which will give parents a bit more information and the confidence to start having a conversation with their children about the online world. It’s not written by a bunch of academics, it’s written by parents for parents.”

Shaw says that one of the issues facing children is knowing what to do if they encounter problems online. “They use sites with their friends and they know that strangers can get involved, so they know they’re there but they aren’t sure what to do if they feel uncomfortable with something online. They’re worried they might get into trouble if they tell their teachers, or their parents, and they aren’t sure where to go for help.”

For parents, the question of online safety and privacy isn’t going to go away.

“The internet is the fabric of young people’s lives. It’s where they socialise, it’s where they play and what they use to help them do their homework.

“As parents it’s no good saying ‘it wasn’t like this when we were kids.’ We have to catch up if we’re going to safeguard our children online.”