Times have changed - Digital threats that we all need to protect against

For those of you readers that grew-up in the 70’s, 80’s or even the 90’s, you’ll appreciate the times have not just changed. Where we would need to actually make a phone call to keep in touch with family, friends and work, we now text, email, Skype, facebook, insta or snapchat them. Have a think about it - how many actual, real phone calls did you make today? Now compare that to the number of text messages, emails and social media comments. Like it or not, the online and virtual world is increasingly occupying (read as ‘taking over’) our world and our entire lives are now pretty much contained on one device that we hold in our hand.

For children, this is increasingly so. They now occupy ‘real’ world and ‘online’ ones.  Both worlds will often have different friends and as positive as the online world might be - education, communication, new friends in different parts of the world, access and immediacy to information they wouldn’t normally or easily be able to necessarily obtain, it also comes with risks. Big ones. And not just the obvious ‘headline-grabbing’ ones.

The internet is still relatively unchartered waters and comes with little filter. It probably won’t come as much surprise that 90% of child will have seen explicit or violent imagery by the time they’re 14 years old and how old they are when they actually see it will often correlate to how early on they have access to the internet. You might feel confident that you have control over this and stringently monitor your child’s online activities and installed strict parental controls. However, for many kids, these are just challenges, frequently something to try to defeat and work around. You’re also may not considering that its not just on the devices you’ve given them access to. They may see and access it on friends or sibling’s ones.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s actually only a relatively short time the internet has been widely accessible and in the last 20 years it’s evolved at a frighteningly rapid rate. For example, Facebook has only been in existence since 2006 yet has over 2 billion active users.  Snapchat’s only been going since 2012 and had 10 million users by the end of it’s first year and now an estimated 150 million users.  The vast majority of Social Media (including these two) have a minimum age requirement of 13 years old, but an estimated 7.5 million children under that age have Facebook accounts, in just the USA.  It’s also estimated approximately more than 270 million Facebook accounts, worldwide, are either underage or fake accounts. I’ll only add to your no doubt increasing concern that 8 out of 10 girls have conversations online with strangers their parents don’t know about and girls are 9 times more likely than boys to be targeted by groomers. That’s not to say that boys are less likely to be targeted. Cyberbullying, Sextortion, Cyberstalking and a whole spectrum of threats continue to prevail.

Adults are as much at risk to online threats and risks, but children don’t have the cynicism and suspicion that can only be developed with age and are therefore even more susceptible. Which means ‘helicopter’ parenting just doesn’t work anymore. Some parents plead that they just don’t understand the online world and the technology that goes with it and have resigned to that stance. Sitting the child down with a phone or tablet to amuse themselves whilst the parent is busy doing something is not only irresponsible but dangerous. A recent case came to light in the UK of a 10 year old girl who’s ‘friends’ from school posted a picture of her on instagram asking if she was ugly caused so much distress to the child she was put on suicide watch. This is not isolated case either.

A conservative estimate is that 1 in 8 children have been bullied and 4 in 5 adolescents have seen hateful comments on social media. So we have to remember that it may not be the strange adult we need to be concerned about targeting children, but other children too. In the case of cyberbullying, where in the old days the child could get some respite when they’ve escaped the bullies once they get through the front door at home, in these modern times the threat can follow them everywhere and leave them few or even no safe havens or sanctuary. So what can we do to protect children online? Firstly, we have to accept that they need to use it. It’s not going away and will form an important part of their lives as they grow older. We need to control the environment as best we can and this, like anything, requires many contributing parts.

Privacy is most certainly one of the bedrocks. As you would draw your curtains at home so strangers can’t look in, we need to also do this with our online ‘home’. Only those we know and trust should be able to see our valuables (personal pictures, identity, etc.) in our homes. I would then follow this with my ‘3 Ts’ - Trust, Talking and Teamwork. Installing spyware on your child’s device is a risky option. If they discover it, they will never trust you and only do what you don’t want them to do elsewhere. You will have to trust them and they you. Tell them you need to trust them and if they betray that, then there will be penalties (confiscation, app deletion, etc.). Talking. You would want your child to come to you if they see or experience something worrying. This may require considerable strength especially if they’ve done something stupid or got into serious trouble. Punishing them will lose their faith they can come to at the time they (and you) would really need your help. Which brings me to the last ’T’. Teamwork. They need to know that they’re not alone and you will work with them to keep them safe.

I saw a funny meme (you know what that is?) that said 20 years ago we were told not to get into a strangers car yet nowadays many of us will, every day. Uber is perhaps one example. Same used to go for talking to strangers yet many children will do this every time they play games, use social media and adventure around the internet. 

Parent Alert: How to Keep Yours Kids Safe Online (Available through Amazon and Waterstones)