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Protecting children online – what steps should parents take?

12th August 2019

Despite most social media platforms stating that children under 13 can’t sign up, it appears that’s not the case. A recent article in The Telegraph highlighted the issue of children in the UK under the age of 12 accessing social media sites, reporting that half a million are using Facebook.

Similarly, a study from regulator Ofcom (November 2017) found underage access was “on the rise” and half of 11-12 year olds have a social media profile.

In fact, according to a report from the research company eMarketer:

  • About 600,000 children younger than 12 years old log on to Facebook at least once a month.
  • Snapchat and Instagram both have 300,000 monthly users under 12, while Twitter has 200,000.

How do social media sites enforce the age restrictions?

While the majority of social media sites require children to be 13 before they can register for an account as they are banned from processing their data under European law, some argue that the following steps taken to ensure under 13s don’t set up an account aren’t rigorous enough:

  • All new users are required to provide an age when they register.
  • If the site becomes aware that a user is under the age of 13, they delete the account.
  • Some ensure their app isn’t available in the “kids” or “family” sections of the app store.
  • Some use cookies to prevent people who have said they are under 13 from signing up again.

Campaigns such as The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s Internet Safety Strategy are working hard to encourage solutions that will increase online safety in the UK, but parents are still left with the seemingly near impossible task of uncovering and policing their child’s online habits.

The challenge parents are faced with

Today’s parents largely grew up in a world without smartphones, the internet or social media. The ever-changing digital world brings with it new challenges and the understandable concern of new dangers in our children’s lives which, as tech savvy as many parents like to think they are, are often hidden from them.

Whilst largely familiar with browsing the internet for information, chatting with others on sites like Facebook and instant messaging via WhatsApp, keeping up with news and celebrities on Twitter and video calling friends and family on apps such as Skype, are as many familiar with live-streaming videos through Instagram Live, or using voice and video chat, or instant messenger to chat to other players on consoles such as Xbox Live?

And then there’s the issue of keeping up with all the new social media platforms being created. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat are just the tip of the iceberg – have you heard of Keek, Popjam and music.ly? If you haven’t, here’s a quick overview.

Keek – a social network app for sharing short videos – “keeks” – which are a collection of addictive (true or fictional) chat stories which you can quickly read.

PopJam is a creative community platform for 7 – 12 year olds where they can create content using stickers, photos and drawing tools. Although mumsnet paints a different story.

Music.ly (now TIK TOK): Lets users – or “Musers” – create and share homemade music videos that last up to 15 seconds. They can sing a cappella, or lip sync along to its library of sound clips. But it has a dark side according to this article on Medium

Why is it a problem?

There’s no denying that there are many advantages to allowing your child access to the internet and various digital tools to help with homework and revision. But while schools offer digital literacy, there are a number of seemingly hidden dangers that lurk around the corner of digital devices, especially for younger children:

Inappropriate content –one of the main ways that social media sites make money is with advertising. Gambling and alcohol companies for example often promote their products, which can readily be seen by children, even if they aren’t the target.

Social engineering – young people may be more likely to share personal data such as birthdays online, unaware that they’re potentially giving strangers access to passwords and accounts.

Online grooming – terrifyingly, 43% of 1,004 children questioned by The Social Age study by knowthenet.org.uk said they had messaged strangers online, starting from an average age of 12.

Cyber bullying – sadly, bullying now extends well beyond the playground. The ‘always on’ nature of social, instant messaging and gaming can mean there’s little let up.

Social validation – a report by the children’s commissioner suggests some children are becoming almost addicted to “likes” on Facebook and Instagram as a form of social validation, with many increasingly anxious about how they appear online and “keeping up appearances”. As children’s social circles expand in Year 6 (the first year of secondary school), this becomes more of an issue.

The NSPCC has blamed social media use for the rapid rise in kids being admitted to hospital following self-harm.

Steps parents can take to help protect their children

With 80% of parents of six-to 16-year-olds believing mums and dads have a ‘high level’ of responsibility for keeping their children safe online[1], it’s clear that parents are keen to take on the challenge.

There are steps you can take to help ensure your children are prepared for all the challenges that social media may present:

Rather than trying to control every experience your child has, talk to them, reassure and raise awareness about:

  • the realities of social media- what social networks are, how they work, how the companies that run them make money and what the potential for harm is. Get them to think more critically about the medium as a whole.
  • The fact that people often just put ‘rosy’ versions of their lives on social media, and why your child shouldn’t feel pressured to lead the ‘perfect’ life, or to look a certain way.
  • Your child’s everyday experience of the online world – trying to normalise this as you would asking about their day at school, with the aim of them being able to share both good and bad experiences.

Teach your child never to:

  • share any personal details, such as their address or where they go to school, with anyone they don’t know in real life
  • approve friend requests or add people that they do not know in real life
  • meet anyone in person that they have only met online
  • Automatically click ‘yes’ when an app asks for access to your contacts, photos and GPS location

Be aware of and educate yourself about:

  • Catfishing– a form of cyberstalking when someone sets up a fake profile (likely posing as another child) to try to strike up conversations with your child – and make sure your child knows what to look out for e.g. someone sending your child a photo of themselves because they’re new in the area and starting at your school soon, or anyone who won’t use video on apps like Skype because the camera on their device is allegedly broken.
  • Adding a live location (from your mobile’s GPS) to social media status updates. To avoid this, go into the settings menu on your child’s device and disable location services, or check this on a regular basis within the specific apps your child uses.
  • Games and other third-party apps within social networking sites can share or post information without you or your child knowing about it (respectable ones will state clearly that they’ll never post on your behalf).
  • how to report to any site or app if you have a problem with something, eg if someone’s posted an embarrassing picture of your child or is being nasty to them. You can find the Safety pages of popular sites here https://www.thinkuknow.co.uk/11_13/help/Contact-social-sites/

Where to get more information

There are many sites and campaigns designed to give you the information you need to help keep your kids safe online:

https://www.internetmatters.org/advice/apps-guide/#tab-1431531253-2-18 for a comprehensive list of social media apps

The NSPCC has teamed up with o2 to produce a guide on online safety   https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/keeping-children-safe/online-safety/

How to set up parental controls https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/keeping-children-safe/online-safety/parental-controls/

To learn more about children’s favourite social networks, apps and games and their suggested ages and how to use privacy settings, visit Net Aware https://www.net-aware.org.uk/

https://nspcc.o2.co.uk/ Offers a series of 6 emails, packed full of useful tips, advice and activities to help you have conversations with your child about staying safe online.

Cyber bullying https://www.internetmatters.org/issues/cyberbullying/

As parents, we are used to protecting our children against the dangers we can see. In the twenty first century, parents need to be aware of the dangers of the virtual world and take the necessary steps to keep their children safe.

[1] according to a survey of 2,000 parents by nonprofit organisation Internet Matters.

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