Canadian Parent's Guide to Internet Safety

Introduction

Raising a child is always going to be hard work, but parents today also have to contend with a unique set of challenges as result of the fact that our kids are growing up in a truly digital age.

In such a short space of time, the way we live our lives has changed almost beyond recognition to our ancestors and that is why the omnipresent dangers that exist every time our kids connect to the internet, need to be understood and controlled.

Whilst our own children may not enjoy the same level of personal freedom to explore the physical world around them that we probably took for granted when we were their age, they do enjoy a different type of liberty by being able to get online and explore cyberspace.

Many of our kids are accessing the web by using their smartphones or tablets to connect with others and whilst mobile phones might seem intrusive to some parents, they do at least help us to stay in touch with our children when they are not by our side. The technology available today is a different world entirely to what we were used to in our childhood, but the flipside of this digital freedom is that it also has the ability to expose your kids to online dangers and can make them vulnerable to difficult and sometimes harmful situations.

Smart kids

This generation of children and young adults have been raised in a digital era, and are consequently much more likely to be more tech savvy than their parents. This can be seen as a positive attribute when it comes to making their way in the world, but it is also represents a stiff challenge for so many parents who are trying to keep pace with their kid's activities and help them to stay safe online.

One of the main issues that parents have to contend with is that so many youngsters have a higher level of technical ability than adults when it comes to navigating and communicating online, but crucially, they are unlikely to have yet acquired the experience or life-skills required in order to be able to cope with some of the challenges and situations they might face and this can make the task of managing to stay safe online quite difficult.

The only 100% certain way in which you can actually monitor what your children are doing online 24/7 is to deny them access to the net, but that is not really a practical solution or and it is not going to make you a very popular parent either, when you consider that the internet is such a valuable communication and resource tool to most of us these days.

Chapter 1: Understanding the latest trends

A quick online scan of the usual search engines will normally lead you to find some general guidelines on internet safety but all too often, much of the government-backed guides to internet safety for example, rarely keep pace with the rapid changes in technology.

This means that a lot of the advice is outdated as the information is based on how kids used to communicate with each other rather than the way they are actually using the internet based on the latest trends.

The FBI guide to internet safety is a prime example of what we are referring to, as it provides the advice on its website advises that you should monitor your child's email messages to keep the safe and see what they are up to. The obvious problem with this suggestion is that most kids don't actually communicate via email very often these days, and even text messaging is not as popular as it once was.

To help you keep up with these trends and understand how our kids are interacting with each other, you need to be aware of what social networking sites and apps they are using and how they work.

Social media is the preferred way of networking and communicating for the majority of young people and your children are highly likely to be using a social media app on their smartphone to chat and share multimedia online. The odds are also pretty high that your children will be using a popular app like Snapchat or Kick to interact and they will probably be using a social network like Ask.fm, rather than sending an email.

Keeping up with these latest trends is vitally important for parents if they want to maintain an understanding of how and where messages and images are being exchanged on the internet by children. Given this information, it renders some government advice to monitor emails as fairly pointless.

Snapchat

Snapchat is vying for the number 1 spot as probably the most popular smartphone messaging app that is being used by kids today and according to GlobalWebIndex, 50% of 16-19 year olds are using Snapchat on a monthly basis across the globe and teen users in Canada are running at about 40%, making it more popular than WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

This high level of usage amongst young people equates to millions of photos and videos being sent and exchanged every day.

Snapchat works by allowing users to use the app to send photos, screen captures and videos to their friends. The unique selling point of the app and the main reason why it is so popular with its users, is that the images that are being sent across its network are designed to auto-destruct within a few seconds of being opened.

Not everything is always that clear-cut though and there is a reported weakness in the software which can be manipulated to allow many of these images to be undeleted if you have the technical knowledge, or alternatively, the original image can be screen captured to another device, which then creates a permanent record of any image that your child has chosen to share with their friends.

Snapchat also offers video chatting and text messaging features on their app, which turns it into a highly credible communication tool and an almost perfect network for teens who like to socialise and network by sharing images and information with other users.

The terms of service for Snapchat stipulate that a child has to be at least 13 years of age to use the app, but with the service gaining notoriety for being used as a medium for sexting, there is obvious cause for concern amongst many parents about how to control what is being shared and how appropriate it is for their child depending on their age.

You may want to familiarise yourself with a guide on how to protect your children on Snapchat for more detailed information and to look at some of the ways to configure the settings on the app, so that you can protect your child's privacy and prevent strangers from being able to send them inappropriate messages.

Kik Messenger

Another enormously popular app amongst teenagers and young adults in particular, is Kik Messenger. The unique appeal of this app is that it enables you to message other people without having to reveal your phone number, which makes it popular with anyone who is keen on trying to maintain their anonymity.

If you read some online reviews for this app, you will become aware that Kik is very popular with users who want to send explicit messages, and it is this use that has earned Kik Messenger a 17+ age rating on the app store due to "Frequent/Intense Mature/Suggestive Themes." Unfortunately, this advisory rating and warning is often not enough to prevent kids from downloading the app or using it, so parents with young children should be watchful and check whether this is an app that they have on their phone.

Ask.fm

Another app that has also attracted some unwelcome publicity is Ask.fm, which is a question-and-answer social networking site.

There have been several stories in the news about bullying issues and suicides linked to the use of the site, in various countries around the world. All parents need to be aware that users have to be at least 13 years of age to use Ask.fm and it is important to note that there are no systems currently in place for monitoring content.

This lack of moderation and the fact that Ask.fm operates in an environment where anonymity is promoted, has made this site a magnet for people who seem intent on carrying out cyber-bullying.

As with all of these sites and apps, a frank and positive dialogue with your child is an effective way of encouraging the independence and socialisation that they often crave by using these sites, whilst helping them understand the potential dangers they are facing. It is also just as important that they know the right online protocols in order to try and keep them safe.

Chapter 2: How young people access the internet

The computer software company AVG carried out a survey amongst parents from various countries that included Canada and concluded that many children actually know how to use a smartphone before they can write.

An incredible 89% of kids who are aged between 6 and 9 are active online and Canada's youth are certainly highly connected and are participating in online activities at a younger age than we have ever seen before. Another comprehensive survey, this time one that was carried out by a non-charitable organisation called MediaSmarts, revealed 99% of all students have access to the internet outside of school and nearly 40% of them actually sleep with their cellphone with them.

It appears that smartphones are the most frequently used device for internet access with about 35% of 9-16 year olds using this type of device to connect online, with the majority of the remainder using laptops and tablets to access the internet.

Whilst the majority of internet use is still actually based within the family home, a high percentage of children are accessing the web from their own bedroom, rather than in a supervised environment.

The conclusion we can draw from these surveys and statistics, is not just that the way we all connect to internet has changed so much from the days of a desktop PC that was shared by everyone, but how many of our children are now able to easily access internet data and communicate with others, outside of what you would consider to be normal parental supervision.

About 90% of 15-16 year olds in Canada are understood to have a profile on a social networking site and an estimated 40% of 11-12 year olds also have a profile, despite the fact that there is actually an age restriction of 13 for most social networking sites such as Facebook.

Smartphone usage

Parents have every right to be concerned that this level of online independence, exposes young people to a wide range of issues and dangers that are then hard to control with any degree of effectiveness.

It is a worrying thought that about half of older teenagers are likely to have seen sexual images online in the past 12 months and if global statistics are a reliable guide, some 35% of Canadian girls aged between 13 and 16 years of age, have encountered some form of harmful content or hate messages.

In addition to these troublesome statistics, many parents are also often unaware of the potential dangers that they their children can potentially become exposed to through their smartphone and this includes things like viruses, data theft and the prospect of their kids being targeted by social media predators.

In light of these findings, the sensible advice regarding smartphones, would be to consider giving any child under 13 years of age, something more basic than a smartphone, despite the temptation to buy them a more feature-packed device.

There are surely no parents around who would willingly buy their child a device that exposes them to potential dangers and issues like bullying, but so many of us buy our kids an expensive smartphone with loads of features, without giving any real thought to cyber safety concerns.

It should always be remembered that anything that you can do on a tablet can be done on a smartphone as well, but there is a noticeable gap between the level of security software on laptops and tablets, compared to smartphones.

It is believed that over 80% of parents have arranged to install some security software on their child's laptops, but less than 25% had arranged any similar protection for their child's smartphone.

Parents need to make sure they adopt the same line of thinking when it comes to cyber security and safety for their kid's smartphones as they have done for other devices.

If you do want to give your child a smartphone, then please think carefully about all the cyber safety implications and also do your best to establish a set of ground rules around their use of the phone, which includes educating them about the dangers they face on the internet and through the various apps that they are using.

Our role as parents is always to protect our children from harm and to provide them with guidance about so many different aspects of life as they grow and develop. Make it your goal to keep up to speed with technology and learn what your kids are doing online, so you can have the best chance of keeping them safe.