Ireland Parent's Guide to Internet Safety

Introduction

Parents everywhere face a series of unique challenges in raising their children in what is truly a digital age. In just one generation, the way we live our lives has changed dramatically and the ever-present dangers that exist every time our kids connect to the internet, need to be understood and addressed.

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

Many of our kids are accessing the web using their smartphones or tablets and whilst mobile phones at least help parents to stay in touch with our children while they are not by our side, this extraordinary piece of technology also has the ability to expose your kids to online dangers and makes them vulnerable to difficult and sometimes harmful situations and information.

Smart kids

Children and young adults who have been raised in a digital era, are highly likely to be more tech savvy than their parents, which is a positive attribute when it comes to making their way in the world, but it is also a considerable challenge for so many parents who are trying to keep pace with their kid's activities and help them to stay safe online.

The main issue 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 don't yet have the experience or life-skills yet, to be able to cope with some of the challenges and situations they might face and how to ensure that they manage to stay safe while they are online.

The only cast-iron way in which you can actually monitor what your children are doing online around the clock is to deny them access to the net, but that is hardly a practical solution or likely to make you very popular with them, especially when you consider that the internet is such a valuable tool to most of us these days.

Chapter 1: Understanding the Latest Trends

You can soon find general guidelines online to help you get some very basic assistance in what to do in order to keep your children safe online but the hard truth, is that many of the government-backed guides to internet safety for example, rarely reflect the rapid changes in technology or how many kids now communicate with each other and therefore the advice and information can often be outdated.

The US FBI guide to internet safety is a fine example of what we are talking about, 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. Seeing as most kids don't actually communicate via email that much and even text messaging is not as popular as it once was, you can soon see that you need more help that that as a parent, if you are going to successfully understand the latest trends and how our children are connecting with each other.

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

Keeping up with these latest trends is really 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, so monitoring their emails is advice that is not going to achieve much.

Snapchat

Snapchat is 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 Ireland are at about 40%, making it more popular than WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

This high level of usage amongst young people means that millions of photos and videos being sent every day.

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

Not everything is that straightforward though and there is a reported weakness in the software which can be exploited 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 persuasive 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 dictate 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.

Check out the guide on how to protect your children on Snapchat for more detailed information and 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 hugely 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.

A quick scan of the various reviews for this app will cause you to realise that Kik has become 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 vigilant and check whether this is an app that they have on their phone.

Ask.fm

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

There have been a number of stories in the press 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 the issue here is 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 encouraged, has made this site a bit of a hub for people who seem to want to practice cyber-bullying.

As with all of these sites and apps, and honest and open dialogue with your child is an effective way of encouraging the independence and socialisation that they often crave by using these sites, but parents need to ensure that their youngster have an understanding of the potential dangers they are facing and just as importantly, know the right online protocols in order to try and keep them safe.

Chapter 2: How Young People Access the Internet

The European Commission funded a two-year research programme called Net Children Go Mobile, and Ireland was one of the participating countries in the survey, which spanned seven European destinations in total.

It seems 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, followed by 29% using laptops and 27% using tablets.

Whilst over 60% of internet use is still actually based in the family home, about 46% of these children were accessing the web from their own bedroom, rather than in a supervised environment.

The relevance of these statistics, is not just how 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 able to 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 Ireland have a profile on a social networking site and 40% of 11-12 year olds also have a profile, despite the fact that there is actually an age restriction of 13 for most sites such as Facebook.

Smartphone usage

Cyber safety understandably concerned that this level of online independence, exposes young people to a range of issues and dangers that are then hard to police effectively.

Another worrying statistic that came to light from the Net Children Go Mobile survey was that 47% of older teenagers had seen sexual images in the past 12 months and some 35% of girls aged between 13 and 16 years of age, had encountered some form of harmful content or hate messages.

In addition to these worrying 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 being targeted by social media predators.

In view of findings, the sensible advice regarding smartphones, would be to consider giving any child under 13 years of age, something more basic than a smartphone. There are surely no parents who would willingly buy their child a device that exposes them to potential dangers and issues like bullying, but so many parents buy their 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 worrying gap between the level of security software on laptops and tablets, compared to smartphones.

It is believed that about 85% of parents have arranged to install some security software on their kid's laptops, but only about 22% had arranged any similar protection for their child's smartphone.

Parents need to make sure they adopt the same line of reasoning 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 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.

As parents, we constantly need to give our children guidance about many things as they are growing up and developing. Making them aware of the dangers that face them on the internet and educating them on how to stay safe, is a lesson that is well worth spending the time to get across in this digital age.