Australian Parent's Guide to Internet Safety

Introduction

As any parent will know, raising our children in the modern world is a real challenge and especially when you consider the dangers and issues that face them that are visible and also sometimes invisible.

Parenting has changed considerably and this generation is growing up in the digital age, which makes our task of keeping our children safe, different in many ways to the childhood we may have had. Children today do not always have the same level of freedom and mobility that many parents enjoyed in their early years and thanks to smartphones, we at least tend to know where they are most of the time.

Whilst mobile phones help us to stay in touch with our children, this very same technology also creates an element of vulnerability and potential danger, when the go online and connect to the web.

Children and young adults have been raised in a digital era and our kids are more tech savvy than any generation before them ever was, which is a good thing when you think about how the world operates these days, but it is also a major challenge for many parents who are trying to keep pace with their kid's activities and help them to stay safe online.

The main issue is that many kids have a higher level of technical ability when it comes to navigating and communicating online, compared to the majority of parents, but they don't yet have the experience or life-skills yet, to be able to keep them safe while they are online.

The only certain way that you can monitor what your children are doing online around the clock is to block access to the net, but that is not a practical solution especially when you consider that the internet is such a valuable tool to most of us these days.

Chapter 1: Keeping Up-to-Date With Trends

You will be able to find general guidelines online to help you get some basic assistance in what to do in order to keep your children safe online but in reality, many of the government-backed guides to internet safety for example, don't tend to reflect the rapid changes in technology or how many kids now communicate with each other.

The FBI guide to internet safety is a good example of this, as it advises you to monitor your children's email messages, but most of them don't communicate via email and even text messaging is not as popular as it once was.

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

Keeping up with the latest trends is important for parents if they want to understand how and where messages and images are being exchanged on the internet by children and monitoring their emails is advice that is well past its sell by date.

Snapchat

Snapchat is probably the most popular smartphone messaging app that is being used by kids today and to get an idea of the scale of its use, about one third of all teenagers in the U.S alone, use Snapchat. This high level of usage amongst young people is replicated in other countries such as Australia, with 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 USP of the app and why it is so popular with its users, is that the images being sent are supposed to auto-destruct within a few seconds of being opened.

The problem is, many of these images can actually be undeleted or the 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 one-stop communication tool and an ideal network for so many 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 a bit of a reputation for being used as a medium for sexting, there is obvious cause for concern amongst some parents about how to control what is being shared and how appropriate it is.

Check out the guide on how to protect your children on Snapchat for more detailed information, but be assured that there are 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 highly popular app amongst teenagers and young adults in particular, is Kik Messenger. This app enables you to message other people without having to reveal your phone number, which makes it popular with anyone who is keen on retaining their anonymity.

You only have to take a note of the various reviews for this app to quickly 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 is 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 a bit of adverse publicity is Ask.fm, which is a question-and-answer social networking site.

There have been stories in the press about bullying issues and suicides linked to the use of the site, in countries all around the world. Parents need to be aware that users have to be at least 13 years of age to use Ask.fm and they also need to know that there are no systems in place for monitoring content.

This lack of moderation and an environment where anonymity is encouraged, has made this site a bit of a magnet for people who seem to want to practice cyber-bullying.

As with all of these sites and apps, open dialogue with your child is an effective way of encouraging the independence and socialisation that they often crave by using these sites, but knowledge of their dangers and the right online protocols is really important in order to try and keep them safe.

Chapter 2: How We Access the Internet

It is interesting to note that one of the reasons why Microsoft chose Australia as the venue to launch its new range of tablets over other countries around the globe, is because the country already has more tablets per capita than almost anywhere else.

It is estimated that almost 30% of households access the internet via a tablet, and Australians also spend about an hour longer than their counterparts in the US and the UK. Mobile access through smartphones has also surged by some 20% in recent years, whilst the use of a desktop is in steady decline.

The relevance of these statistics, is the portability aspect of how many of us now access the internet. Almost gone are the days where the family would have a computer in a central point in the house, which was shared by different users and also much easier to control when trying to restrict access or content.

It is believed that about 35% of kids in Australia have their own mobile and children who are as young as 8 years of age can be seen carrying a smartphone these days. The smartphone ownership figures for children have double since 2007 and by the time your child is a teenager, they will probably be amongst the 94% of 16 and 17- year olds who carry a mobile phone around with them.

Smartphone usage

Cyber safety experts are rightly concerned that this level of individuality and ability to connect to the internet, exposes young people to a range of issues and dangers that are then hard to police effectively.

Many parents are 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.

The smart advice regarding smartphones, would be to consider giving any child under 13 years of age, something more basic than a smartphone. There are 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 disparity 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 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 are going to give your child a smartphone, think carefully about the all the cyber safety implications and also aim 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 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 getting across in this digital age.