Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Internet Safety and Children; Can we Keep them Safe?

iPad on printer, with title overlaidIt seems everywhere you look these days, digital tech is getting the blame for the demise of family life. In a lot of cases, it's hard not to agree with the findings. There are definite security issues for children using the internet and it has led to parents having to be more vigilant and find new ways to protect their children online. It takes a lot of time and effort to unpick the parts of the internet that young people are interested in and, without spending that time, the mysteries of Social Media can leave parents feeling nervous of the unknown. The big question is; are we trying hard enough and is it possible to protect children completely online, or will there always be a risk? 

Which is completely understandable. It doesn't matter how hard you try sometimes, children have the time and the friends to teach them, so they will always be one step ahead on matters of the internet. There is a lot of potential for secrecy too. The hardest aspect for me has always been that it's easy for children to see and do things that you wouldn't approve of  without anyone's knowledge. Which could lead to dangerous situations for them, particularly if they end up giving out information they shouldn't. I can't help feeling though, that the world hasn't changed that much. In years gone by, children would play out in the streets for hours, until it got dark, or they got hungry. No mobile phones, no contact at all and any passing stranger had unchecked access to them.

Two Boys Walking Away into DistanceSometimes, rarely, something horrible would happen to one of them, but usually the worst that would happen would be a fright from a stray dog, or maybe some older kids. I'm not playing down the dangers, or how horrendous it must have been for the families of those children, who made the news for all the wrong reasons, but our parents let us play out because that's what all the kids did. They tried to make it as safe as they could, by imposing rules. 'Back before dark', 'stay together', 'no crossing roads', etc. Over the years, it has been considered much less safe for children to be out on their own and rightly so. I didn't let my children play out when they were small and, even now, it's a very limited area in front of the house. Has the world really become more evil, though? Or is it partly because news coverage is so much more thorough and available than it used to be, that we have become more aware of the dangers that children face outside the home? Have the improvements in policing meant that more of the evils of this world are getting caught, where they would previously have gone unnoticed, so parents weren't so aware that people like that existed?

Three Boys using Tablets to Play Games
Featuring L's friends from It's a London Bird Thing!

Whether there is more danger outside or not, the fact that we are aware of it is a good thing, because it is helping keep our children safe. However, the result of this is that our children are now using different methods to socialise with their peers. Which makes me wonder if we will ever be able to keep our children completely safe, or do we just have to accept that their innate need to socialise is something that will always need to find an outlet. It may be that we can't actually keep children from finding themselves in potentially dangerous situations, all we can do is do our best to keep them safe.  As we have always done as parents. If this means getting to know the social media they are using, then we need to invest the time to do that. We need to talk to our children, if they will let us. Not in an interrogatory way, but by being interested in their lives. It might seem tedious, but the more you get to know about the sites your child uses, the more interesting it becomes. Since becoming a blogger four years ago, I've had to learn a lot more about social media and it's been a massive help in familiarising myself with the social media the children I work with are using.

Boy wearing headset, playing game on Xbox 360

We also need to enforce rules, exactly like when we were playing in the streets all those years ago. It might not be 'home before dark', but having some rules in place helps everyone, including children ,feel more reassured. Starting young with rules, such as 'don't give out any personal information', 'stick to these safer sites', 'only accept people you know as friends', and, of course, the all-important 'don't talk to strangers', will hopefully arm youngsters with the skills they will need to keep themselves safe in the future, when we can't take advantage of parental controls anymore. We are the only generation that have to protect our children from something that we don't really understand. When the next generation grows up and has their own children, they will have lived through a social media childhood and will be better equipped to understand the risks. In the meantime, find out all you can about the sites your child is using, take advantage of the parental controls, if they are young enough, and give them every opportunity to talk to you, even if it's really boring. You never know when something important could come up. It's a dangerous world out there, but it always has been, there are just different dangers now and, as parents ,we have to adapt.

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