The internet is the go-to spot for almost anything nowadays. Many homes can be said to have at least one internet-enabled device, hence the need for internet safety.
With this trend, it is unsurprising that children in many homes also have access to such devices, either their parents’ own or the ones specifically bought for them.
It is not in question that the internet contains reliable and useful sources of information, even for children. Through the internet, children also have access to an almost endless supply of information and opportunity for interaction.
Children now have online resources to explore such as encyclopaedias, current events coverage, libraries and other valuable materials. They can also play games and communicate with friends on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.
Some child developments experts have also stated that the ability to “click” from one area to another appeals to a child’s natural impulsivity and curiosity.
With the rise of online education platforms and resources due to the coronavirus pandemic, the use of the internet by children have perhaps increased.
According to a Pew Research Centre survey in July 2020, social media platforms, particularly YouTube, has emerged as a key platform for both younger and older kids.
“Fully 89 per cent of parents of a child aged 5 to 11 say their child watches videos on YouTube, as do 81 per cent of those who have a child aged 3 to 4, and 57 per cent of those who have a child aged 2 or younger,”
the report said.
However, while children can learn a lot from the use of the internet, child development experts and Information Technology specialists have said there are also imminent risks and dangers for children using the internet.
In a 2019 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – titled, ‘What do we know about children and technology?’ – the rise in children’s use of technology has led to growing concern about how it affects their brains, bodies and socio-emotional, cognitive and physical development.
Also on the risks attached to the use of the internet by children, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry stated that some of the risks include: accessing areas that are inappropriate or overwhelming; being exposed to online information that promotes hate, violence, and pornography; being misled and bombarded with intense advertising; being invited to register for prizes or to join a club when they are providing personal or household information to an unknown source.
Other risks are: losing time from developing real social skills and from physical activity and exercise; revealing too much personal information on social media sites (to cybercriminals and traffickers); and being bullied on social media sites.
“Most parents teach their children not to talk with strangers, not to open the door if they are home alone, and not to give out information on the telephone to unknown callers.
Most parents also monitor where their children go, who they play with, and what TV shows, books, or magazines they are exposed to. However, many parents don’t realise that the same level of guidance and supervision must be provided for a child’s online experience,”
AACAP said in a 2015 article titled, ‘Internet use in children.’
However, the experts have identified the following 10 ways to ensure children’s safety while using the internet. Meanwhile, it should be noted that much work depends on parents, and not the children themselves, to stay safe online.
Speak to your child about online safety
Amid the pandemic, the United Nations Children’s Fund in April 2020 said now was the time for parents to engage and communicate with their children about their internet safety. UNICEF said:
“Remember, when speaking to your child about their time online, always be positive and be open. Ask them if they are worried about anything and show that you are available to listen, and about their online friends.
“It is equally as important to know and understand that many of the same behaviours and factors that keep children safe offline, can help keep children safe online.”
Also, a technology firm, AVG, said as kids were getting internet-connected gadgets at pretty young ages, it was good to start talking to them early.
“Warn them about malware, dangerous websites, and sex offenders. Let your kids know you’re looking out for them, speak honestly with them, and listen. After all, if it’s just you talking, it’s not a conversation. It’s a lecture. And no one likes a lecture,”
Let your child use an internet device close to you
According to a Lagos-based child psychologist, Dr Jadesola Hassan, it is more difficult for sex offenders and online bullies to harass your child when you can see what your child is up to.
“So ensure your children use their devices where you can keep an eye on them. In fact, don’t ever allow your children to go to bed with their laptops and phones.
“Your children are most likely to have access to computers at school or their friends’ houses. It is important for parents to ask them where they go online,”
Be familiar with online safety tools
It is perhaps not good enough that parents don’t know how to use some basic internet tools because if they don’t, they may not be able to protect their kids online.
For instance, there are tools like the ‘Safe Search’ option that most browsers and common search engines have (usually under the ‘Settings’ menu). There is also the ‘Parental Controls’ option on devices, especially for younger children. There are also useful tools for keeping children safe on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and Snapchat.
The use of the tools will help to keep your child’s data and privacy safe, UNICEF said.
Play with your children online
For parents, UNICEF advised them not to think of online games as a child-only pastime as the moment offers a useful opportunity to talk to and engage children about their world and what is important to them.
“Online apps, programmes and sites can also provide ideas and opportunities to play offline games, get creative offline, and exercise together through streaming channels and videos indoors, increasing positive bonding time.
“It is important that you also find some time to do offline activities with children, and encourage them to do things that we often don’t get a chance to in this digital age, like reading books, or playing indoor games,”
the UN agency said.
Remind kids to be wary of strangers
With criminals such as child traffickers exploiting the internet to lure their victims, parents should make it clear to their children that online strangers are not friends.
“Remind your children that people often lie about their age, and online predators often pretend to be children. Emphasise that your children should never reveal personal information like their name, address, phone number, school name, or even their friends’ names,”
“Knowing any of this could help an online predator find your kid in real life. And under no circumstances should your child ever meet up with someone they met online without your permission. If you do agree to a meeting, go with your child and meet in a public place,”
the company warned.
Know your children’s passwords
An IT expert based in Lagos, Mr Wale Lawal, advised parents to create online accounts for their children and keep the passwords in the process.
“But ensure to respect the age limitations on accounts. If a site says you should be 18 to sign up, then maybe your child should wait. Whatever your choice, though, make sure you get their passwords and warn them that you’ll be checking their accounts from time to time to make sure everything’s alright,”
Lawal added that not informing children that you would be checking their accounts might amount to intruding into their privacy or spying, which could weaken their trust in the parents.
Check your children’s browsing history
AVG advised checking your children’s browsing history to see a list of websites they have visited. It also advised checking the ‘Recycle Bin’ to see if any files have been deleted.
“You might be shocked to see the websites your children have visited,” Hassan said. She added,
“If you found anything suspicious, don’t shout on them. Engage them and politely ask them not to visit such sites again. If it’s a pornography site that they’ve visited, for instance, don’t beat them but ask why they visited the site.
“Instead, discuss with them the harmful effects of visiting such sites. You would be doing them good telling them the implications of an action rather than outright commanding them not to do something.”
Teach your children to keep their location private
Most apps, networks and devices have geotagging features which make your whereabouts public and can lead someone directly to you.
These features should be turned off for obvious privacy and safety reasons. Digital photos also contain metadata (information about the time, date and GPS coordinates) which may reveal more than you want to. Some social media platforms automatically hide or remove this data, but not all, so do your homework and know how much info your children might be sharing.
According to Laura Easterbrook of the Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service, Australia, children and teenagers need to be taught how to be smart about protecting their digital footprint.
“Teach your child to stay in control of their digital footprint by only sharing (images and videos) with people who they know and trust. Rather than posting to all their friends on social media, encourage them to be selective and use the privacy settings on the social media platforms they use,”
Watch for changes in your children’s behaviour
Being secretive about what they do online, withdrawing from the family, and other personality changes could be signs that an online sex offender is preying on your kid.
“So keep an eye out for any behavioural changes,” AVG cautioned.
“Sexual predators may send physical letters, photos, or gifts to children to seduce them. Stay alert, and ask your kids about any new toys they bring home,”
the firm added.
Report any suspicious child predator
If you suspect your kid is being victimised, call the police immediately. And don’t touch your kid’s device as there may be important evidence on it that can help to arrest the criminal.
Above all, AVG advised downloading reputable antivirus on your child’s device– especially those capable of automatically blocking any infection should your child accidentally download any malware.