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Most parents accept that the Internet plays a significant role their children’s lives. Access to information and entertainment has never been more readily available, and children are now doing a lot of their socialising online. However, parents are also well aware of the dangers associated with online content; this is exacerbated by the fact that many children today are more technologically aware than adults. Much of the material on certain websites is inappropriate for children’s viewing, and we hear a lot about “online predators” - adults masquerading as children in gaming and social media sites. So how do parents make sure their children use the Internet safely, without compromising their freedoms? This article outlines what parents should bear in mind in order to protect their children online.

1. Have the right attitude towards online safety
Parents’ attitudes towards the Internet vary as much as parenting styles. Some believe in a laissez-faire approach, whereas others scrupulously monitor their children’s online activity. As ever, moderation is the best option. Whereas giving your children free reign on the Internet could lead them to highly inappropriate content, overly keen surveillance may backfire, encouraging your children to become more secretive in their Internet usage. If you are the kind of parent who likes to check their children’s Internet habits by viewing the “History” folder on their computer, make sure you do this covertly. If a child suspects a parent of being too watchful, he or she will quickly learn to cover their tracks.

2. Be realistic about the risks online
If you are a regular user of “professional” websites, those free of controversial, ill-informed content, you may not be alert to the vast number of sites preaching hatred and advocating abuse. On the other hand, if you are a parent who is highly aware of online threats to your children’s wellbeing, you may fear that every site has the potential to be offensive, disturbing or corrupting. The number of websites appearing online has grown monumentally in the last decade, and it is impossible for parents to providentially research sites that they think their children may visit. Parents must accept that, unless they completely ban their children from using the Internet, keeping track of exactly what your children are exposed to online is not an option. Instead, you must equip your children with the means to deal with online threats whenever they arise.

3. Speak to your children about Internet safety
Increasingly, schools are educating children about online safety, but this is still in its early stages and lags behind other school safety campaigns, such as road-crossing and healthy eating. One of the most important things a parent can do to advocate online safely is to speak openly to your children. Rather than preaching, however, try to engage your children in a conversation and ask them questions. “What risks do you think are online? Are the dangers always going to be obvious? What should you be aware of if someone ties to befriend you online?” As with many other childhood issues, dialogue is more effective than lecturing when it comes to informing children about online safety.

4. Use a child-safe browser to protect your child from inappropriate content
Children are naturally curious, and the Internet presents a means for them to satisfy their insatiable appetite for knowledge. Usually, they focus on age-appropriate and inoffensive topics, but if your children have heard a certain word discussed in the playground, or spend time with older friends and family members, they may have been exposed to subjects which they instinctively feel are inappropriate, but nevertheless want to know more about. Looking these up online can lead to an overwhelming influx of unsuitable content, ranging from pornography to drugs to physical abuse. Password-protected security software filters potentially harmful content, so that your children are unable to access offensive websites and pictures. There are also browsers and search engines available which are specifically designed with children in mind. Ask Kids and Yahoo Kids are two examples: these come with pre-loaded filters and websites to prevent your children from accessing certain content, inadvertently or otherwise. 

5. Make sure your children are cautious when using social media sites
While security software can block inappropriate content, it cannot protect your children from adults posing as young people on social media sites. Parents should have a serious discussion with their children about the dangers of sharing too much with “friends” they meet online. Encourage your children to reveal only detailed or personal information to those they know offline. If your children really do think they have made a legitimate friend online, you should ask them to let you know if they wish to meet this new friend in person, and then accompany them. Furthermore, you should make sure your children are aware that they have a duty to report any abuse they come across online. “Cyberbullying” is a growing problem, and can take many different forms, including scurrilous gossip, name-calling and sharing of mocked-up pictures. Children are well-educated at school regarding “regular” bullying, so you should ensure your child knows that online bullying is just as serious.

6. Highlight the importance of ignoring emails and instant messages from unknown sources
This point applies to adults as much as children. A lot of “spam” messages are sent these days, with the intention of selling products and gathering information from potential customers. Often, these emails can seem legitimate, but you should encourage your children to be wary of replying to, or filling in a survey or questionnaire from, anyone they don’t know. This is true even when the email or message appears to target them personally by using their name, because many sophisticated “spam” operators now have means of finding out names from other sources. Ask your children to ignore such messages until they show them to you, and you can then decide together whether or not it is a legitimate contact. 

7. Think carefully about when to ease control of your children’s Internet usage
The Internet is developing at an incredible rate, presenting an unprecedented challenge to your children’s safety. Your children will face different dangers depending on their age, and this is where parental discretion plays a vital role. Younger children playing online games may be befriended by adults posing as fellow gamers, whereas teenagers using the likes of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are vulnerable to “over-sharing” and can sometimes reveal personal information too readily. Most parents do not want to outlaw certain websites for the entirety of their children’s youth, as this would be to their social detriment. But deciding when you can switch off the child-safe browser and allow your child to join a social media site depends on how well you think your child can deal with the potential dangers. Even when you entrust your child with greater independence online, you should reiterate the importance of using monitored chatrooms and exercising caution. 


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