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What you don't know, can't hurt you... can it?

Parents need to explore the online world with their children, and encourage them to play online in numbers, says Stella James

Posted by Hannah Vickers | February 07, 2017 | E-safety

Stella James, founder of online safety and safeguarding software Gooseberry Planet, considers what parents and teachers may not be aware of when it comes to online safety. 

The internet is a wonderful place, full of exciting content, fascinating information and the chance to connect with people around the world. But amidst these benefits, there are also many dangers. With young people becoming more and more adept with technology from an early age, they often have more knowledge of what's out there than their teachers or parents. This means that they can't be advised on how to handle challenging or new situations, which could lead to greater safeguarding risks. 

Young people do not differentiate between an online or offline life; it is simply regarded as ‘their life’

The internet has undeniably provided so many new opportunities for us all. However, such a vast tool could quickly become too much to handle when placed in inexperienced, young hands. Pretty much everything our children do now is connected with being online, and young people do not differentiate between an online or offline life; it is simply regarded as ‘their life’. 

Educating younger generations is vital to ensuring they’re able to navigate the internet safely. Many adults think it’s okay to give a child a tablet or iPad and let them loose. We don’t let our young children watch 18-rated videos, so why do some of us think it’s okay to let them access YouTube videos without any guidance?  

This is a new challenge for our generation and we don’t have the easy templates that we grew up with to guide us. We seem to have lost all the boundaries that we spent so much time talking to our children about in our physical world. For example, we teach our children to swim because one day it might well save their lives, but online we tend to put our heads in the sand and forget that this too requires our parenting and teaching skills. The risks are just as great and the solution is no different: we have to teach our children the skills to survive in this new online environment. 

Explore the online world together 

71% of five-to-six year olds now have a device in their bedroom and four in ten primary school children have their own mobile phone, and are using them with very little or no guidance from their parents. 

With new apps such as Music.ly or Live.ly continuously being released onto the market, parents simply cannot keep on top of checking that these apps are suitable for their children. Children are being left on their own to manage these apps and are being groomed because they’re unaware of how to use them safely. 

Why are we allowing our children to manage their own settings and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation? As parents and teachers, we need to sit with our children and learn and explore the online world together, in the same way we all sit and read with them

On my recent school visits I have heard about many incidences where girls have been groomed on these apps. Why are we allowing our children to manage their own settings and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation? As parents and teachers, we need to sit with our children and learn and explore the online world together, in the same way we all sit and read with them.

Giving your children knowledge about online risks potentially could save their innocence, and even their life. It is all very well talking about “stranger danger”, but what does that mean online? Children don’t even use that term; it’s a terms adults created. The same applies to the terms “sexting” and “cyber bullying”. If we are going to teach these subjects, then the least we can do is use the children’s language. Let’s use “strangers online”, or “sexy or flirty texts”. There isn’t “cyber bullying” - “cyber” is such an old term - it is just plain “bullying” or “online bullying”.

Safety in numbers 

Online gaming is another area where we need to educate our children on how to stay safe. So many children and adults are gaming that we just seem to accept that this is okay, regardless of their age.  

Minecraft is a good example of this: its a great game, but it also has its dangers. Only last week, Adam Issac was found guilty of grooming young boys through Minecraft. 

I wouldn’t let my children play in an arcade on their own with a room full of middle-aged men. Would you?

I have a 10 year-old and a 15 year-old and don’t allow either to play online. You might well think I am being old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t let my children play in an arcade on their own with a room full of middle-aged men. Would you? 

If your children play online, teach them to stay in groups, and to not play with just one other individual. Bear in mind, the dangerous gamer will appear to be like you and me, very kind and nice and will build trust. Children will look up to him or her and aspire to be as good a gamer. This is their hook. 

Our children need to be taught to stay in groups, in exactly the same way as when they are out and about with friends. They must never go off with an individual, or play with someone they don’t know in real life. This very simple rule could save their life. We only have to look at the tragic story of Breck Bednar who was murdered by an online gamer, to see for ourselves how real the risks are.

Just as schools assist parents with swimming skills, they also need to assist with online safety. Most schools, however, seem to feel that one day a year is adequate. Would one swimming lesson do the job? The truth is, the online world is a challenging, ever-changing one and, as such, it is difficult for parents to keep up to speed. But it is part of our children’s lives and we need to engage with it, keep up-to-date and give children the knowledge and skills they need. 

With 59% of 10 year-olds are on social media it’s important that we teach them how to protect themselves, not just ignore it. Let’s show them how to change their privacy settings. Let’s use technology to teach technology. Let’s mobilise parents, teachers and children too, to embrace the online world but educate our children, and make it part of our everyday conversations.

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