According to research carried out by uSwitch in 2013, 11 is the average age for British children to get their first mobile, although more than a million own one by the time they’re five years old.
In addition, seven in 10 children aged 5-15 now have access to a tablet at home, with four in 10 children in this age bracket using a tablet to go online (Ofcom 2014). When children have such high levels of technological autonomy, it’s not surprising that some dangers go unnoticed by parents or teachers.
With technology now omnipresent throughout our lives, there is an onus on everyone involved in a child’s life to ensure their e-safety, with the weight of the responsibility lying with parents and teachers.
While the dangers of cyberbullying have been well documented in the media, there are other negative side-effects from the permeation of technology that pose serious risk to young people.
Sexting: Sexting is an increasingly common activity among young people where inappropriate or explicit images and written messages are shared online or via text. According to ChildLine, in 2012/2013 there was a 28 per cent increase in calls to the charity (compared to the previous year) that mentioned sexting. That works out as nearly one a day. Even though the age of sexual consent is 16, the age for distributing indecent images is 18, so by sending an explicit text a young person is producing and distributing child abuse images and risks being prosecuted.
Social networking sites: The likes of Facebook and Twitter have exploded in recent years and young people in particular have become huge fans of this dynamic way to connect with others. However, many make the mistake of posting and tweeting controversial content without giving much thought to the potential consequences, with their online behaviour having a negative impact on their real lives.
Online predators: Sadly, the possibilities for anonymity that the internet offers means that paedophiles can use social networking sites to befriend children, gaining their trust online with a view to making physical contact. By pretending to be someone they’re not, they can find out personal information about a child.
With these dangers in mind, it is crucial that schools work with parents to promote a culture of e-safety. By arranging e-safety awareness evenings, teachers can discuss the practical steps that parents can take to minimise risk without curbing their children’s natural enthusiasm and curiosity for technology.
So, what tips can schools offer parents?
Mobile management: When parents give their child their first mobile, they need to outline their expectations and lay down some rules of its usage. With younger children, parents can set up controls so that only they can authorise the apps that their child downloads. In terms of sexting, get parents to ask their child what photos they feel are acceptable to send to others and whether they would be comfortable sending the photos they share with friends with a relative. Advise parents to tell their child how easy it is for photos to be forwarded and copied and the potential for these to resurface later in life when they are applying for college, university or a job.
Get social: When it comes to helping younger children set up social media profiles, it’s important to encourage parents to select the strongest privacy setting so that only a child’s inner circle of friends can access most of their information. Parents need to encourage their child to be selective about uploading images and videos, posting status updates and sending private messages, even among those they trust, explaining how easy it is to share content and how difficult it can be to delete. Parents must also explain the importance of being aware of whom they accept as friends and followers. Teachers could suggest parents use real-life examples in the news of the dangers of young people meeting strangers they have been communicating with online. It is also important for children to understand the importance of protecting their accounts from hackers. Parents should advise children to create strong passwords that use a random mix of letters and characters.
Safe surfing: According to Robinson (2013), young people’s perception of their parents’ knowledge about new technology influences the level of acceptance and value that they place on the advice offered by parents regarding online safety. Schools should therefore encourage parents to be technologically competent and show an interest in their child’s online activities without seeming as if they are snooping. That way, a child is more likely to talk about any cyber issues that may arise. Teachers could suggest parents install a tool that allows them to monitor their child’s online activity, block their child’s ability to send out personal information and limit the time they spend online.
While e-safety awareness sessions are incredibly important, getting all parents to attend these can prove difficult. Fortunately, there are products, services and initiatives that use parental engagement as a means of keeping children safe.
Fantastic teachers aside, parents should be children’s next best educators. If they’re able to teach their child to think critically about what they upload and download and who they communicate with, this will keep young people safe online. After all, prevention is the best protection by far.