Think Before You Link

2nd January 2014

Did Santa deliver lots of connectivity for your kids this Christmas? And are they more proficient at getting online and in touch than you are? With the internet appearing to be more of a minefield than ever for children, teenagers and parents, Jennifer Lipman talks to experts about how to keep your offspring cyber-safe.

When I was 13, back in those heady days before everyone had mobiles, it was all about MSN Messenger. We spent hours on it, often chatting to school-friends we’d been with all day. Occasionally we’d message strangers – friends of friends, or their siblings, say – but you couldn't get into too much trouble in the late 1990s. Dial-up was achingly slow, and most of us were using the family computer, in full view of parents. Before the dawn of the iPhone, online privacy was hard to come by.

These days, two thirds of a young person’s web activity is on a smartphone. Internet horror stories fill the papers with lurid accounts of online predators, cyber-bullying and sexting, of preteens accessing pornography with one click, or violent incidents caught on cameraphone and uploaded to YouTube.

For parents, it’s a brave new world. According to one survey, nearly a third of us have accepted a stranger as a social network ‘friend’. For children, a quarter of whom spend at least four hours a day online, the experts say there is even less caution. Yet too many parents feel ill equipped to talk about the risks, says Luke Roberts, National Coordinator of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, because they lack a reference point from their own childhood.

So should the responsible parent take control of the technology and throw away the key? Confiscate any Christmas presents that have Wifi? Apart from being impossible – kids need technology for school these days – Roberts warns that it just won’t work: “Anything said online is visible to the world – switching off won’t change that.” Even the victims of cyber-bullying tell him they’d rather be in the community and be picked on than not know what’s going on. For the biggest change since my MSN days is that back then the internet was just one aspect of our social lives. Today, it’s the defining feature.

But that doesn’t mean adults relinquishing all control. “Many children are the main computer user in the household,” points out Kevin Gourlay from the (ISC)² Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation raising awareness of internet security. “Parents don’t necessarily understand the dangers.” That has to change. When it comes to apps, or social networking sites, “know how to use them so you can offer advice,” he says.

Firstly, Roberts points out, you need to know what devices are being used. “The advice I would have given five years ago would have been about PCs,” he explains. “That era is over.” Platforms like Playstation 4 are “more powerful and particularly focused on connecting people”.

Roberts also urges parents to get to know the communities: distinguish between those that are closed and those that allow anonymous messaging. Club Penguin – popular with primary schoolers – makes an effort to protect users; apps like Snapchat take less care. “And girls are more likely to use social networking sites, boys are more likely to use games,” he adds, explaining that in the former, the problems come from what is posted about them; in the latter it’s about real-time conversation.

One woman he knows recently mentioned having bought her son the new Grand Theft Auto. “The game is online… they have exposed their 14 year old son to an online community of people who are over 18,” Roberts sighs.

But most of the experts admit that getting bogged down in the specifics can be unhelpful, since today’s ‘in’ website could be history before most parents have even done a cursory Google search. More crucial is being aware when children are online, and their general sort of activity. According to the Anti-Bullying Alliance, more than half of children regularly go online without any parental supervision. Yet you’d monitor who your child was with if they’d gone to the park; that their social life now requires a log-in shouldn’t change the approach.

Of course, parents can’t be there all the time, and there are various tech-based solutions. Gareth Cort, a Hertfordshire-based teacher and parent who works for Childnet, suggests very simple strategies like creating a favourites list for younger browsers, to prevent misspelling of a website address, “which can sometimes lead to a site that shows content different to what they were expecting”.

“Controls can be used to limit access to inappropriate sites, or install applications,” reminds Gourlay. Likewise, just because the default setting of an iPhone is unrestricted doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. But find out how the restrictions are going to work first, he emphasises. “If parents don't understand why they have suggested things, they will not be able to verify that children are safe.”

Naturally, technical measures are like child locks; your average tech-savvy teen will circumvent them in seconds. So work with them to put privacy settings in place, advises Gourlay; make it collaborative. “Children want to be armed with good sense and ability to make the right decisions. They will appreciate that parents are interested in their online safety,” he says. “And it’s a good platform to negotiate a reduction in restrictions as they grow older.”

And that’s the crux of it. While the platforms have changed, the parent’s role – to warn about risks – shouldn’t. “The most important advice parents can give about online behaviour is the same sort of advice many already give for offline behaviour,” says Cort. “Remind them it has consequences.”

“Knowing about the sites your children use can allow you to put settings in place that may reduce some risks,” he adds. “But the most important resource is your relationship with your child; talking to them about these issues.” Talk about what to do if they see something discomfiting, ensure they know how to report abuse and to think before they click a link. Emphasise that a potential employer could Google them; discuss the legal consequences of malicious comments.

Not that you should snoop. “It’s about having that constant conversation, recognising that young people are the experts around the technology, but that parents and professionals are the experts around the risks,” says Roberts. “It has to be two-way dialogue.”

Of course, some argue that parents aren’t equipped to be the first line of defence, that the web giants must do more. When I visited Google’s flashy London HQ, with free food on tap and myriad relaxation areas, few wanted to discuss the subject of controlling what people do online.

“All Internet companies insist they take security seriously, however most are not child friendly by default,” says Gourlay, pointing out that while sites like Facebook can be made secure, the onus is on the user to ramp up the privacy settings. Sites used almost exclusively by young people, like Ask.fm, which has been linked with a number of teen suicides, appear to lack even basic security measures.

Roberts believes that providers should have a clear statement about infractions, not a line “on page nine of their terms and conditions”. And they need to clarify what happens next. “If a child reports abuse on WhatsApp, does he expect a response in one minute, one day, or six months? Because if the first time you report something you don’t get a response, it increases the isolation.”

After considerable pressure, there are signs of action from the industry; in November David Cameron announced a deal for Google to uniquely mark child abuse videos, in order to remove them from the web. Meanwhile executives from the internet monoliths are being summoned before MPs, and pushed to act.

Some dismiss the plans as surface measures, and there are concerns that little is being done to address trolling on the endless array of networking sites that pop up, or to infiltrate the ‘dark web’: the peer-to-peer networks where users share files largely undetected.

But there has certainly been a shift in thinking; as Cameron said, Google and Microsoft once argued that “it was against the very principle of the internet to block material”, and they now recognise that that this approach doesn’t pass muster.

More than a decade on from the height of the craze, MSN is no more, now replaced in teenage affections by Snapchat, Instagram and dozens of others. It’s going to take time – perhaps until today’s teens are themselves parents – before there is a genuinely level playing field. But that’s not to say that parents have to enter the battle for a safer internet without any weapons to fight with at all.

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