Keeping our Children safer online

Cyber safety - quick facts

How are kids using the Internet these days?
The dominant use of the Internet varies with the age of the child. Younger children use online games in the main; whilst older children use the Internet for conducting web searches as well as for communicating - through email, chat and increasingly in social networking sites. Recent UK figures suggest that up to 27% of all 8-11 year olds and 55% of 12-15 year olds have social networking profiles.

The expectation is that social networking technologies will form the dominant Internet platforms into the near future. Whilst kids will undoubtedly continue to do everything the Internet offers, just about everything they will do will involve socialising - chatting, emailing, discussing, and just 'hanging out' virtually. 

What social networks do kids use?

The trends are in the greater use of small, niche social networks, such as Club Penguin for children under 8 years; Bebo in New Zealand and the UK; and MySpace in Australia. In Asia Friendster has a much greater hold; whilst Mixi is probably the largest in Japan, Hi5 in Africa and parts of Europe. Expect your kids to jump around, to have multiple profiles on different social networks and to go where their friends or favourite tools and activities are. Which makes it all the more important to ask them which ones they are using at any one point.

What should you be concerned about?

Number one in your list should be bullying - or cyberbullying. The stats vary on this but hover around 15-33% (depending on country, age of child and nature of what is understood to constitute cyberbullying) and are likely to increase. Whatever your perspective it is undeniable that cyberbullying is an increasing phenomena that is highly likely to affect your child in some form and at some time - they will either be bullied and/or become bullies themselves. And in the online world the gap between bullies and bullied is easily traversed.

Another concern should centre on how much personal information your child is revealing online - information that can be used to identify and trace your child. This information can be used to target your child with online scams, or to steal or 'borrow' their identify; or to trace them in the real (physical) world.  All of these things can have devastating effects. The main problem here is that research suggests that 83% of children 8+ have made their online profiles visible (or public) to all-comers.

Inappropriate Content is not the problem many parents think it might be, or at least not for the majority of children. Up to one in every 7 kids report coming across harmful or inappropriate content on the web - usually of a sexual (most reported) or violent nature. But most kids appear to be able to cope with the experience, finding it simply a distraction and not engaging (most indicate they leave the offending page or site immediately). Only a small number think to report the experience to their parent, probably because they are not unduly worried or affected. Perhaps more worrying is that the Internet serves to normalise this type of experience: kids expect it, it is not unusual.

There is no real evidence that such inappropriate content harms kids or adversely affects their behaviours. And there is certainly no consensus in psychological or educational research that this is the case. Although there are clear exceptions: children who seek out harmful content (e.g. sites that celebrate and encourage anorexia; sites which talk up suicide; sites which encourage emulation of acts of violence - copycatting) are more likely to find it online. These are children who are at risk already, and using the Internet amplifies that risk and in some situations with tragic consequences.

Clearly kids can find out so much more these days by using the Internet. Child psychology tells us that children under 10-12 years (pre-adolescence, pre-puberty) are less discerning, they don't understand risk (i.e. they can often rehearse the rhetoric about why they shouldn't do certain things online - the rules of Internet use - but often don't practice what they say they understand) and can't rationalise the dangers of certain behaviours. So kids who are more likely to demonstrate risky behaviours offline, in the real physical world, are likely to get into all sorts of trouble online.

Copyright (c) Martyn Wild - Available to use as is with permission from the author.

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