6 tips for keeping kids safe online

A blog about online safety for children, including personal experiences, difficult conversations and six practical tips. 

Sex, Snapchat and other conversations

I wrote about online safety three years ago, when SRE classes – Sex and Relationship Education – had just started for my eldest son. We had some interesting conversations around that time, which he definitely won’t want me to share.

Last month, the subject of online safety emerged again. The Teen as he is now (and intentionally capitalised, as henceforth this is how he shall be known) asked if he could download Snapchat.

I registered a Snapchat myself account a couple of years ago to find out what the fuss was all about. My Snapchat history consists of three photos and one connection – hello Tracey! Maybe I’m an old Luddite, but I didn’t have the energy to get into it. I promptly logged out and haven’t looked at it since.

Send me a proposal

My response to The Teen’s request was “send me a proposal, with all the pros and cons of having a Snapchat account and I’ll consider it.”

This is a trick I learned from a friend, whose daughter was so committed to joining one social media channel, that she gave her mum a proper SWOT analysis. It was presented as an A3 colour coded poster. Unsurprisingly the idea of homework sent The Teen running for the hills – or should I say sloping off back to the sofa.

Time passed. Christmas came and went. No proposal emerged and Snapchat seemed to be forgotten. Until last week when he said: “Mum, can you just give me a yes or no answer to my next question, without any discussion? Can I get Snapchat?”

Cue long conversation about Snapchat. It was non-judgemental, there were no arguments. I asked questions about how he was going to use it, and he gave me his assurance that he would keep his account private and not post any inappropriate photos. We talked about photos disappearing after 10 seconds on Snapchat, which could live on indefinitely as saved screenshots, and on who knows what other internet platforms. We discussed online footprints and how that could have either a negative or positive impact on his future.

He took it all in. I’ll be waiting until hell freezes over for his SWOT analysis, but I’m satisfied that he understands the potential dangers and his personal responsibilities.

(Can I just say that at this point it sounds like I’m smashing this whole mothering thing, but that’s not how it feels.)

How much screen time?

Both kids spend around 1.5 hours on their screens every night. I don’t know if that sounds like a lot to you, or if you think I’ve got it under control. I’m trying to not compare myself to other people, so I don’t want to know.

It seems to work for us. The Teen gets to scratch his social media itch and watch other people play FIFA, which means at least two people are playing football without leaving their sofas. And The Tween can watch videos of people falling over on YouTube, and occasionally watch art tutorials and be inspired to draw something wonderful, like this:

A blog about online safety for children, including personal experiences, difficult conversations and six practical tips. Because it's a minefield out there.

They’re also allowed on the Xbox during specific times over the weekend.

It’s taken years of negotiations to get to this routine. The kids don’t consider me to be the bad cop, and I feel comfortable that they’re not turning into zombies.

Our house, our rules

I also have thumbprint or password access to their devices. I’m sure just knowing that I can check their browsing history or direct messages whenever I like, tames their behaviour.

Other rules include absolutely no devices at the breakfast, lunch or dinner table – and that includes the adults; and also, they leave their phones/tablets in the lounge overnight.

These are the rules that work for us. I’m not judging you if you do things differently and I hope you will not judge me if you’re living in some kind of 1950’s style, boardgame playing, craft making utopia.

I still don’t know exactly what content they’re exposed to. Regardless of the parental settings I have on YouTube and their devices, YouTube seems to offer up inappropriate recommended viewing for my 11-year-old, which has shown him violence bordering on the illegal.

As yet, The Tween doesn’t have any social media accounts and only uses his little Nokia handset to call me on his way home from school. We will have the big online predator chat this summer, when he’ll get one of our old Smartphones, in advance of starting secondary school.

So what can we all do to keep our kids safe?

A blog about online safety for children, including personal experiences, difficult conversations and six practical tips. Because it's a minefield out there.

6 tips for keeping kids safe online

1. Talk to your children

Be curious. Ask your kids what they’re watching while they’re online, to help them set boundaries and understand the risks.

Ask them what sites they use and the type of videos they’re watching. If they close their screens down every time you walk into the room, you might like to check their browsing history and come back to that difficult conversation.

Let your kids know that they can talk to you about anything that’s worrying them, about online bullying, strangers making contact, or if they’re feeling vulnerable on social media.

2. Set up parental controls and privacy settings

All devices have parental controls in their settings and all social media channels will have privacy settings. Make sure your children’s accounts are private and that they only accept followers they know in ‘real-life’.

Make sure they don’t give out any information about where they live, their phone number etc.

If they’re wearing school uniform don’t let them post photos of any identifying features like the logo on their jumper.

Know your children’s passwords, so you can check up on their activity once in a while.

True story

The Tween and I were getting into my car at a shopping centre a couple of years ago and the man in the car next to us wound down his window and asked my son where he lived. The Tween started telling the man our full address before I yelled at him and told the man to go to hell. If it’s as easy as that to give private information out face to face, I dread to think what he could be asked to share when he gets his smartphone!

A blog about online safety for children, including personal experiences, difficult conversations and six practical tips. Because it's a minefield out there.

3. Set boundaries and stick to the rules

Our house rules are: no phones at the table, no phones in their bedrooms and limited screen time. Create boundaries that suit your family, draw up a contract for both sides, and stick to the rules.

4. Install anti-virus software for all devices

This website recommends anti-virus software for multiple devices, which include parental controls. This package includes location tracking, web monitoring and blocking, the ability to restrict certain apps and social networking – for a reasonable price.

5. Seek professional advice

There is a lot of professional advice out there. Most schools have advice on their websites and your kids will probably have assemblies on the subject.

Apple is also very helpful on this subject. I’m going to the Apple Store on Saturday with The Tween and his iPad. We’ve been having trouble with some of our settings. They will set everything up for us – as they’ve done before – so I can feel comfortable that he’s safe online. And they host workshops for children and adults on all sorts of topics. For example, our local store has workshops on Family Sharing and Screen Time, as well as classes on coding for kids and art workshops. They’re free.

6. Get help if you’re worried

Organisations such as CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency) can help if you’re concerned about your kids behaviour online, or worse if you think they’re being exploited.

It’s a minefield

It really is a minefield out there, and I sometimes feel overwhelmed. We’re the first generation experiencing this issue and I often don’t know where to turn. It helps to talk to friends about how they cope and what boundaries they’ve set.

I’d love to hear from you about how you manage your children’s online safety and screen time. Is this something that concerns you, or have you reached a happy place? Perhaps you are living the utopian, boardgame playing, craft making dream? Let me know in the comments below.  You’ll get no judgement from me either way.

Much love, Vx

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