By Sharon Girling OBE, Online Child Safety Expert

It was ‘Safer Internet Day’ yesterday which promotes more responsible use of online technology, especially amongst children and young people across the globe. With this in mind, it brings the recent comments from Prime Minister David Cameron into the forefront. Mr Cameron has announced a raft of measures and technical innovations to tackle those who use the internet to view and share illegal images. As well as identifying and removing illegal images, chasing perpetrators and enforcing the law, search results will be blocked that lead to child abuse.

Protecting vulnerable children online is now a priority as internet companies have been praised by Mr Cameron for going “above and beyond what we asked of them”. £10 million will be made available from next year through UNICEF to create further specialist online child sexual abuse teams.

Closer to home

It’s great that the government are bringing child safety to the forefront of their policies but a lot of responsibility lies with the parents and the importance of how they protect and educate their children in the safe use of online devices.

Most children see their devices like an extra limb and we’re finding an interesting trend that offline and online personas are now becoming merged. The character they may have created for themselves in a game or social forum will now be carried into the outside world. In this instance, parents need to be aware of what games their children are accessing and ensure that they are age appropriate.

The Parent Trap

Parents can sometimes fall into the trap that because their children are safely tucked up inside their own home, there is no harm coming to them. Sadly that is no longer the case. Without parental controls being set on their internet usage we’ve seen cases of 9 year olds getting themselves a Facebook account with numerous adult males as ‘friends’. All of this without parental knowledge.

All ISPs now offer stringent parental controls which can be put in place which prevent access to inappropriate sites. Parents need to spend 5 minutes reading the documentation and setting up passwords.

When children are older they need support and education regarding their online responsibility and potential dangers of being online. Teenagers will always make stupid mistakes; it’s part of growing up. These days it’s more likely to be a naked photo going viral. Although hard to do, parents need to be supportive when these things happen and teach their children how to interact safely with the internet.

The dangers of mobiles

Companies who sell mobile phones and other devices need to be trained to give more guidance to customers. They need to check who the device is for and recommend the correct handset. Sadly a lot of the sales people are on commission and don’t care if the device is going to end up with a 5 year old.

There have been many cases of parents giving children their old phones without having any controls in place and children ringing up quite large bills on apps! The phone needs to be fit for purpose. Children and young teenagers want to be able to phone, text and play games. Look at turning off the internet to prevent them accessing sites and information that are not age appropriate.

Education

As a society, internet safety is not on the agenda enough. Schools should at the minimum have a 1 hour session at the start of each term which reminds children about being safe online and their responsibilities. This should empower young people to have the confidence to say no. A child’s default setting is to say yes to requests from adults but with support from schools and parents, children should feel confident enough to turn down communications from adults online.

What can be done around age verification online?

It’s gone beyond date of birth and tick boxes; better verification is required. This could be facial or document checking or even using online identities. Companies need to take more responsibility for preventing access to age restricted goods or services.

Best foot forward

It’s been a long time coming, but steps are being taken in the right direction to help protect the next generation online. Education and awareness is key to ensure that, just as a child knows not to accept sweets from a stranger, they don’t start chatting away to someone online they don’t know.