In an era where the internet is utilised for all manner of personal, professional and social interactions, staying safe online is one of the key challenges.
Andy Phippen, Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at University of Plymouth, has conducted extensive research into online behaviour, gaming and texting, predominantly among younger generations.
This week, his work has been identified as one of 20 UK university research projects that could potentially change the world by the organisers of Universities Week – which include Universities UK, Research Councils UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement.
Here, Professor Phippen – a member of the Parliamentary IT Committee and research partner with the UK Safer Internet Centre – gives his top 10 tips to help families keep their children safe online:
1. Take an interest in what they are doing: For many children, the Internet and gaming plays a big part in their lives and, for the most part, they will want to talk to you about it. It pays to have at least a basic understanding of what they’re doing and, if necessary, to learn from them.
2. Get clued up about what might upset your children online: What distressed your child might not be the things you read about most in the media. Much of the focus there is on adult content, but studies have shown that images of animal cruelty can be far more upsetting to children of all ages and this is something they are more likely to see.
3. Encourage your children to report things: Whether it is harmful content or harassment, children have a tendency to bottle up things they have seen online. If they were being physically hurt, they would tell you or a teacher at school, so encourage them to do the same.
4. Find out how to report any issues: Most websites, including social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, have reporting mechanisms to deal with abuse and harmful content. And don’t be put off by the fact they are large international organisations, because they do take complaints very seriously and often respond quickly.
5. Decide whether a game is appropriate for your child: Computer games all have PEGI (Pan European Game Information) ratings, giving the ages a game is deemed suitable for. Makers are also required to state if their games feature violent or excessive content, so you can make an informed choice about whether you think the game would be appropriate for your child.
6. Carefully manage your child’s online time: It may surprise you, but content is not as big a deal as excessive screen time. While there are no set guidelines that govern how much time a child should spend at the computer, or playing games, you know your children better than anyone and will be able to see mood and behaviour changes which enable you to curb their screen time accordingly.
7. Realise that sexting does not happen to every child: Contrary to seemingly popular belief, your child is probably not sexting but they will quite likely know peers who are. It is actually illegal, although the authorities only tend to prosecute repeat offenders and warn others, but the best advice is to talk to them about it.
8. Talk to your child’s school about online safety: Over the past five years, most schools in England have developed online safety procedures for staff, students and even the board of governors, and it is now part of the OFSTED inspection process. Find out what measures they have in place to protect your child at school and whether they have resources or information sessions for parents.
9. Appreciate the benefits and limitations of filters: Filtering is a useful tool to preventing inappropriate access to content, but do not assume it is going to stop everything and can also sometimes stop things you do want to see. If your child wants to gain access to something, there are ways around the filters, so it is important to talk to your child openly about their internet use.
10. Don’t be afraid!!: 99% of the time, your child is using technology in a positive way – mainly as a way of communicating with their friends and peers – and in the remaining 1%, it is normally not the technology that is the problem, but society. And while the techniques to help children stay safe online are constantly evolving, the most effective course of action will always be good parenting.