While the internet is a wonderful tool for children, there can be hidden (and not so hidden) dangers. With clear usage guidelines, some supervision and the right monitoring software, however, it is possible to keep it safe as you surf.
Online safety and security – like most things – begin at home, especially as the internet is playing an increasingly larger role in family life, but as Douglas Adams would say, ‘don’t panic’.
“The internet is even replacing baby books. Whereas mum used to sit down with her child and go through a book now they can do the same on the internet but the fact is that as the child gets older they can do more by themselves,” says Paul Durrant, of the ISPAI (Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland) and Hotline.ie manager.
Durrant explains that unlike a book, the internet has many more options and greater accessibility to unsuitable material.
Parents can help ensure online safety
Parents have to manage this by a case of graded supervision, teaching their children about good conduct on the internet, coupled with the use of appropriate filtering software on their laptop or desktop.
“When it comes to supervision there is no cut-off point. I use the analogy of how parents allow their children to play in the garden: at first your child is in the house, then they are allowed into the garden with the gates firmly locked, then there comes a point where you accompany them onto the road and before you know it they are playing about on their bikes on the road.
“You have to let them have more and more rope but in a controlled manner. How you judge that as a parent is the really difficult thing,” he says.
Parents, in particular, need to be aware of social networking sites and how their children use them. There are ones such as Club Penguin or Habbo Hotel that are geared towards young children and so do not display photos of the child or their real name.
“Parents immediately worry about internet stalking or online paedophiles but there are also far more basic things that they need to be concerned about,” says Durrant.
“Children are incredibly naïve: at 10 or 12 they think they know it all about technology but are often giving away personal information online. They can host pictures on the internet not realising that this means they lose control over those pictures the moment they go online.”
It is important for parents to educate their children about the nature of the internet and perpetuity: while a photo or status update can later deleted or taken offline it could already have been saved and re-uploaded by someone else or a screenshot taken, and there is always the ‘cached’ version and the internet archive at www.archive.org. On the internet, almost everything is forever.
“Parents can tell children not to do these sort of things. It’s about children unwittingly giving away information (about themselves or perhaps even their parents) that could be used by people with bad intentions or for cyber crime,” explains Durrant.
The other big worry for parents is cyber-bullying. If a parent discovers that their child is being cyber-bullied how should they deal with it?
“It is very difficult to handle. It is best to try and talk to children about it and to make sure to teach your child that they don’t cyber-bully, albeit unwittingly. An important lesson is not to join in: if they see one of their friends being slagged off on a Facebook wall post for example they could be encouraged to change the subject but certainly not to join in.
“You must teach your child not to engage in cyber-bullying. On the other hand if your child is the victim most of the time no crime has been committed in a legal sense. Parents should do what they can, including taking screenshots or saving files of any evidence should they decide to contact the Gardaí.
Social networking sites themselves can also tackle this if they are contacted directly and possibly have the cyber-bully banned or blocked.
Often it is the case that cyber-bullying has real-life roots and the child knows the bully from daily life. It is advisable to talk to your child’s teachers confidentially as well as the child him/herself.
The ISPCC says that a “panic button” of sorts should be made available to children on Facebook in Ireland as has been done in the UK.
“The Facebook panic button is a really positive step towards protecting children online and a very effective way of supporting them and making sure they are safe,” says Rhona McGinn, child focus manger with the ISPCC.
She adds that parents can also do a couple of things to keep their child safe on the net, including keeping the computer in a family room and laying out house rules for internet usage such as the amount of hours that can be spent online or spent on specific social networking sites.
Of course, parents must rely on the teacher to ensure their child is safe online when they are at school and there are standard guidelines for every school in Ireland to follow.
“There are three main areas: one is policy so every school connected to the school broadband network must have an acceptable usage policy (AUP),” says Simon Grehan, internet safety project manager with the NCTE (National Centre for technology in Education).
This deals defines what is acceptable use of the internet, mobile phones and other technologies or forms of communication within the school.
“The real reason behind any school’s policy is that if anything happens the school can enforce a sanction because an agreement has been signed to stick to a code of behaviour,” explains Grehan.
“It makes children aware of the boundaries in terms of what is allowed but also what they should do if something goes wrong; if they encounter some harmful content on the internet.”
Parents’ signature on acceptable usage policy
The AUP is brought home and signed by parents so that they are aware of what the school is outlining. The parents have a large role to play in this and although it is written in child-friendly language children aren’t legally responsible in contracts they can read through it and understand it alongside their parents.
The policy should be maintained and updated on an annual basis, advises Grehan. There should be someone within the school who is in charge of this whole area.
From an internal point of view the NCTE operates a sensory managed filtering system: “If you access a school broadband network and you go to Google behind the scenes this will go through a filter,” points out Grehan.
AT the end of the day for parents you can keep an eye on your child’s online activity without installing spyware or watching their every move: open discussion and building an atmosphere of trust goes a long way.
A good rule of thumb is to talk to your children about their friends online, what they’ve been up to on the web that day, and glance over their shoulder every now and again while being open about any filtering software installed and establishing boundaries.
Another important area, says Grehan, is privacy and teaching children the differences between public and private in an online setting where people young and old often leave a ‘digital trail’ on their social networks.
“The concept of what constitutes private information is complex and nuanced; it depends to a large extent on context and audience. Information that is considered private in one context can be public in another. There are some things we think to ourselves but don’t tell anyone, things we share with our family but not our friends. There are things I share with my friends from school that I don’t share with the rest of my class mates. It is very complicated but ten year olds can get it.”
Put simply knowing the importance of what you are saying and the digital trail you leave behind is vital for schoolchildren to understand. “While young people crave adventure and friendship; they focus on all that they have to gain when entering into public spaces. Adults, who have cultivated reputations over years, think about all that they have to lose.”
Grehan pointed to a number of online resources created by the NCTE aimed at teaching children the importance of privacy in their online and offline lives.
Think B4U Click – Post Primary Learning Resource
Think B4U click is a new teaching resource that urges students to take responsibility for their privacy online. Jointly developed by the National Centre for Technology in Education and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties with the cooperation of the Second Level Support Service and the Curriculum Development Unit for use on the Junior Certificate CSPE curriculum, Think Before You Click explores online privacy issues and encourages young people to take steps to protect their own privacy, and that of their classmates.
This resource sets out to make students aware that when online, just as in all other aspects of their lives, individuals have human rights. Everyone is responsible for their actions towards other people and for the safeguarding of other people’s rights. This is particularly pertinent in the more interactive realm of Web 2.0 where online communities are largely unregulated and rely on the community members to moderate them by reporting inaccuracies, potentially defamatory comments, and posting of inappropriate content.
The methodology employed by this resource guides students through the issues using active methods to stimulate discussion and allows students the space to consider how these issues affect them personally, how to assert their online rights, and how to respect the rights of their peers.
The resource consists of 10 lessons. Each class comprises aims, learning outcomes, CSPE and ICT curriculum mapping and a step by step guide. Several of the lessons include worksheets and in-class handouts. It also includes a comprehensive outline of how to carry out two action projects – an Internet Safety Survey and Creating a Charter of Online Rights and Responsibilities. The appendix contains a range of further information for teachers, designed to facilitate classes and to help answer students’ questions.
Chatwise – Primary Learning Resource
This learning resource introduces children to the characters of Niamh and Fionn as they chat online for the first time. They learn the importance of protecting their personal information and what to do if an online encounter goes wrong. This interactive cartoon demonstrates how to communicate safely and effectively with others. It raises awareness of the risks of sharing too much personal information online, good practice when communicating online, and strategies for dealing with spam. This module contains a teachers’ guide, interactive digital resources, and classroom-activity worksheets. You can find these resources at www.webwise.ie/learningresource