Knowing how to keep your kids safe online is one of the biggest modern-day parenting challenges there is.
The past 25 years has seen the internet transform from an extremely niche service used only by the most technical, to a luxury available to the few, to an essential part of everyday life.
A survey by Ofcom in August of last year found that the pandemic combined with the ever growing popularity of social media platforms caused a surge in internet usage, which is expected to stay high even after lockdown measures end.
Over the last year, children have seen many parents work from home and witnessed how essential the internet is to all of our lives. Between the four of us, we're nearly constantly accessing and sharing information online via smartphones, tablets, computers, games consoles and TVs during the working/school day.
Of course, without the internet, home schooling during lockdown would have been even more of a challenge than it has so far proved to be. It's hard to imagine how we would have coped without online resources to keep the kids engaged and happy; the educational websites, the zoom calls with their classes, the online Minecraft sessions with friends.
Even when all kids are finally back in school full time, it's clear that in this digital, globally connected age, the internet will continue to play a key role in children's everyday lives, both in terms of learning and as a way of playing, creating and connecting with friends.
Now, the internet clearly isn't an inherently bad thing. It's an amazing resource to have at our fingertips, a fantastic tool for independent learning and Mark and I don’t want to discourage our kids from using it. However, as parents, we're also very conscious of the risks, so we're always looking to maintain a safe online environment for them.
Ensuring safety online can be a daunting task. When our children ride bikes, we insist on them wearing a helmet – we want to protect them, and shielding their heads from harm is a very straightforward, easy precaution to take. Likewise seatbelts, window locks...the list goes on.
Internet dangers, however, are considerably more opaque, and the online environment is constantly evolving, so it can be hard to tell whether or not we are taking adequate steps to keep our children safe.
The good news is that there are actually lots of positive things we can do as parents to keep our kids safe online and it's not too complicated at all.
I'm working with Online Safety UK to bring you a round up of some of the steps you can take right now to help protect your child’s online experience, and give yourself some peace of mind.
Start the conversation early
Aim to have regular, open ended conversations with your family about online safety. It's a simple step, but it can be really effective. By talking regularly to your kids about staying safe on the web, you can stay involved in their online experience and provide them with support when they need it.
Of course, there's no sense in waiting until things go awry to start the conversation. Online Safety UK recommends beginning discussions about internet safety as soon as your kids are ready to begin accessing to the internet for the first time, which can be pretty young these days!
Lee Haywood, ex Police Officer and founder of Online Safety UK explains, "Conversations around online safety don’t have to be complicated. My daughter is 5 years old, so we have the simplest of conversations and we do things together. Since Lockdown 2021, we have begun playing Minecraft together and with a few ground rules from the start and we're enjoying it together. I’ve been blown away by just how creative her little mind is and how well she can apply it.
If kids are aware from day one that there are rules to be followed and precautions to be taken, it will become second nature instead of feeling like something that is sprung on them down the line.
Starting early on will also give you as parents a chance to get to grips with the types of precautions you should be taking and ensure that your understanding can evolve along with the technology to protect your kids right the way through their childhood.
Before our kids started using the internet, we sat down and chatted about the need to stick to appropriate sites, and what that might look like. We then explored some websites together (I’d done a bit of homework first), and agreed on a list of favourites which they could then use.
This limited approach worked really well for us. The range of things they're allowed to do online has naturally grown as they get older, but they know to check with us before visiting a new site or trying something they haven't discussed with us before. We still supervise their use but since a click to the wrong place can happen in the blink of an eye, it's also really important that they make good decisions for themselves too.
Of course, there comes a point when your teenagers may well be more clued up than you are. What then? Lee has some reassuring advice: "We recommend holding your hands up and accepting that they are just quicker at it than you and they use it differently. Take the first step by having an open, non-judgemental conversation about what they do like. You don’t have to understand it all, just listening is the first step”.
Over the years, we’ve continued to have regular chats about their online use, and because it's a regular thing, it doesn't feel like an interrogation or a trick question! It's simply a change for them to share the positive, fun experiences they've had online, but also ensures that they feel confident in coming straight to us if they experience anything that makes them uncertain or uncomfortable.
Know the challenges
The three main internet safety issues for kids are cyber bullying, pornography/inappropriate content, and predators.
With new sites and apps popping up all the time, and the functionality of those resources evolving constantly, it’s simply not possible to know exactly what threats each site poses but it is possible to know what to look out for and how to deal with it.
The Online Safety UK app is incredibly useful when it comes to understanding these risks.
Online Safety UK is inspired and run by Lee Haywood, an ex-Police Officer of 10 years’ experience, who is now a Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) Ambassador.
Lee explains, "Online Safety UK was setup with the thought process that “Online Safety” is a generic term for so much more than “the internet”, such as mental health, screen time, positive tools and more. We focus on building confidence, knowledge and providing simple solutions to households’ issues that involve the technology that we use.
"Families are realising all the time just how amazing their children are at using technology. That's something we should harness and allow to grow in a controlled way, rather than restrict and suffocate it through fear. It's such a natural feeling to have when you do not know what else to do, so that's where Online Safety UK comes in."
The app contains all the key info you need to be aware of to keep your family safe online. It explains the most common danger areas clearly and concisely with plenty of practical tips on how to put safety measures in place.
Child-targeted apps, sites and games might be designed with the best intentions, but they can become to be an ideal place for inappropriate internet users to hide in plain sight. For example, chat functions can be used by predators and play home to cyber bullying.
The app identifies risks attached to specific popular apps and websites such as PokemonGo, Minecraft and Roblox, giving you clear and detailed breakdowns of the key dangers and telling you how to mitigate them.
The Online Safety UK app also covers social media apps such as SnapChat and TikTok, walking you through the pros and cons and advising on the safety measures you can put in place.
"Our website and app are designed to provide you with key, up to date information in a format that suits your child’s age range." says Lee. "It is not about telling you the horror stories, or that you are a bad parent for not knowing these things. I am a parent who has done this 7 days a week for years upon years and I only just about keep up. Therefore, we compact the information into chunks you can read in up to 5 minutes and leave again, giving you the points you need to make your own assumptions and decisions."
Having the app on hand is proving such a useful resource for us as the kids are forever asking to access to the latest new thing all their peers are using. I was really impressed to see how regularly updated the app is - it already has a section on Clubhouse, a new social media voice-chat platform which isn't even fully released yet.
"We review everything (yes, everything) every week to check if settings or features have changed, then tweak the information for your awareness." Lee explains, "TikTok is the one to watch for this, as they are improving their service rapidly to try and help parents manage their child’s use."
Staying informed, of course, is a constant challenge. I sometimes get a real feeling of trepidation when I'm looking into online dangers. I want and need to be well informed but I don't want to be frightened by the big tabloid headlines that can stir up a genuine sense of panic. Online Safety UK knows this and tackles it brilliantly.
"We will not give you a scary headline without a real solution. We hate headlines that state “Online predators targeting children on THIS game”. You’re being baited to click their link and all they will do is tell you the obvious: there are some nasty people out there, just like in the real world.
"To us, this is useless information. We know, just like you, that the internet can be dangerous. So is crossing the road, getting in a car, walking down the stairs, or walking in the streets in a secluded area late at night. The key is, we have managed to work out these risks and how to manage them.
"So at Online Safety UK, we don't just name the risk, we always go on to say: this is what you can do about it, this is how you control it, this is how you spot the signs and importantly, if you are worried, you can contact us for guidance or report through these means."
Enjoy time online as a family
Using the internet with your children is a great way to keep online time firmly in the family zone. This needn't be limited to playing games or accessing school resources, you could get the kids involved in things like doing the online grocery shop, buying a birthday present, or chatting online with relatives.
By involving them in everyday activities, you can demonstrate a variety of safe, practical uses for the internet, while at the same time showing your child first-hand the kind of content you view as appropriate.
"It is easier than you may think," Lee reassures, "Start with what you enjoy doing on the internet? Streaming videos on Netflix, Prime etc? Watching or discovering on YouTube? Playing games? Researching or communicating online? Perhaps you could try TikTok (privately, of course!) with them?"
Lee recalls, "Recently, we spoke to a mum and 13-year-old daughter, who reminisced about playing Scrabble at Christmas last year but the board had since been lost. We suggested they download the free official Scrabble app and play it together using their phones. Now they play it every day and it provokes conversation about the words they just put and who has just won. It's a great platform to start from; free and fun for both.
"Remember, you are your children's biggest role model in life. They look up to you even if they may act like they do not in their teenage years. How you use the internet and interact with your children will make all the difference in their thought processes online as they grow older."
You can also use this time to help your kids to learn the rules to staying safe online. Again the Online Safety UK app can help here by providing a library of information at your fingertips, ready for whenever you have a question about a game, app, news articles or concern raised by a family member.
Use parental controls
I’m sure we’ve all got a story to tell about a time when, despite our best intentions, an innocent online search resulted in some unexpected results.
I can clearly remember quickly hitting the back button when a search for ‘My Little Pony’ with Miss J brought up some fan art results that, although passing through Google's safe image filter, were most definitely not PG. Another time, JD and I looked up some song lyrics, only to find swear words that certainly didn’t feature in the radio edit!
In fact, NSPCC research has shown that children are equally as likely to find pornography accidentally as they are to deliberately search for it, which means we need to be as proactive as possible in our efforts to keep our kids safe online.
Because there are so many unpredictable outcomes resulting from just about any online activity, putting a plan in place to protect your kids can feel like a nigh on impossible task, especially when the technology evolves so quickly and one social or gaming fad is quickly replaced by the next.
Parental controls are settings on your device that limit what a child can do online. They are far from infallible and can't replace vigilance and open discussion, but they do provide a line of defence again unsuitable content and are a proven way to help keep children safe online.
The exact controls available to you will depend on your device and operating system, but typically you can use parental controls to block unsuitable content, prevent things like in-app purchases, or manage how long your child spends online.
It’s important to consider all the devices that your children use to access the internet within the home, including tablets, smartphones, TVs, computers and games consoles. The Online Safety UK app has a handy video guide talking through their top recommended parenting control systems.
Create a preferred list
It's no secret that kids love YouTube - whilst we had 4 channels and set hours for kid's TV, for the youngest generations, on demand video content has always been a normal part of life.
When kids access YouTube, they of course want to search for content related to a hobby or interest, but this can throw up all sorts of results, many of them far from child-friendly.
To give your child a sense of autonomy while maintaining safe boundaries, it's a good idea to do some research into ‘safe’ YouTubers covering a particular topic.
We’ve done this very effectively with both kids who love all things Minecraft; we’ve agreed a list of Minecraft YouTubers whose content is appropriate for their age, and explained to them why it’s important to stick to this list. If one of their friends suggests a new YouTuber, we check it out first.
You can also use parental controls to alter YouTube safety settings, or give YouTube Kids a try. Again, nothing replaces supervision and informed decisions, but it does help limit the chances of accessing the wrong content.
Limit search parameters
If you’re keen to limit your child’s ability to search online beyond the standard parental controls, you might want to consider using apps that restrict this kind of activity, while still allowing them the freedom to browse.
This kind of online use is also perfect when you’re out and about using Wi-Fi networks that may not have parental controls in place. You can find more info on the options for search controls on the Online Safety UK app.
Make school part of the conversation
Government guidance across the UK highlights the importance of safeguarding children and young people from harmful and inappropriate online material, and all schools are required to put strengthened measures in place to protect children from harm online.
Online Safety UK works with numerous schools to help them improve education and safeguarding measures. They use a whole-school approach to online safety, which helps ensure staff, governors, volunteers and parents teach children about taking the right precautions.
You can ask your school about how they tackle online safety at school.
How can I get the Online Safety UK app?
The Online Safety UK app is free to download on iPhone and offers a wealth of information you can access without a subscription.
There are paid subscription options (monthly or annual) available to access additional features such as events, live updates and video walkthroughs on how to set things up.
As a subscriber, you'll also have access to one-to-one advice from the experts. "If you are looking for simple advice from personable people with a vast range of safeguarding experience, who you can speak to over the phone, email or video call, 7 days a week, that would be us!" smiles Lee.
A paid subscription also means can nominate your school to receive free or heavily subsidised Online Safety support and lessons for the entire school community.
At the time of writing, a monthly subscription costs £4.99 per month, including a 3-day free trial, while an annually subscription costs £40 for 1 year, again including a 3-day free trial.
Keeping kids safe online can feel like a never-ending task, but by putting controls in place, setting a good example, and discussing online safety regularly with your child, you can help provide a safe online environment for them to enjoy and explore.
Sign up to Online Safety UK today and together, we can make the digital world safer.
This is a commissioned post for Online Safety UK