How to keep your children safe on the internet

The best thing parents can do is stay informed and involved, says Lisa Philips

Julie* is a 14 year-old girl who gave her password to her best friend, Emma*. When Emma was approached by some girls – from the popular set – they persuaded her to give them Julie’s password. Emma wanted them to think well of her, so she did as they asked.

The girls got into Julie’s account and sent e-mails to all the boys in the class describing exactly what Julie was willing to do with them. Attached to the e-mails was a picture in which Julie appeared naked. Her head shot had been photo-shopped onto someone else’s body.

Humiliated and ostracised, Julie lost not only her best friend, but her dignity and her self-respect. Although none of the information in the e-mails was true, there was no way she could undo the damage done by the other girls.

Fifteen-year old James* heard that his friends had set up a website and had posted a list of girls names under the heading, “Who’s hot? Who’s not?” Boys were asked to rate the girls on the website. Although he’d never done anything like it before, he thought it was funny and added his own comments and scores.

Unbeknown to James, his friends sent the weblink out to the whole school, and what started out as a private joke became an affair that was out of his control. He’d made comments that he would never say to anyone’s face, but it was too late to take them back.

Grooming. Cyberbullying. Chat room danger. Exploitation. Pornography and violence that are just a few simple clicks away. The stories we read, and watch on the television are enough to scare us into chucking our computers out with the rubbish and banning our kids from using their mobile phones.

Do we really want them to have access to technology that gives bullying and stranger danger a whole new playing field? After all, we managed our teen years perfectly well without it. Is the answer simply to keep our kids away from the dangers?

The answer from Will Gardner, deputy chief executive of internet safety charity, Childnet, is a resounding no. “Technology offers enormous benefits for children,” he says. “If our thoughts are dominated by the negative, then we’re going to forget all the opportunities.

“Technology is becoming more and more integral to children’s lives, and to give it up would be a very high price to pay.” The chance for children to discover new information, to be creative and to connect with like-minded people are boundless, he says, but with these opportunities come the risks.

The way forward is not to keep our children from the latest internet and mobile phone technology, but rather to engage with it ourselves. Many of us are hesitant to do this because our kids seem so much more up to speed when it comes to technology, and we don’t know where to start.

“Parenting has got to get online,” says Will. “It’s really important for parents to get involved. There is good information out there. Go to the Childnet website. We produce a CD Rom called Know it All. Last year we produced one million copies and we sold out. We’re in the process of producing half a million more now.

“The key thing is to start a conversation with your children. If your son is having a problem in a chat room, who will he go to? To dad, who has never been in a chat room in his life? If the parent doesn’t even know what a chat room is, the child is more likely to turn to someone else for help.”

Childnet has set out a few basic guidelines called SMART rules. These are non-technological and user-friendly, and provide a good starting point for parents who want to talk internet safety with their children. “There are no ‘don’ts’ in them,” says Will, who believes that keeping the message positive will help children and teens to avoid the temptation to cross the line.

Talking through the issues with your children and familiarising yourself with the latest technology, the most popular social networking sites, and with what they’re doing on the web is the best way to help your child to avoid getting into problems on the internet.

However, some families may already be past that point. Will says there are positive steps that parents can take to help their children. “If parents suspect that their child is being groomed, it’s important to call the police,” he says.

In 2004, a new Grooming Offence was introduced, which has resulted in a growing number of prosecutions for this cyber crime. A line dedicated to grooming offences run by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) has been set up for concerned parents and children, and is manned by experts in the field. In its first year of operation (2006), the line received 3,000 reports, and around 20% of these had to do with grooming.

You may believe your child is the victim of cyberbullying, which, simply translated, is the use of technology to upset someone else. A recent survey revealed that nearly one in four children in the UK have been on the receiving end of cyberbullying.

There are a number of options open to concerned parents. If the messages are coming from other children in the school, report it to the school, which will have a bullying policy. Cyberbullying is a bona fide type of bullying, in some cases worse than its traditional counterpart because it can reach the victim 24/7, even in the privacy of his or her own home.

Technology means that nasty or untrue messages can be sent out to a wide audience with one click of the mouse. It is important to keep a record of nasty texts, e-mails or online conversations as evidence. This can be presented to both the school, and to the online service provider, which will be able to help you block malicious messages, remove offensive websites and advise you on your next steps. Your child should never reply to the messages.

We may not be as high-tech as our kids, and the phrases Blue Tooth, MSN and MySpace may sound like language straight from outerspace, but if we’re serious about keeping our increasingly tech-savvy children safe on the internet, we have to engage at their level.

SMART rules

S… Safe
Keep safe by being careful not to give out your personal information – such as your name, e-mail, phone number, home address or school name.
M… Meeting
Meeting someone you have only been in touch with online can be dangerous. Only do so with your parents’ or carers’ permission, and even then only when they can be present.
A… Accepting
Accepting e-mails, IM messages, or opening files, pictures or texts from people you don’t know or trust can lead to problems – they many contain viruses or nasty messages.
R… Reliable
Someone online may be lying about who they are, and information you find on the internet may not be reliable.
T… Tell
Tell your parent, carer or a trusted adult if someone or something makes you feel uncomfortable or worried. You can report online abuse to the police at
SMART rules provided by Childnet International

Childnet International


(this site offers detailed advice on when and how to contact various service providers with a cyberbullying problem)

Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)

Some common terms explained

A blog (short for weblog) is a personal online journal that is frequently updated and intended for general public consumption. Blogs are usually a series of entries on a single page in reverse date order, which range from philosophical musings, commentary on the internet and other social issues, and links to sites the author favours. The author of a blog is referred to as a Blogger.

Blue Tooth
Wireless technology that enables users to pass images, music, ringtones etc from phone to phone or computer to computer when they are in range of each other.

Chat room
A chat room is an electronic space, where people can go to communicate in real time online. They do this simply by typing in their messages using a PC. Chat rooms are generally devoted to a particular interest or topic. Chat rooms usually have strict rules for users to maintain their integrity and safety. In particular, chat rooms that are used by children are monitored for offensive language, hate mail, violence and other offensive material.

Cyberbullying is the use of technology to support deliberate, repeated and hostile behaviour towards another person. It may take the form of sending malicious texts or e-mails, or the disclosure of personal details in public forums. In some cases the cyberbully assumes the identity of the victim in order to publish material that humiliates or defames them.

Internet Forums – also known as newsgroups, message boards, discussion groups and bulletin boards – basically allow users to post messages and opinions on a particular subject. Forums differ from chat rooms and instant messaging in that participants do not have to be online simultaneously or order to receive and send messages.

Grooming is when an adult deliberately tries to form a trusting relationship with a child in order to pave the way for future sexual contact. The internet is an easy means for potential offenders to contact children because of the anonymity of the medium. If you suspect that your child is being groomed over the internet, contact CEOP (details above).

Instant Messaging (IM)
This a communications service that enables you to create a type of private chat room with another individual in order to communicate in real time over the internet. It’s the same as a phone conversation, only it is text-based, not voice-based. Typically, the instant messaging system alerts you whenever somebody on your private list is online. You can then initiate a private chat session with this individual.

Social Networking Sites
Social networking refers to a community where you connect with and communicate with others via the internet. Although the format varies from website to website, communication is accomplished using a variety of things, including blogs, photos, videos, instant messaging, chat rooms or forums. Social networking allows you to stay in touch with old friends, and make new friends by sharing music, videos, photos and thoughts. The most popular social networking sites are MySpace, Facebook, Bebo and Xanga.