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Making sure your children have a safe as well as a happy Christmas


Christmas is, as they like to say, just around the corner. This year, some of you may be contemplating a particularly game-changing purchase for your family. No, we’re not talking about a puppy, but something potentially even closer to the heart of your fast-maturing pre-teen – their first smartphone?

Up until now, you’ve perhaps viewed your family as a fairly well-sealed unit. The influences from outside have been, to some extent, contained. But this Christmas present with its 24/7 connectivity with thousands of people via social media may change that, so it’s vital you’re prepared.

Parentfolk met Carolyn Bunting, General Manager of not-for-profit organisation Internet Matters.


Your child is desperate for a smartphone for Christmas. You’ve decided they are ready, but what do you need to know first?

Your son or daughter might well have a particular smartphone on their wish list but it’s a good idea to look for devices that let you manage the features yourself. The iPhone has built-in parental controls called ‘Restrictions‘ and the Samsung Galaxy has Kids Mode, for example.

When it comes to tariffs, see if you can get a price plan designed with families in mind. Some plans cover multiple SIMs, which means everyone in your family can have a device of their own and you can control each person’s data allowance from one place.

Set some ground rules for your child’s smartphone use, in terms of how often they use it and what they use it for. Premium rate services like competition lines, and using their phone when they are on holiday abroad can quickly add up.

Smartphones are great for socialising and entertainment but you might want to set some limits on your child’s screen time as well, such as switching devices off when they’re doing their homework and not taking them to bed. Some devices and apps include time limit features to help you.

What are the online risks that you should be aware of?

The average age for a child getting their first smartphone is 10 these days, and one of the most obvious risks is seeing inappropriate content, either accidentally or on purpose – it might be online porn or violence. Parents of younger children in particular tell us that this is their biggest concern at first.

Social platforms like Facebook and Snapchat then open the door to a huge range of new social interactions for our children, most of which are great and healthy but some, like cyberbullying and sexting, you would obviously want your child to avoid. Cyberbullying in particular has become a hot issue recently. Our own research shows parents now find this harder to handle than physical, face-to-face bullying.

And sharing is, of course, what social media is all about. But there is a risk if your child shares personal information with people they do not know in real life – their home address or where they go to school for example. This could expose them to the risks of grooming and stranger danger.

The minimum age for using the big social media platforms is actually 13, so think very carefully about whether your child should be using social media before that age.

Smiling little girl playing with smartphone

Clearly as they get older, it’s hard to supervise everything your children do online, so what practical steps should you take to protect them?

Firstly, get your child’s new device set up safe. They will be able to access apps, social media and websites with adult content available at a click or swipe, if nothing is done to restrict access. The internet is a force for good, and a child’s curiosity is fantastic and should be encouraged, but we just have to make sure they can be curious within safe limits.

Even the youngest children can navigate around a video sharing service like YouTube without being able to read and write, so make sure you turn on YouTube’s safety mode, which prevents inappropriate content being displayed. It’s free and you can set it in two clicks, better still download YouTube Kids, all the best bits of YouTube, specifically designed for younger viewers.

All the big internet service providers – BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media, also offer free parental controls that allow you to choose what your child can access online. The same goes for the main mobile network operators. For online search, Google has a feature called SafeSearch where you can filter out adult content from search results. Some filters will also block all social media including chat rooms, where dangers range from bullies to paedophiles. Internet Matters is the one-stop shop for finding out about all these parental controls.

That’s reassuring, so lay the groundwork on the technology front. What else?

The thing you need to understand is that parental controls are not the be-all-and-end-all, so talking to your children about these online risks and how to behave online really is the best way to keep them safe. We know parents sometimes find it tricky to raise these subjects with their children. This might be because they believe their children know more about technology than they do, or because they’re worried about eroding their child’s innocence. But it is probably the single most helpful thing you can do to enable your child navigate their digital world safely. Internet Matters provides a range of practical tips to help parents get the conversation started at the appropriate time.

It’s equally important to get familiar with your son or daughter’s online life through regular conversations and engagement as they grow up. Always try to keep that channel open, and make sure they know they can come to you without fear or judgment if something upsets them or makes them feel uncomfortable.


But how do you strike that balance between being aware of what they’re up to online, without being overly snoopy or draconian?

Some of that will be down to your own relationship with your child, but there are certain arrangements that could be seen as ‘standard practice’ for parents. When your child first uses social media, it’s a good idea to ‘friend’ them and also share passwords so you can keep a friendly eye on their activity. The key thing as well is to make sure they understand not to share personal information online. Also, make sure you check their privacy settings, ideally together with them, to make sure they’re only sharing and chatting with people they really know.

Finally, always remember that you play a major part as a role model for how your children behave online as well as offline. So you might want to give some thought to how your children see you using the internet. If you don’t want your son or daughter to be on their phone 24/7, take a little time away from your own devices. Switch your mobile off when you’re having dinner together and don’t be tempted to take a peek when you’re helping them with their school project.

In the end, we all have to let go at some stage. But we can arm them with the right tool-kit to manage their own, online lives.

For more information and help visit Internet Matters

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