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The internet in isolation: Keeping your family cyber safe

By Amalia Fawcett, Wellbeing Hub Manager

As our social lives have diminished, our online lives have flourished. Personally, without the internet my mental health would have taken a hit during our COVID-19 lockdown. The internet enabled me to learn a duet with my niece in London, work from home, catch up with friends, see locals singing on Italian balconies or clapping health workers on London streets, watch free concerts by my favourite musicians, and zoo-cams of baby animals. My children have had virtual playdates with friends a few streets away, checked in with their teachers and taken part in virtual classes. The internet is truly wonderful!

However, parents are constantly warned of its risks to children, and time children spend online is fraught with parental guilt over whether it is too much, if they have access to unhealthy or dangerous material, or if they are being approached by strangers online. There is also the worry that your child’s skills online have outstripped your ability to keep them safe. The internet is truly terrifying!

There is no doubt the internet has been crucial to many of us during lockdown, there is also no doubt that elements of it are problematic, and even dangerous for children. So what exactly are the risks and what can we do about them?

How risky is it?

There are a range of risks to children and young people that come with being online – some innocuous, some more concerning. According to the Australian Institute for Family Studies 97% of Australian households with children under 15 have internet access, and 99% of 15-17 year olds access the internet, and before COVID-19 they spent 18 hours a week online, making them the highest users.

A study conducted by Plan International identified five risk categories, and I have added a sixth:

  1. Content

When children are exposed to material online that is harmful or distressing, such as pornography, violence, hate-incitement and forms of self-harm.

  1. Contact

Risks associated with communication between users, such as bullying, harassment, grooming for sexual abuse and exploitation, fraud and deception. Mobile phones pose specific risks in this category.

  1. Privacy and security

Identity theft and reputational damage due to posting content online. This can be a particular risk for young people, who may not fully understand the risks of posting content online. ThinkUKnow states that 49% of 13-18 year olds have shared a sexual video or photo of themselves online.

  1. Legal and political

There are potential risks for young people relating to copyright, defamation, privacy and purchase of age-restricted materials and association with online political activity.

  1. Financial

Children can be exposed to online scams or deceptive advertising, leading to overspending on online services.  Online purchases and fee-based services can generate high costs for children or their parents.

  1. Excessive screen-time

Perhaps the most well known risk is associated with excessive time spent on devices. This may lead to behaviour issues, a reduction in physical activities, diminished concentration levels and potential addiction to online activities such as gaming and gambling.

Although these risks are present, it is worth reiterating that the internet is also a very valuable tool that has made an enormous difference to community connection during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The internet can

“extend children and young people’s connections to diverse communities and ideas…[and] span friendship, maintaining relationships, expressing themselves as well as discovering new information and ideas.” Australian Institute for Family Studies

How can you manage the risk?

It is important to find strategies for your family that minimise the risks, while taking advantage of the benefits.

“The challenge is to help children and young people enjoy the benefits of going online while having the skills and knowledge to identify and avoid the risks.”

https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/online-safety.

Things change so fast, new devices, apps and versions are created all the time and predators are skilled at keeping up with new technology to achieve their intentions. This means efforts to keep children safe online are not a ‘set and forget’ strategy, and should also involve children and young people themselves, so they can be an active and resilient part of their own safety.

The following three suggestions are a starting point. They are not a comprehensive guide to internet safety, but aim to provide families with enough to begin conversations about how your home can be ‘cyber safer’.

Discuss family protocols

It is important that you have age appropriate conversations with your child about the risks they may face online, how they can protect themselves and what to do if they experience something they are not comfortable with. This open communication should extend to establishing protocols in your family about device and internet use. When discussing these protocols enable input from your children so that their online experiences are considered and they have some control over their internet behaviour. In this way, you build skills and reduce the likelihood of behaviour becoming covert.

Family protocols can include set times for online activities and device-free times, rules regarding what you do and share online, and ages or stages when you agree to review the protocols. This may be due to increasing maturity of your child, changing requirements for online use or because technology changes.

These resources provide great information and advice for further reading:

https://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx#wizard

https://www.esafety.gov.au/parents/online-safety-guide

Keep devices in family spaces

Wherever possible devices with internet access should be kept within spaces in your home that are accessible to everyone. Keeping them out of bedrooms keeps these spaces safer from unwanted communication, reduces the likelihood of late-night online activity and enables greater supervision of how your children are engaging online.

Mobile phones are likely to be with your child everywhere else, so there is a limit to your ability to supervise, but establishing device-free zones in your home means you and your children have places that give you all a break from contact, can reduce time spent on them and also helps your child establish healthy practices around their devices.

Know what to do when things go wrong

Even when you have done everything in your power to keep your children safe online, it is likely they will come across something that is inappropriate or poses a risk. This may be as simple as swearing or sexualised advertising, or as sinister as bullying by peers or unwanted contact by strangers. It is essential that you and your child know what to do.

It may be that your child takes a break from that game or that your parental controls need to be updated. Some apps have reporting options so that users are blocked, or content is removed. If not, you may choose to delete the game or app, or unfriend someone. This should be discussed so that your child understands it is not a punishment and to encourage them to continue to bring issues to you.

At times, this will not be enough and it will become necessary to report the activity. The E-Safety Commission and ThinkUKNow both have avenues for this to happen:

https://www.esafety.gov.au/report

https://www.thinkuknow.org.au/report

All three points above aim to support you to have conversations at home about how to be safer online. It is important that children and young people are involved in these conversations as this will be a very powerful tool to keeping them safe. When they understand the risks and the ways to minimise them they are able to make better choices for their safety, even when adults aren’t around.

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