Children, and even the adults entrusted with protecting them, do not always have the knowledge and skills to ensure online safety. To better cope with the dangers of unsuitable content and online predators, parents and caregivers need to be aware of the common types of online risks that endanger children. The first of these is content risk which comes with exposure to inappropriate online content such as pornography or violent and disturbing videos. The next is contact risk. Here, children come in direct communication with an online predator. Typically, such encounters involve strangers using fake identities on social networking platforms to pursue fraudulent or harmful activities, a practice more commonly known as catfishing. The third one is conduct risk, which is often spurred on by digital anonymity and the dehumanisation that accompanies virtual interactions. Here, children may harm others by straying from civil conduct and engaging in cyberbullying or impersonation, or they may risk harm to themselves by creating inappropriate content.
UNICEF’s recent report “Growing up in a connected world” suggests that if we are to tackle negative online experiences effectively, more attention should be paid to “…what children do online, the content they encounter, and their life environment and support networks…” rather than the amount of time children spend online. There are two broad areas that parents and caregivers can focus on in order to follow through on this suggestion.
The first area relates to devices children use to access the Internet. GCFGlobal, a programme initiated by Goodwill Community Foundation, suggests that computers that children access should be kept in a common area at home. This will dissuade children from engaging in activities they have been cautioned against. Furthermore, children are at risk when they access parents’ phones or laptops where they may encounter content that is unsuitable for them or when they access the Internet at a friend’s home whose parents have no oversight over their child’s behaviour. GCFGlobal also recommends using parental controls and installing anti-virus software to minimise user encounters with undesirable websites or apps.
The second area of focus relates to how parents communicate with their children in order to promote online safety. While talking to one’s child may seem like common sense, according to a global survey conducted by the anti-virus provider AVG, only 43% of those surveyed regularly communicate with their children about their online behaviour.
There are two main goals that parents are trying to achieve through communication. One is to empower children to make good decisions while surfing the web. This includes making children aware of the dangers involved, educating children on basic skills needed to navigate the internet safely, and setting standards for children around these dangers. The other goal is to foster a safe and supportive environment by encouraging children to ask questions and talk freely about their online activities. This also allows parents to provide timely guidance without resorting to excessive monitoring. When children open up about difficult topics, it is important to remain calm and reassure them of parental support, so that one’s response does not exacerbate the negative feelings of shame and guilt children may already be experiencing. Beyond online risks, the strict containment measures have also led to a heightened risk of unreported child abuse at home. Therefore, it is imperative that schools play an active role in the support network available to children by facilitating school counselling services online.