Webchat with Dr Tanya Byron about child internet safety

 

Dr Tanya ByronDr Tanya Byron was our guest for a live webchat on 24 Feb 2010. This is an edited transcript of the chat.

Before the chat, Dr Byron asked us to post this message: "I have recently been asked by Gordon Brown to review internet safety since my Safer Children in a Digital World report (the Byron Review) in 2008. To ensure my review takes in parents' views, I'm really keen to get Mumsnetters' perspectives on both the opportunities you think the internet gives your children and also the risks you've encountered. I'd like to chat about anything to do with internet safety, but to get your thoughts flowing, a few starting points could be:

  • Is there enough information which is easily accessible about internet safety?
  • Where do you get your information and advice on internet safety?
  • How good are schools at educating children about internet safety?
  • What do you think about internet safety in the context of videogames, games consoles and mobile phones?

Dr Byron is a practising consultant in child and adolescent mental health who has two children of her own. She's the author of three books and a well-known broadcaster.

Teaching internet safety | Why has internet safety become an issue? | Pros and cons of the net for our children | Cyberbullying | Click Clever Click Safe | Video games | Internet and child mental health
 

DrTanyaByron: Hello everybody, it's really good to be here, thank you so much for agreeing to have this discussion with me.

I'm currently looking at the way we manage risk and opportunity for kids on the internet and will be publishing a paper to Government at the end of March and want the views of parents to form a key part of my recommendations - that would mean you all!
 

Teaching internet safety

Letter Qcanariesfansmum: I think we (schools and parents) need to start early to educate children (and parents) about how we can keep safe online. I have two sons, seven and five, and one daughter, aged one, and I'm just starting to feel like I need more information about how best to make sure my children have a safe online experience, like I do for a real-life experience.

I want them to have fun and get to know what "normal" is like so that when something "bad" happens they will be able to react quickly, but how to do this online? I don't have the experience of growing up with it to draw on?

So far just keeping the computer downstairs, refusing to buy a webcam, and they are too young for mobiles with cameras but I'll have that bridge to cross when we get to it! They have DS Lite consoles but I have no idea if these can be used online - luckily neither do they!

Letter ADrTanyaByron: You are very honest when you point out that we as adults are often clueless about the technology our kids are using because we didn't grow up with it. However, we need to clue ourselves up if we are giving our children technology to use. The DS Lite console can be used online but you can lock that off and it's probably best that you do before your kids start to go online and play with people that you don't know about.

For more general information search Click Clever Click Safe where you will receive information about key safety messages you should be discussing with your kids. I also recommend Childnet International's educational CD-ROM Know It All – there is a version for parents and also a version for schools. Why don't you encourage your school to order it in to have sessions with parents and children about these important issues?

Letter QLewisfan: My son's school had a Safety Week recently and in that they covered everything from the green cross code to internet safety. The children were shown how to keep safe - using fake names and all the usual about "don't tell anyone your age, location, details" etc, and also shown how to use Hector the dolphin (you click Hector and he covers up any scary pages you may find until an adult can come and deal with it).

DS really took it on board, although it seems to have gone awfully deep as he keeps telling me that talking to people on Mumsnet is dangerous because they're strangers!

The parents then had an information evening where we were shown how to use and where to find Hector and all the other usual things you'd expect - stats about how much kids use computers, how many are unsupervised (this was school specific stats though) and how to help children if you think they're getting addicted to sites and games. It was very useful - a council-run scheme called something like Know It All - not sure exactly.

The internet is such a good resource for children - from gaming at three years old on CBeebies to homework and even special needs support (although not specifically for SN). My son has found it incredibly useful and enjoyable.

I have spoken to DS about his personal safety as he wanted to sign into the Top Gear Turbo Challenge magazine website and needed an ID - he chose something completely random which I was impressed about and understood why. Now all I need to do is convince him that Mumsnet is safe! Oh I forgot to say, DS is seven and was six when he did the Safety Week.

Letter ADrTanyaByron: Thank you for highlighting how important it is for children to be given internet safety information from a young age – your DS was six when he did safety week, and it sounds like he left being extremely knowledgeable. It also sounds like he might have been a little bit scared by some of the messages as you say that he now advises you that talking to people on Mumsnet is dangerous!

Joking aside though, I think it is very important that when we educate our children about internet safety we balance the messages so that we don't leave them too afraid to enjoy the incredible benefits and opportunities of the online space.

Letter QBitOfFun: How do you suggest we manage the issue of older children and homework? My daughter will be starting GCSEs soon, and there is a heavy reliance on typed homework and internet research. It's just not realistic to expect her to work in a busy family area, and I want to get her her own laptop. Do you have any advice?

Letter ADrTanyaByron: BitOfFun, I think we have daughters of the same age, have you just gone through the process of helping her choose her options? Anyway, I think you are right to consider that she has her own laptop and a private space to work. There need to be clear rules within the family about usage and you need to build a level of trust so that you aren't constantly monitoring her.

It would be useful to talk about reliability of source when she does her homework research - what this means is that she cross-checks thoroughly sites that she takes information from and does not just rely on the big Wikis for example. Also help her understand plagiarism and how copying and pasting is, in effect, illegal - she is stealing someone else's work. Also most schools have a system where they can filter out essays written by young people using cheatnotes or essay purchasing sites. I wish her well in her GCSEs!

Letter QElsewhere: For me and my kids, internet safety is like learning to cross the road. You need the comprehension to understand the risks and steps to take to avoid them on the information superhighway. You need to hold their hand in the beginning and watch out, but when they're able then let them manage online.

My eldest is 12 and I always ask her about what happened. She's not on Facebook or any social sites yet as we're following the age requirements. She watches me on the PC and I talk her through dealing with spam, unwanted adverts, people we don't know, what to do when something she's not expecting comes up. Interested to read this discussion.

Letter ADrTanyaByron: Elsewhere, your analogy with crossing the road is a really good one. We now have the Screen Cross Code, which is Zip it, Block it, Flag It. You can find it by searching on Click Clever Click Safe and this will give you a similar approach to teaching kids the fundamentals about online safety in the same way as the Green Cross Code taught us the fundamentals of offline safety.

Letter QLulumama: I think it is, as has been pointed out, incumbent on parents to keep a close eye on things and become internet / tech-savvy themselves. I imagine lots of kids can find a way round parental controls etc as they know more than their parents. I also think the hardest thing is to impress upon children, particularly young teens, that they don't know it all, that they don't know best and that posting dodgy pics on Facebook/Bebo/YouTube can very well come back and bite you on the bum. I think mobile phones with camera/video facilities and internet have a lot to answer for.

My son is 10.5 and has a PS3 with an online facility where you can use a head set to chat to people, it has been drilled into him what he can /can't say and I am usually drifting about keeping an eye and ear out. My daughter is four and has no interest at all in computers yet.

Children using PCs unsupervised, in their rooms, with the door closed, is a recipe for disaster. Parents have to take responsibility, I think parents and children need taking in hand on this.

Letter ADrTanyaByron: Thank you for your really great question about helping kids understand the long-term implications of what they post online. This is called a "digital footprint" and, as we know, there have been some reports of employers looking at social networking sites etc in order to see people's general conduct and behaviour.

When it comes to kids who are clearly not thinking about the long-term implications, we need to help them understand that what they post could form people's opinions about them in a way that they might one day regret. In addition, particularly for our kids who are on social networking sites, we need to ensure that their safety settings are set to "privacy" so that photos of them with their mates having fun won't be seen by anyone unless they want them to see it.

I agree with you that online safety should be discussed with children as soon as they start to use computers/gaming consoles/mobile phones and this definitely needs to begin in primary school.

However, I think that the safety messaging needs to be embedded within a broader thinking about what it is to be a digital citizen, which includes all the positive opportunities and benefits of the online world as well as understanding and managing risks.

Letter QSpidermama: I think we really need a social networking site that caters for those between Club Penguin and Facebook ages. It needs to be ultra-safe and heavily moderated. I would be very happy to pay a subscription for just such a service and I'm frankly quite surprised that I haven't found one. Is there such a thing? If not, how can we make it come about? Social networking is a fantastic tool.

Letter ADrTanyaByron: You are right to highlight the lack of social networking provision for eight to 12 year olds, which means that many children of this age group are on established social networking sites despite the fact that they are under 13 years old - the age within the SNS acceptable-use policy that they should be.

Many parents are not aware of the 13-year-age limit and also may not be aware that their children are social networking, which means that they are not talking to them about issues such as not giving out personal details, setting privacy settings etc. This is where problems can arise for a child who may be targeted by someone older.

There are some school systems that work on the basis of communication between kids, teachers and parents, although many children would be reluctant, I expect, to freely social network in a space that is heavily populated/moderated by adults. You raise a difficult issue and it's something that is being debated within the UK Council for Child Internet Safety and at a European level.

Letter QLadyBlaBlah: Personally, I think the internet safety campaigns are coming at it from the wrong angle. I worked for ISPs for many, many years and understand exactly how it all works and as far as I know there is absolutely no 100% guaranteed way to stop unsuitable content for children, the technology simply does not exist. However, it is possible to block content further up the chain at ISP level.(I don't worry about the Facebook element - as others have said, that is about education and teaching them about who might be there, as in real life.)

But what bothers me immensely is the access to horrific pornograhic images (verging on rape, humiliation of women, 'filling all holes', gang bangs etc) because this seriously warps minds, especially of teenagers. So, what I would like to see is more campaigning to stop the absolutely vile and essentially illegal material on the internet. People say there are not any way to do this, but that is absolutely not true. No-one is campaigning effectively to control this content.

It can be controlled but, at the moment, there is very little effort put into it, and the Internet Watch Foundation, which is responsible for controlling content is a charity! This is not a charitable purpose - it is a legal requirement.

Rant over! To summarise - I think Facebook etc are fine for the youngies - that is what is good about the internet. However, the content that is available to young people (which can never be 100% blocked) is unacceptable and needs tackling with vigour!

Letter ADrTanyaByron: LadyBlahBlah, you come from a position of experience. I really appreciate your candour. I think you are right to make the point that there is no 100% technological solution to keeping children safe and away from adult material online. As you point out, the Internet Watch Foundation works with ISPs to block child abuse images and is very effective at doing so.

The other content you refer to, eg pornographic content, if not illegal then would not be blocked, and there are very powerful arguments for why this should be that belong within the censorship/freedom of speech debates.

However, as a parent myself, I agree that this material is entirely inappropriate for young people to view and we need to take all the steps we can to manage this. This would be robust filters, plus clear rules about going online, plus PCs for younger children in communal areas, plus setting individual profiles etc.

At the end of the day, however, it comes down to how we parent our children and this is about understanding risk, managing risk and knowing who to talk to if something goes wrong.

Letter ALadyBlaBlah: Thanks for the reply. I'm afraid I only agree to a point. I don't agree that parents are solely responsible for what is accessible online. I have had the unfortunate experience to see the way porn is organised on the web, and currently parents have no hope in blocking access to porn, full stop. That is unless every under-16 has no internet access at all, because there will always be a friend with the access (a bit like the dirty magazine found in the woods and then passed around analogy).

I think (and know) there is a lot of material that verges on illegal - and if it isn't, then there is a huge debate there (at what point is gratuitous rape not a problem for us?).

If you have the government's ear, this is the main problem. Porn is a massive industry for the web and has huge influence but, ultimately, if we are talking about web safety there is nothing parents can practically do about this. The argument starts much further up the chain.

DrTanyaByron: LadyBlahBlah, to continue our discussion, I agree there needs to be robust debate in this area, especially about the boundary between legal and illegal content. This is not an issue specific to child internet safety and it ties into a number of different obscenity laws.

However, making this point is not a way of evading the important of tackling this issue and don't underestimate your own ability to influence debate either as an individual or as a collective voice.
 

Why has child internet safety become an issue?

Letter QDrTanyaByron: Can I ask you all a question? Are you aware of the child internet safety issue becoming more thought about and talked about in recent years. And if so, why do you think this is?

Letter ADonnie: I am certainly more aware of it; there are quite a few incidents I can recall over the last two or three years where terrible things have happened as a result of children being targeted by adults posing as someone else on networking sites. I am also worried about the availability of Jihadist material and the grooming of vulnerable children into religious fanaticism.

Letter ALadyBlaBlah: It is talked about more, because access is now so freely available. 3G has only been useable for two years max; same goes for wireless. And ditto for broadband - it brought about an internet that was fast and accessible. This has all been in the past three to four years on any grand scale.

Letter Awhispywhisp: Parents are faced with a bit of a dilemma situation with the social networking sites though - it's the 'done thing' to be on these sites, chatting to friends after school, during the evenings. My eldest daughter is 11, so right within the age group where it's deemed 'uncool' to not be on these sites. Whilst I do restrict how long I allow her on the computer, I also want her to be 'in' with her mates.

Letter AMagicMountain: I think I am more aware but a lot of the discussion/media attention relates to a wider and sometimes not altogether helpful reponse to paedophiles/grooming etc. We need to protect children from these risks, of course, by giving them a sense of responsibility, ensuring these safeguards, but I still think there needs to be a wider discussion about the very dark side of the web, about other forms of sexual exploitation and violence, which are not solely related to child protection. It doesn't have to be about pornography and the old censorship debate necessarily but certainly about sexuality/objectification etc.
 

Pros and cons of the internet

Letter QDrTanyaByron: As a general point it is interesting to me how quickly the discussion can turn to the darker side of the internet. I am not dismissing this for one minute and, as a parent, share those anxieties. However, I do feel that there are many constructive approaches we can take that will enable our children to become resilient and responsible online in the way that we do so in relation to how they live in the offline world.

If we put our thinking in a place of risk and fear we are in danger of losing a proportionate and balanced approach to educating and empowering our children for their future citizenship in a digital world.

Letter ALadyBlaBlah: I agree - I think the internet is a fantastic resource and have absolutely no problem with social networking sites, think grooming is vastly over estimated and so long as you are communicating with your children, then you will very probably be fine.

The dark side I am talking about is currently an inevitable part of the internet that affects child /teenager mental safety, which is not spoken about quite enough. The risk of grooming / problems with the digital footprint is minute compared to the risk of your 12 year old accessing horrific sexual content that could significantly affect their mental wellbeing. I am sure the research is in agreement that sexualisation at a young age is a threat to wellbeing and future relationships.

I am in danger of sounding evangelistic about this, but having boys, this really, really is a problem, and I don't think most parents have a clue what their children have accessed - they probably are not going to tell you this, even if your communication skills are proficient!

Letter AMagicMountain: I agree - the internet is a fantastic resource, although I have been dwelling on the 'dark side' like LadyBlahBlah.
 

Cyberbullying

Letter Qwhispywhisp: Cyberbullying is a subject I feel particularly strong about. My 11-year-old daughter moved schools a year ago due to being bullied at school, which all started with a text message from a friend. The bullying escalated and ended up with police involvement due to a boy in her year sexually harrassing her.

At her new school, the headteacher is currently putting a paper together about cyber bullying. I last spoke to her about this only a few weeks ago because one of DD's friend's had put on MSN "I am going to kill myself" due to some of her friends not talking to her on there. I immediately notified the school and whilst this had nothing to do with my daughter I felt the school should be aware.

It takes one word, just one word to cause major problems between friends at school, which is precisely why I watch and listen when daughter is on the laptop chatting to her friends. I have even told her "don't type that, that could be misunderstood" but at just 11 she can't see beyond the keyboard. I then explain why I don't think what she was about to type was suitable and she'll then reply: "Oh yes, I can see why you told me not to do that, I never thought of it like that."

Letter ADrTanyaByron: You make some really great points. I particularly like your comment about instant messaging and how this can cause real problems in friendship groups - this is particularly prevalent in primary schools.

When we were kids, a cross word at the end of the day was usually forgotten the next day; however, nowadays it gets inflated and blown out of all proportion by instant messaging. As parents we need to be aware of this and help our children understand how to communicate online, especially helping them see how easy it is to be mean to someone when you're not face to face with them. I also think schools need to do assemblies about this.

The organisation Beatbullying has a Cybermentoring scheme (I am president of this scheme) and they go into schools to help children think about and manage cyberbullying. Why don't you suggest this to your children's school?

Letter AWhispywhisp: Let's not forget us parents are also somewhat to blame for our kids being on computers so much. We set examples ourselves - you only have to watch TV to see that most disagreements in relationships (who has dumped who, you're not the father to my child, I slept with so and so) are all done via the internet/texts.

It is all too easy for parents to enjoy some peace and quiet with their kids happily on their computers. What worries me is those kids who are sat in their rooms, with their own laptops, not being supervised. Some of my daughter's friends are still on their laptops at almost midnight - why? Do the parents know? I know they're on them because my daughtre and I share the same email address so I can see who is still on and sending messages to her. Sharing the same email address ensures I have full view of what she is doing and who is contacting her.

 

Click Clever Click Safe

Letter QDrTanyaByron: Can any of you tell me whether you have been aware of the recent Government campaign around internet safety Click Clever Click Safe with the Zip It, Block It, Flag It icons and the posters featuring Uri and Lexi?

Letter AMrsdoasyouwouldbedoneby: I have only heard the campaign on the radio, so haven't seen any images etc. I found the Click part more difficult to recall, but the Zip it, Block it, Flag it, part is very catchy and I think it would be likely to stay in people's minds. I think it's particularly useful for teenagers who are being cyberbullied and are unsure what to do. I still think though that some would be scared to block people in case it made things worse (same with flagging it). Does your group help support people in this situation (ie anonymously)?

Letter Acakeywakey: I've not heard of the Click Clever Click Safe or other campaign. I've heard of CEOPS though from my training course at work and have looked at some of their stuff - I've also directed a few other Mumsnetters to it as well when they've talked about a related subject. I think there needs to be more awareness raising of it and similar information sites.

Letter AMrsdoasyouwouldbedoneby: Looks good and makes sense. It is what I have heard on the radio, and also seems to be the kind of approach the school is taking (particularly flagging stuff). I sort of assumed all schools were doing this now. Is this not the case? Is it not something that forms a recommended part of the curriculum in IT?

DrTanyaByron: If any of you can just search on Click Clever Click Safe and have a look at the information, will you tell me what you think? Thanks!

Letter Qwhispywhisp: I once banned DD1 from using the computer - her attitude at home was getting quite unbelievable and I could see how being on MSN every night was affecting her...so I banned her for one week.

During that one week she went back to being a young girl again...her attitude towards the rest of us in this house changed, she became much more calm and even started to read, do puzzles, play with her sister, help around the house and she was never bored.

I'm glad I did it because it showed me just how damaging being on the internet can be, but I also know how lovely it is for her to keep in touch with friends (from her old school especially) and also play games etc. Hence why I restrict her, plus she knows if she steps out of line at home I
will pull the plug out the wall again.

Letter ADrTanyaByron: I think your point very helpfully reminds us all that our kids' time engaging with the digital world either via computer or videogame etc needs to be balanced against other activities. In effect we need to create a balanced media diet for our kids and also make sure outdoor play is at the very least equal to the amount of time playing indoors, especially in front of screens.

whispywhisp: Dr Tanya, but I think the majority of kids, in this society nowadays, are living a childhood surrounded by technology. The days of 'going out to play' have disappeared - why should they go out if they have computers, phones, DSs, videogames etc? Most have a TV/Sky in their rooms so they can watch what they want. I'm sure if you were to take everything out of their rooms they wouldn't be able to cope.

We've fallen into a trap, I think, of giving in too easily to our kids simply for the peace and quiet it brings when they're happy whether that be with the help of a laptop or a football.


Video games

Letter QDrTanyaByron: Do any of you have concerns about video games?
 

Letter ABella32: I was just about to chime in and say that I would be far more concerned by my son playing very violent video games than his reading mainstream pornography (of the type sold in newsagents). I find the heavily edited TV adverts for video games distressing enough.

Letter Amrspoppins: We don't have them at all. Mine are 17 and 12. I don't know where they would find time to be playing the games unless they stopped talking to us and so that's why we don't have them.

Letter Acakeywakey: I think that in the case of videogames, parents should know which are suitable for their children by using the classification system, and should also make sure that they are being used in a supervised atmosphere for a set period of time. It comes down to firm parenting on this one - or lack of in many cases. A bit like children who are allowed to watch DVDs that are 15-rated when they're 10 - it's up to you to sort that one out.

Letter AShannaratiger: If you mean the violent content of videogames, then yes. We brought a Wii for Christmas and ever since our three year old found the sword fighting game his behaviour instantly changed. It took weeks to explain to him that you couldn't copy what you did on screen in real life. I don't know if he was too young or if it just coincided with typical three-year-old boy behaviour but was a nightmare and we were black and blue! He's better now though as long as he doesn't play it for too long.
 

Internet and child mental health

BitOfFun: There are lots of very high-profile campaigns which are terrifying our kids about eating cake etc, but I haven't noticed anything like the same emphasis gven to mental health in children, which an internet awareness campaign should really include. I agree that grooming is not as big an issue as peer-to-peer 'bullying' (or just upsetting each other- they often give as good as they get!), and the ever-present deluge of quite misogynistic sexual imagery.

I honestly worry that children's sexuality is being quite profoundly damaged by seeing quite extreme sex acts long before they have had do much as their first kiss: how on earth are they meant to put sex in the context of loving intimate relationships when this is all formng the mental apparatus of their subconscious?

Letter Qcakeywakey: It would be great if the government helped us to help ourselves - give us a basic understanding of what the dangers are and how we can mitigate them where possible. I think that people often know that something is worrying - but don't know how to block webpages or disable internet phone access and so on.

Letter ADrTanyaByron: cakeywakey there are a number of information portals that can give you the type of advice you are looking for eg search around the mobile phone operators, the internet service providers or even the search engines and you will find family information with lots of tips and advice. Currently the UK Council for Child Internet Safety are designing a "One Stop Shop" which would in effect be one site that the council would recommend people to visit for comprehensive information around child internet safety, with links to other reputable sites. Do you think this would be useful?

cakeywakey: Yes, a one-stop shop would be very useful as it would limit the amount of conflicting and potentially out of date advice out there - that's one thing that would worry me, information being out of date as technology moves so quickly.

I've just taken a look at the click clever, click safe info and it's very useful. It's also linked me to CEOP (which I've not been on for a while) and their homepage menu is very useful, giving guidance from cyberbullying and mobile problems to harmful content. Will be bookmarking both sites and getting more clued up.

DrTanyaByron: Ladies and gentlemen, sadly I have to leave you now. Thank you so much for your time and your candour. Please let MNHQ know if you are not happy for me to use anything you have said today as a quote (I would never quote your name, by the way!). I am off to have more meetings than I wish to and would love to carry on chatting to you, maybe again sometime soon.

LadyBlaBlah: Thanks Dr T (is it not Prof now?). Good luck with the report.

Lulumama: The Click Clever Click Safe was not something I had heard of, and I shall take a look at it shortly. Some really interesing stuff on this webchat, will read it back properly later. Thanks MNHQ and Saint Tanya!

Last updated: 02-Mar-2010 at 2:39 PM