What you need to know about child internet safety

There's a big, bad, dangerous world out there, as parents are only too keenly aware. But the problem for our generation is that while we weren't looking, someone left the front door open 

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Now the big, bad, dangerous world is right here in our sitting room - or, even more frighteningly, behind closed doors in your child's bedroom - in the form of the internet and, specifically, social networking sites.

It's entirely wrong, of course, to classify the internet as enemy number one: the truth is, as Mumsnetters know only too well, the internet is the planet's most stunning communication advance since a cave dweller picked up a stone and started chalking on the walls.

It's the biggest single difference between our children's childhood and our own childhood, and most of what it brings is entirely positive: information, communication and endless possibilities and opportunities

But while most of us are aware of possible dangers lurking in cyberspace, we don't actually do anything to protect our children online. And to complicate things further, most of us are acutely, painfully aware of the gulf between our own computer skills and those of our children - for all but the most IT-literate among us, our kids run rings around us.

So what are the risks, and what measures, both technical and non-technical, can we take to protect our children from these risks?

What are the online risks?

The vast majority of what happens on the internet is good and safe and life-enhancing, but there are some risks, and before you know how to deal with them, you have to know what they are.

Risk one: contact

This is the nightmare scenario of the virtual world for parents. Here's what happens. Your child talks, on the computer, to all sorts of people via all sorts of routes: email, chat rooms, instant messenger, you name it.

The vast majority of the people s/he chats to, of course, are bona fide kids - one in a million (or maybe one in a thousand, or maybe one in several hundred - one of the many problems is, we just don't know how many there are out there) isn't who he says he is.

Instead of 12-year-old footballing Freddie, he's 45-year-old child molester John, looking to wheedle his way into your child's life and - in the worst case scenario - waiting to one day lure him away from the 'safety' of your home, into a real-life meeting where he'll have an opportunity of abuse or worse.

Does it ever happen? Well, yes it does, according to a spokeswoman from the government's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre: 240 offenders had been arrested as a result of its investigations as of December 2007 (the centre was set up in 2006).

CEOP receives hundreds of reports a month about online safety issues, and most of them relate to parents worried their kids are being 'groomed'. Whether or not grooming is widespread, the internet clearly makes it a possibility. So, given that fact, we have no option but to protect our children from the potential risk.

And contact problems aren't just about sex offenders. Online bullying is another issue, with an increasing number of children being targeted. Parents need not only to safeguard their children from becoming victims, but ensure they don't take part in the bullying either.

Risk two: content

If you've been ignoring how easy it is for your child to see porn online, try this. Type the word 'sex' into Google right now. Assuming you have no safe search in place of course, within less than a minute we guarantee you'll have seen images you'd be horrified to imagine your child looking at.

But 'sex' is exactly the kind of word a ten or 11 year old might decide to try doing a search on. And there are other sorts of content risks, too. Your child might be duped into believing false content, or will come across material that's racist or harmful or dangerous in some other way.

Risk three: commercial

It's not all sex and porn, either. Another very real danger for your child - and through your child, your entire family - is that he or she may be tricked or encouraged into giving out information that could be used to defraud you - your credit card details, for example.

Plus there's the risk of dodgy online ads, or advertising marketed at their age group, but by organisations that don't have their best interests at heart.

What can parents do to keep their children safe online?

First of all, don't panic. These are worst-case scenarios, remember. They're possible, but they're not necessarily happening to your child right now. The thing is to be aware of them and do all you can to minimise the chances of them happening.

How so? Well, what parents do all the time is bring up their kids to be sensible and savvy. These are all the qualities they need to know right from wrong, and scary situation from safe situation, when they're online.

So in fact, in doing what we've always done - parenting our kids well - we've been protecting them from the dangers of the internet all along.

Internet safety for different age groups

Good parenting is fundamental, but it's not the whole story. At every age and stage of our children's lives, it matters to be aware of how to reduce the internet's risks as much as possible, so we've divided up some suggestions on internet safety for different age groups:

Increasingly, children are accessing the web via their mobile - pundits predict that by 2020 most of us will connect to the internet this way. So mug up on what you need to know.

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Last updated: about 3 years ago