Kids online: how to protect them and stay cool

  • McAfee reports highlights young kids online
  • What are the dangers of online playgrounds?
  • How can the internet help your child grow and learn?

A study from McAfee, the Tweens, Teens and Technology Report, has shed new light upon how early Australian kids are getting online, and what they’re doing.

The study was split between the two age groups - tweens (8-12 year olds) and teens (13-17), and looked at how their internet usage was growing and changing. The results have concerned some Australian politicans and families, but it’s not entirely gloomy news, and at Compare Broadband we believe it’s important to balance a wariness of online stranger danger with the acknowledgment that growing up online is making new things possible for younger generations. Some parents may be forced to confront their own fear of the new in order to see their children reach for all the opportunities that life holds for them - many of which are now possible due to the internet and their comfort with it.

The days of families crowding around a radio are over.

First, though, to look at the survey: the great revelation for many people was that younger children (look, we just can’t bring ourselves to use the word ‘tween’ seriously) were often as good at and as frequent in using the internet as their older teenage siblings. This is particularly evident in the way younger children are scorning Facebook’s thirteen year old age eligibility criteria and signing: two in three children are on some form of social network, one in four are on Facebook, and on average, they’re spending approximately 1.5 hours a day online - half of that spent chatting with friends.

It’s these ‘friends’ who have raised particular concerns for many parents. 13 per cent of young Facebook users said that they weren’t familiar with all the people they were friends with on the social network, while half of Club Penguin (a popular games/social network website amongst Australian children) users didn’t know all the people they follow. One in five children had chatted to someone online that they did not know previously, and in later years this would blossom into 6 percent of teenagers saying they’d met up with a total stranger they met online.

Communications Minister Senator Conroy said: “Risky online behaviour starts young... This information is troubling for any parent or carer and shows that we must remain vigilant to online threats.”

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon joined in, pointing out that the problem with existing laws around online safety was the requirement that prosecutors be able to prove that adults who groomed children online had a “sexual purpose”. He believes it needs to be much stricter: “If you are lying about your age to a child and you want to meet them, that needs to be an offence.”

Click here to read more about how to keep your kids safe online.

The danger of strangers online is a very real one, as proved by such incidents as the one in 2007 when a 15-year-old Adelaide girl was murdered by a 50-year-old man who pretended to be a young musician online. However, sometimes this overwhelming fear of unexpected tragedies can get in the way of the very real positive effects of meeting people online.

It’s important to remember that for every 50-year-old man masquerading as a teen, there are a hundred plain old teens looking for friends online. The internet brings penpals up to speed with everyday friendships, and it’s now possible for kids to make friends with people who have similar interests to them from all over the world.

For many kids, the internet can be welcome relief from a lonely or troubled school life. If a child is being bullied because of their appearance or personal characteristics, the internet offers welcome invisibility; for kids who have trouble fitting in with peers who may seem to only care about the latest popstar, the internet may offer a community of bookworms for the eight year old who still wants to talk about Harry Potter.

Of course, the likelihood of your eight year old talking only to other eight year olds is not particularly high. But it’s very likely that rather than forty year olds, she or he will be talking to kids a bit older or younger than them - kids from across the globe aged ten or eleven, or even in their teens. And it’s not going to hurt your child: more often, it’s going to help them mature, teach them new ways to think, and create some long lasting and important friendships. Trust me: I’ve been there. I spent the last eight months travelling around the US and Europe and, on many occasions, stayed with friends I’d met years ago online. For me, it was a fun, safe, and inexpensive way to travel, and it would have been a terrible shame for my parents to close those possibilities for fear of “stranger danger”.

When it comes to the internet, it’s important to watch your child’s activities responsibly, but without paranoia. This is where the real trouble McAfee’s study is highlighted: for many parents now, as the ways for children to get online multiplies, it’s hard to monitor exactly what your kid is doing.

The study found that almost half of younger internet users are going online via a mobile device - i.e., a smartphone or tablet. 27 per cent of them were using the device to send and receive pictures online, while 42 per cent were using a device to chat to friends. With these small, portable, private ways of getting online, it can be much harder for a parent to keep an eye on a child’s internet usage. Setting up a PC computer in a public area is simply not as possible as it used to be so that parents can casually glance over and make sure that their children aren’t looking on anything inappropriate.

Tablets for kids: friend or foe?

It’s difficult to come up with ways to monitor a child’s internet usage with these new ways of accessing the internet. Perhaps one of the best ways is to gently encourage your child to involve you in what they’re doing online. Ask to be their friend on Facebook, or follow them on Tumblr, or show you the game they’re playing. In many cases, you’ll find they respond very positively - especially at a younger age, children want you to be involved in their lives, with 92 percent of younger Facebook users saying they were ‘friends’ with their parents on the social networking site, and as long as you maintain a good relationship with your child, there’s no reason for them to disconnect you from their lives.

Part of this involves something that may not come naturally for parents: guys, be cool. Don’t comment on your child’s posts on Facebook or Tumblr; don’t try and make friends with their friends. Be a quiet observer who speaks when spoken to. It means your child won’t delete you in a fit of pique, and won’t hide other parts of their online life for you in the fear that you’d embarrass them.

In fact, a much more pressing problem than that of strangers online are the people that your children already know. Cyber bullying is becoming a popular complement to playground taunts, and starting at younger ages, with 25 percent of children under the age of 13 having seen a nasty comment online, while cyber bullying becomes an even bigger issues in the teenage years, as over half of teens report having been exposed to cyber bullying.

The threat of cyber bullying is another reason for parents to stay engaged online. Younger children are much more likely to tell their parents when they encounter online cruelty than teenagers are - 71 percent vs. 38 percent. If you establish a good relationship with your child about their online activities early on, it will be easier to cultivate that in the future.

Online threats are the big bogeymen when it comes to children these days, and with children getting online at younger and younger ages it’s important to be wary. However, the internet is a great resource and community, and as long as you stay conscious of what your child is up to online, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be a great addition to both of your lives.

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