Monster of the new age? How to ensure your child’s safety online

What you need to know:

  • Technology has sparked a revolution that has impacted how people socialise, interact, and communicate.
  • Some children are more at home in cyberspace than their parents and are wily enough to keep parents in the dark about their online activities.
  • Chat rooms, private messaging apps, blogs, social networks, websites, and e-mail accounts are some of the platforms your child is likely to sign up to.
  • There is a high risk of children being exposed to hate speech, violent content such as messages that incite self-harm and suicide, cyberbullying, and other forms of peer-to-peer violence

Computers and Internet-enabled mobile phones have become the fulcrum of modern living, and children have not been left behind by the revolution. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a child goes online for the first time every half second around the world.

The digital space offers limitless opportunities for children to network, learn, innovate, and expand their creativity. But there are risks too. According to Stephen Mureithi, an information technology practitioner, several billions of pages are uploaded daily on the web, making it hard to keep track of everything.

Children can inadvertently expose themselves to digital predators. Mureithi says that this exposure starts when children use their personal information and images to open and access online social sites or create social networks with people whom their parents – or they themselves – would never invite to their homes. "Some children are more at home in cyberspace than their parents and are wily enough to keep parents in the dark about their online activities." With many connectivity and privacy options, it has become easy for children's online escapades to slip past their parents’ radar. Without close parental monitoring, it is possible for kids to assume the identity of an adult in order to bypass the age limits that have been set on some social networking sites.

Catherine Wanjiru’s fourteen-year-old daughter recently joined groups on Facebook and channels on Telegram that promoted violence and nudity. "I realised that she spent too much time online. Whenever I asked her, she said she was working on a school project or research. I stumbled on her profile while she was away and I was shocked,” she says. Apparently, Catherine’s daughter had accumulated many acquaintances, some of whom were posting inappropriate photos on their profiles and walls, and tagging her! “She had exaggerated her age on her profile to fit in. Her private messages were littered with male strangers from as far as India who had been sending her nude photos and asking her to send them her nudes in return,” says Catherine.

Apart from joining digital social spaces that promote nudity, your child could be exposed to cyberbullying if she forms a habit of roaming the Internet and revealing too much information without parental guidance. “There is a high risk of children being exposed to hate speech, violent content such as messages that incite self-harm and suicide, cyberbullying, and other forms of peer-to-peer violence,” says UNICEF. Data from UNICEF shows that over a third of young people in 30 countries report being cyberbullied. Out of these, I in every 5 skip school because of it. In addition, up to 80 percent of children in 25 countries report feeling they were in danger of sexual abuse or sexual exploitation online.

The Kaspersky Safety Resource Centre says that when your child is online via your home computer, there is a risk that they could wander off and expose themselves to malware. This can give other people access to your computer, lead to unwanted advertising, popups, and adware programs that could also be carrying spyware, and downloads that cause malicious programs to be automatically downloaded to your computer.

Since the internet is here to stay, and your child will need to be tech-savvy to match the demands of the evolving digital world, how can you ensure their safety online?

The first step is for you to learn about the world wide web and the dangers that float freely online. This includes knowing how to trace the history of the sites your child frequents to gain insights on what and who they engaged with online. "You will be able to determine what your children are looking for, and to know how best you can help them to be safe," says Mureithi.

Chat rooms, private messaging apps, blogs, social networks, websites, and e-mail accounts are some of the platforms your child is likely to sign up to.

Chat rooms are electronic spaces on the Internet where users can have live, two-way conversations through text messages. The spaces in these ‘rooms’ can accommodate large numbers of people, who can read and respond to each other’s messages. Most are centred on a specific topic. "Though the usage varies from one age to another, some chat rooms are particularly appealing to children," Murethi says. Millions of young people from a variety of cultures and exchange opinions daily on almost any subject. Your child can communicate with people she will never personally meet but have shared interests.

Sexual predators and perverts also frequent chat rooms in the hope of luring unsuspecting children into an online or even a face-to-face sexual encounter. Posing as decent roommates, sexual perverts gradually seduce their targets through the use of attention, affection, kindness, and even gifts.

Perverts will lower the children’s inhibitions gradually by slowly introducing sexual context and content into their conversations. All too common, the anonymous nature of chat rooms may tempt your child to be deceitful. She may assume a different personality to fit in with a certain chat room group. Through an ongoing conversation, she might conform to their standards of language or adopt their interest in an attempt to make new friends. Conversely, "she may see such chat rooms as places where she can express ‘ideas’ and ‘feelings’ that their parents or ordinary friends would otherwise disapprove of," says Mureithi.

Online instant messages operate in a similar way as chat rooms. With instant messaging, a user can choose which of his friends to converse with, selecting from a contact list he or she has created. They tend to be distracting, especially if your child is supposed to be engaged in another activity that requires concentration such as homework.

With social networking sites, a child with relatively few friends in real life can have hundreds of 'friends' online, simply to appear popular among her peers! She may enhance her 'Timeline' with videos and photos to attract more friends and appear trendy. Such friendships are often superficial as anonymity clouds factual details. "A pervert can become a totally different person because no one really knows him or her on social media," says Mureithi. Consequently, sex provocateurs are able to reach homes through a [computer or smartphone] screen and tamper with the innocence of children.

What to do

Protect passwords: Teach your children to always keep their passwords private and change them regularly to ensure that they do not leak.

Keep computers in one area: Do not have computers in their bedrooms. Rather, have them in an area where you can be privy to what they are doing online.

Know where they visit: Check the sites they visit and help them navigate. Similarly, check where they have been. You can do so by looking at the history in the browser menu. Use filtering tools to screen sites that contain sexually explicit content and remove them from the search results.

Privacy settings and sharing controls:   Popular social sites like Facebook and YouTube have security features that can limit the extent to which private information is shared. Limit those who can view your children's profiles, post on their walls, or befriend them.

Limit contacts: Have your kids understand that they cannot just meet anyone they interact with on the Internet.

Usage and duration: Determine when your child can use the Internet, the length of time they can stay online, and the sites they can and cannot visit. Discuss your guidelines, reasons, and the benefits and dangers of the cyber world. That way, you help them understand how to avoid online dangers and use the Internet responsibly without coming across as ‘dictatorial’ or instigating their curiosities for prohibited sites.

Boosting online safety

According to the Kaspersky online safety guidelines for kids, you should ensure you secure your computer with control software. This includes the parental control software, which gives the parent the ability to manage the amount of time a child spends online. There are also antivirus software programmes that protect your computer from spyware and viruses from websites and online platforms that your child may unknowingly visit or click on. This software will also allow you to determine the applications and websites that your child is permitted to visit. It also allows you to set limits and restrictions on the number of contacts the child can interact with and gives you the power to block communication with certain words from being sent or received.  

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