With our children spending more and more time online, internet safety tips have become almost essential reading for parents.
Children between the ages of five and 15 spend an average of 15 hours per week online, according to the UK's media watchdog, Ofcom. To put that into context, our children now spend more time online than they do watching TV.
The internet is a knowledge repository of unimaginable size, and an unprecedented learning and communication tool. It's become so engrained into our daily lives that teaching our children about internet safety is vitally important. Of course, there are so many benefits to the internet, but also so many dangers that an innocent child may not be aware of or know how to navigate.
In this guide we’ve brought together a range of expert views - from the NSPCC, Young Minds, NCA and many more - to help answer one key question. How can we equip our children with the confidence to successfully navigate an ever changing digital world? The answer, we believe, is digital resilience.
Table of contents
The world of internet safety
Before we get into some internet safety tips to help keep your kids safe when they are online, first we need to look at the world of internet safety.
Here are some facts and stats to give you an idea of why it's so important for us to thinking about online safety for our children.
“The digital world is exciting to children. It offers amazing opportunities to connect with others, to play games, to learn and explore the world. We need to embrace its positive benefits. But many parents I speak to, even the most internet savvy, often feel out of their depth when it comes to managing their children’s screen time. If we want to make sure the time children do spend online is healthy and productive, parents must take responsibility.”
Anne Longfield - former Children's Commissioner for England
The stats above paint a pretty scary picture. We don’t want to be alarmist about this - The internet is mostly positive, and often spectacularly so. It is also a place where bad things can and do happen, even to children.
But it doesn’t have to be. As dads, we can help keep our children safe online, not by banning it or censoring it with a heavy hand (which is likely to be counter-productive and unenforceable anyway) but by teaching a new and fundamental life skill - digital resilience.
What is digital resilience?
Often used in the business world, digital resilience is a term used to describe the many strategies and measures organisations can use to protect their systems and customers'/users' data safe from hackers who have malicious intent.
Digital resilience means understanding that their is always a risk of something bad happening in the online world but putting in strategies, measures and policies to minimise that risk.
On that basis, you might be thinking that the best (or rather, safest) option for your children is to not allow them to spend time online at all. However, in the digital world, it's simply not feasible. The internet and digital devices have become so engrained in our daily lives that it's almost impossible (and unenforceable) to keep our children away from it. And why would you want to when the internet does offer so much good, whether it's education and fun, or free and instant communication with a beloved relative on the other side of the world?
Instead, as parents we need to give our children the digital skills they need to navigate the digital world as safe as possible. Think of it through an analogy...
If you want all the good, you have to accept that a little of the bad will always be there. Digital resilience is the ability of children to recognise those risks, deal with them appropriately, and help to create a more positive online experience for everyone around them.
Sarah Brennan, former chief executive of YoungMinds, states: “It’s important to encourage children to stay safe, but we should also encourage them to create positive content, to offer support to others who are struggling, to build empathy and responsibility, to identify and deal with challenging content, and to explore how to balance their lives online and offline.”
Can tech platforms keep our children safe?
In all other walks of life, it is the duty (and sometimes legal responsibility) for an organisation to ensure the safety of its customers or users. Think wet floor signs at the supermarket to reduce the risk of you slipping, or a safety instructional video at the start of an activity. However, when it comes to the internet, it's a bit of a grey area. And the debate over whether or not tech companies have a duty to keep its users, particularly children, safe is one that continues.
There are two views on why the large tech companies aren’t doing more to keep our children safe online, and to shield them from inappropriate content.
The size and scope of their vast operations makes it almost impossible to monitor every piece of content and the behaviour of every user.
It’s just not a priority for them.
Whatever your view, the reality is that a large part of the responsibility for keeping our children safe online and instilling digital resilience must come to us as parents or carers. And dads have a full part to play in that process.
As far back as 2017, it was discovered that YouTube was being swamped with videos masquerading as popular children's programme or characters, such as Peppa Pig, to show violent, sexual or otherwise disturbing and inappropriate content.
James Bridle, the blogger who highlighted the issue and its scale, wrote: “Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale.”
And while YouTube promised to do more to clean up its platform - it hired thousands of human moderators and worked to improve its AI systems to automatically identify harmful content - the issue continued for quite some time.
A debate rages about whether YouTube is doing enough to stop this material, or whether it is simply impossible to stamp it out completely given the breadth and scale of the operation. And of course, there have been similar controversies about material on many other websites and social media platforms. In more recent years, there has been focus around more subjective content. In 2022, self-confessed misogynist Andrew Tate rose to fame on TikTok and YouTube, sparking a long-running debate over the impact his content was having on young, impressionable teenage boys and whether or not it should be allowed.
The stark reality that the big tech companies will not, on their own, keep our children safe online. A large part of that responsibility has to be ours. In the next part we will explore what digital resilience means in practice.
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The risks our children face
Half of 9-16 year olds in Europe own a smartphone, with younger children accessing the internet through their family member's phones or other internet connected devices like smart TVs, laptops, tabs and games consoles.
At the heart of digital resilience is the idea that our children will be exposed to the online world on an almost daily basis, and that neither parents nor third parties (including the social media sites and websites our children use) can monitor and control every digital interaction they have.
And almost every interaction carries an inherent risk - whether it's shopping online using bank account information, revealing a child's personal information when we post online, interacting with unknown online predators in chat rooms or through social media messages.
Why banning everything isn't the answer
The consensus is that it's far better to inform and empower our children through digital resilience and internet safety tips, rather than exclude them for the wonders of the internet. Banning your children from the internet is unworkable and counterproductive.
Study after study shows that children like being online. They value the communications they can have, and they place high value on being part of online communities.
Children’s mental health charity YoungMinds states: “Similarly, when they face a challenging life experience, traumatic event or an episode of poor mental health, they frequently turn to social media platforms to share their experiences, look for information or advice, and make sense of what is happening to them.”
For many young people, the online world is an intrinsic part of life. Banning them from it - even if that were practically possible - would create more problems than it solved.
Educate and empower
Instead, it is our role as dads to help our children negotiate both the light and the dark of the online world. And the first step to doing that is to know the risks our children face online.
The EU Kids Online study, supported by European Commission funding, splits these risks into three separate (but sometimes interlinked) areas.
That might seem like an intimidatingly large and complex web of online risks. From being exposed to violent or sexual content, to bullying and grooming, the internet can seem like the sort of place no right minded parent would ever let their children explore. The problem is, our children will explore it anyway.
Our instinct here, especially as dads, might be despair, panic and lockdown. As we’ve seen, that course is neither realistic nor advisable.
It might even be counterproductive. There is some evidence that parents who are excessively controlling of their children’s internet use stop them acquiring important internet safety skills. Keeping your children in a state of digital innocence (and naivety) is not a viable strategy, because your children will discover the internet anyway.
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Key internet safety tips for you and your kids
As we’ve learnt, children spend a lot of time online, accessing the internet through a variety of devices and using a large number of channels. Parents cannot monitor every moment their children spend online. Sensible rules and conventions around internet use are necessary, but on their own are not enough.
Ofcom’s Children and Parents Media Use & Attitudes Report, meanwhile found out something eye opening about the internet use of 12 – 15 year olds.
In other words, our children are venturing online with little knowledge of how ‘online’ really works. They may be posting sensitive private information or financial information without truly understanding the consequences. Knowledge is power. At the heart of digital resilience is the need to make our children digitally savvy, and to give them the psychological tools they need to arm themselves against online threats.
That doesn’t mean that children should be given free rein. Digital resilience is not a cure for all the internet’s ills. Before we do anything else, lets take a look at some of the key internet safety tips you should implement right away to help keep your child safe.
Set up parental controls
Parental controls limit or restrict what your child can do on various devices. This can range from multi-factor authentication (meaning you need to approve their usage of a certain app, website or device), to privacy settings to restrict who can see what on your child's profiles, to blocking certain websites or apps entirely.
The NSPCC has detailed instructions on how to set up parental controls for a range of devices, apps and channels, and there’s a helpline too.
Draw up a series of internet rules
Drawing up a list of internet safety rules is an important part of building digital resilience in children. If your child is older, then they also work as a good reference point for discussion about the dangers associated with the rule. For example, explaining why you shouldn't ever agree to meet up in person with someone you met online, rather than just telling them that they shouldn't ever do so.
Understanding the reasons behind the rules will help to build their digital resilience even further. However, for younger children it's understandable that you wouldn't want to go into much detail about why the rules are in place.
Here are very sensible pledges for children and parents that can be printed out, signed and kept near the computer (or wherever your children tend to go online).
For younger children, monitor their internet use
While we want to teach our children to be able to use the internet safely, it's sensible to monitor the usage of younger children. This could be allowing them to use devices only in your presence, or installing a usage monitoring app. You could even allow them to use apps while not connected to the internet to prevent any accidental purchases or clicking on spammy adverts.
These are sensible precautions and should be part of any dad’s online safety strategy. But they are not a panacea and can become increasingly redundant as children get older and more independent and start acquiring smartphones and tablets of their own.
Other internet safety tips
While we've so far discussed some of the broader tactics you can employ to help your children stay safe online, here are some more specifics ways to keep them safe.
Consider a Virtual Private Network
Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, are used to create a connection between your device and a remote server owned and operated by the provider. The network encrypts personal or financial information, and masks your IP address, and often have sophisticated methods of detecting malicious websites or malicious software.
Use 'SafeSearch' for your search engines
Sometimes, children can unknowingly and unintentionally come across something they shouldn't when using search engines. I once remember a friend in school telling me he searched for images of 'black foxes' for a school project, and was met with some very inappropriate results. I'll let your imagination figure out what those images were.
Using your preferred search engine's SafeSearch function will help to reduce the likelihood of them coming across something they shouldn't.
Use a password manager
Although you can and should explain why it's important not to use the same password for each account your child has, using a password manager means you don't need to ask your child to think of (and remember) a new pass for every platform, app or account they use.
Of course, almost every platform now requires you to use 'strong passwords', using a combination of capital and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Password managers help you by generating a random, unique password, and storing it securely in its system. And, yes, they're always strong passwords.
Teach them how to spot secure sites
You should explain to your child that not every website is secure and safe. There are two main ways of identifying whether or not a website is secure:
https - Most web browsers tend not to show the full URL once you are on a website these days (ie. "facebook.com" vs "https://www.facebook.com/"), so this method is perhaps best for when clicking on links. Any URL that starts with "https" is secure, whereas a simple "http" is not secure.
Between 2017 and 2022, Google and other web browsers displayed a padlock in the address bar to indicate that a website had a secure connection. However, that was swapped for a settings-style button which clearly displays in text whether or not a site is secure.
It's important to recognise that while a website may be 'secure', meaning it is safe from hackers and malware, the content of the website itself may not be safe or appropriate. In fact, almost all phishing websites - fake websites used as part of online scams to gain access to sensitive information - are secure sites and so display the 'Connection is secure' line.
Most web browsers will warn you if you are trying to access an insecure site, and depending on your security settings, may block you from accessing it.
Cybersecurity tools like malware software or anti-virus software have been commonplace in IT for decades. And while the security of broadband providers and web browsers has improved significantly over that time, there is still merit in using software to increase your protection.
Stop them using public Wi-Fi
You may instruct your child that they are only to use the internet while connected to Wi-Fi, to prevent them running up expensive mobile data charges. And with a growing network of public Wi-Fi networks available in coffee shops, on public transport, or in urban areas, these could be particularly appealing to a child.
However, these networks will not help your child to stay safe online. In fact, they're pretty dangerous. Public networks are rarely secure and therefore particularly vulnerable to attacks. Hackers are able to monitor your activity, steal information and install malicious software to your device.
That being said, using a VPN will provide protection when using public Wi-Fi.
Switch on automatic updates
Devices and apps allow you to choose whether or not they download and install the latest software updates automatically.
Some people prefer to do it manually, checking whether or not an update is useful to them. Developers will use updates to change how a device or app works, and improve, add or remove certain features. However, they also often include important security updates, too.
Keeping automatic updates turned on means your devices and apps (or your child's) will always get the latest security features, ensuring they offer the best possible protection.
What else can you do to instil digital resilience?
We've discussed some of the practical tips designed to keep your child safe when using the internet, but a big part of digital resilience and internet safety is based on behaviour.
Helping to instil digital resilience isn’t as hard or complicated as it might seem, and you might be doing a lot of it already. Once you’ve set boundaries and created sensible rules around internet use, much of it is common sense, and mostly involves effective communication.
Dads (and mums ofcourse!) can help in the following ways...
Open a dialogue with your children
Be age appropriate
Talk about the way the internet works
Talk to your teenage children about respect
Encourage posting positive online content
And encourage reporting upsetting/uncomfortable content
For that, they need to be sure of your reaction. According to internet safety expert (and father of three) Jerome Simas:
When your children know they can turn to you whenever they have a problem, they can engage confidently with the internet. As they do, they will naturally develop the digital resilience they need.
If you have other tips for encouraging that development, we’d love to hear from you. Let us know in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.
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What is digital resilience for kids?
Digital resilience for kids means they are aware of the various threats that the online world poses and are equipped with the skills required to avoid or minimise these threats.
What is Safer Internet Day?
Safer Internet Day is a global campaign to work towards a safer, friendlier, more united internet. Taking place every year on 6th February, its activities range from lobbying governmental and industry organisations to offering a range of practical tips for the public, especially children.
Should I get a VPN for my family?
Many internet users navigate the web safely without a VPN, because they are constantly aware of the risks and are vigilant against potential threats.
However, with malicious tactics becoming more and more sophisticated, it may be unrealistic to expect a child to always be able to recognise a threat.
It's totally up to you whether or not you subscribe to a VPN. But with most costing less than £10 per month, many consider it a worthwhile investment in case of any slip ups.
Who is responsible for keeping children safe online?
Ultimately, it is currently the responsibility of parents to help keep their children safe while using the internet. There is a huge, ongoing debate about the role of technology companies and their duty to protect its users - but this is unlikely to reach an widespread conclusion any time soon.