When did you last talk to your children about staying safe online? Was it as recently as this week? Or was it last month or even last year? In an online survey by the National Crime Agency (NCA) 15% of parents hadn't talked to their children for at least 6 months and another 15% had never had the conversation at all.
I can remember the first online safety presentation I attended at my teens' primary school over a decade ago. Since then there have been countless more throughout the secondary school years, reminding us as parents to stay alert, to continue to monitor our children's online activity and not to sit back on our laurels and think "job done" because it is so easy to do just that isn't it? The problem, however, is that whilst the digital world is advancing so rapidly so too is the resourcefulness of those whose intention is to harm our children.
Where there is a will there is a way and the threat of online sex offenders and their use of live streaming platforms to reach our children with a large number of comments in real time is increasing rapidly. Once on these platforms, offenders use a variety of techniques to convince young people they are their "secret" friends and then go on to manipulate them to do what they want.
Adequate parental controls on networks and electronic devices are a necessity in every household, but so too is talking to our children frequently about healthy relationships and staying safe online. It is great that our schools are doing what they can to educate our children about the dangers and the warning signs, but it is vital that we do the same and reinforce the messages not just once but regularly.
With the Christmas holiday on the horizon and no doubt an increase in screen time among children nationwide, the NCA and National Police Chiefs' Council are running a campaign over the coming week to raise awareness among parents of the need to protect their children by talking to them about the kind of behaviour that could put them at risk.
A short animation narrated by a fictional character called Sam and released with the hashtag #WhoIsSam shows how offenders attempt to build relationships with young people online. It is powerful in its simplicity and to the point, just the kind of hard hitting message that is needed. My daughter's response on viewing it was "That's creepy" and it provided the perfect gateway for us to have a discussion.
Despite my foray into blogging I am still not as technologically savvy as maybe I would like, so when it comes to online security in our house this is handled by my husband whose liberal use of filters has caused a few lively arguments with the teens in the past not least when their internet access was blocked at 9pm and they still had homework to finish.
The chats on the other hand are my territory and although with older teens there is generally a lot of eye-rolling, alongside comments of "I'm not stupid mum!" I am relentless with my questions and supervision of their online behaviour, preferring to always err on the side of caution.
How Often Do You Discuss Online Safety?
Alerted about the #WhoIsSam campaign I questioned my own vigilance and asked some fellow parenting bloggers how often they chat to their children about online safety and how up to date they considered their own knowledge to be. Here is what they had to say:
"Like it or not my kids are growing up and in an ever changing world filled with technology. I monitor my kids phones, tablets etc and online playing and will do for the foreseeable future but I will also continue to trust them to tell me if something happens. Ironic really that the technology that we are using to communicate is forcing us to communicate more with our children. As a teacher and a blogger I consider myself quite tech savvy. However, I have been caught out by comments made during online games. It shocked me that our kids can be targeted on our own sofas." Catie, Spectrum Mum
"I’m always chatting to my kids about the dark side of the Internet. I don’t sit them all down to discuss it, its something I just regularly ask them - what they are doing online, who they are talking to and if anyone strange contacts them what to do. They often groan, telling me they know!! It’s a world they need to be aware of, and I don’t hold back on letting them know the dangers. No point sugar coating anything. As for my online knowledge it's as up to date as it ever will be. My kids are way ahead of me on the latest apps out there, but with a good grounding on dangers etc, I’m confident they won't be drawn into anything untoward (at least I hope they wont!) but sometimes, with the best will in the world kids can be hoodwinked." Sharon, Everyone's Buck Stops Here
"I had a conversation with my kids about this just last week. Both are into online games but I don't let the younger son join any gaming groups that have strangers and that do not have his elder brother in. We regularly talk about how adults may pose as children to befriend them. Also, they do not respond to emails, WA messages or any friend requests from anyone unknown. I also check their profiles and emails from time to time. I read regularly about online safety but your query is nudging me to google and learn more about any recent developments or updates." Rachna, Rachna Says
"I’m always dropping comments into conversation about internet safety, only to be met with a wearied “yes mum, I know!” (But it makes me feel better!). I used to think I was internet safety savvy - going to all the talks at the schools etc.. but then I realised that I wasn’t and I’m not. Because with the best will in the world parents can’t keep up with what’s out there. This is why it’s so important that digital citizenship classes take place in schools." Alison, MadHouseMum
"We have an ongoing dialogue about internet safety at home with our kids as well as through their schools. Our kids are not allowed internet enabled devices in their bedrooms, any internet usage happens in public areas of our home. I don't know how to measure my knowledge. I'm definitely not as up to date as my 15 year old daughter so when I hear about a new app we discuss it." Liberty, On The Lighter Side
"We had a very good safety awareness talk given to both kids and parents last year at school which made us all more aware of how to keep safe online. I have talked to the kids regularly about it and checked what they're up to and a big rule is they are not allowed to talk to anyone on any of these games they play. I'm hoping the school does the talk every year as it opened our eyes to how easily grown ups can pretend to be other kids and how susceptible the children are. Whole thing still scares me though." Susie, S.H.I.T
"We talk about internet safety often. Really when it comes up in conversation. We do tend to have these types of conversations in the car! I’m pretty up-to-date because we have training at school about internet safety. The children have quite a bit of education on this too in schools. All in all I’m very happy with their internet safety although every time I do a course, I panic because of all the things that could go wrong! It’s v v scary!" Sophie, Old House In The Shires
"Gosh I think in answer to the 'last time' I probably nag my 13yo on a weekly basis! But this has really made me stop and think. I totally agree with the comment about digital citizenship classes especially as much as I'd love to emulate others' example of not permitting devices in the bedrooms, that is where my kids often do their homework and so much of their schoolwork is internet-dependent. Sadly, just because I'm a blogger and my work means I'm online a huge amount that doesn't translate to me knowing ALL the dangers and loopholes that exist out there." Prabs, Absolutely Prabulous
"About two weeks ago I discussed with my daughter which you tubers she was watching. We had a similar conversation only a month before too. I think I'm reasonably well informed and I know I'm a lot more careful than some of my friends. We don't let the children take as many risks as we might do. I keep them off a few platforms for example but they are never disconnected from their friends so they're happy." Janet, Falcondale Life
"It comes up often at the moment because the phone has only been around since May. At the moment I am more on top of digital matters than my daughter is. No Social Media yet but I think What's App does a very good impersonation. We have already seen the ramifications. In terms of learning about online safety, the school are very much on top of this - well to the extent they can be. We had a very useful session recently which really got me ahead of the game on top of the things I know from being a user." Nicky, NotJustThe3OfUs
"Knowledge is power" said Sir Francis Bacon and as parents we can never be short of information on how best to protect our children and particularly in this digital world where technology has crept into all our lives so rapidly.
New guidance for both parents and children on the risks posed by live streaming is available from the NCA CEOP's educational website Thinkuknow. As someone who was previously unfamiliar with this site I can only say to all parents wanting to brush up on their knowledge please do take a look for yourself as it is a truly valuable resource. Information for children is categorised by age from tots to teens and there is also a dedicated area for parents and carers with practical advice and tips on keeping our children safe online.
During a recent week police forces and the NCA arrested 192 offenders on suspicion of child sexual abuse offences. As parents these figures act as a disturbing reminder that we need to be ever vigilant of the threats to our children and make sure we continue to keep on top of their online behaviour as well as keep our own knowledge up to date. Monitoring our children online is a necessity not an option.
What do you do to keep your children safe online? How much do you know about online safety? Do you think you are up to date or could you do more?
*As featured on HuffPost