Much of the internet is a fabulous resource for kids, whether it's Wikipedia for helping with homework, online games, social networks, videos, music and more. However, there are an equal number of websites that you wouldn’t want them going anywhere near.
One of the greatest challenges facing parents these days is how to ensure that their children remain safe online. With so many kids now having tablets, smartphones, or PCs of their own, it’s increasingly difficult to know what content they access and who they’re meeting on the web.
A recent study by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at Oxford University revealed that of 515 interviewed 12- to 15-year-old children, 14 percent had had a 'negative' online experience in the past year, 8 percent had been contacted by strangers, almost 4 percent had seen someone pretend to be them online, 2 percent has seen sexual content that made them feel uncomfortable, and three percent had seen something that scared them.
A huge majority (90 percent) of the children's parents either did not know what parental filters were or they were not using them, and the children of those who were using them were at risk of viewing the wrong sort of information.
Filters could be returning damaging false-positives that could make them more vulnerable or ill-informed than before they read the information.
The OII suggests that rather than parental filters, which it says should be turned off as early as possible, we need to properly educate children. Future research into keeping kids safe online should "look carefully at the long-term value of filters and see whether they protect young people at a wider range of ages".
At the end of the day, whether you choose to go down the route of parental controls or better education without the rose-tinted glasses is really up to you.
We’ll explain what are the dangers online and point out ways you can protect your kids from them. Much of our advice is common sense, but in addition there are some settings you can make to limit the content and apps available on a phone, tablet or PC.
We've got more advice on How much screen time is healthy for kids and when is an appropriate time to buy your child a phone.
Set some rules
Kids these days are digital natives. They've grown up with the internet and have no concept of what life was like without it. They’re completely at home with technology: using a mouse or touchscreen to navigate is as much a life skill as learning to read and write.
In fact, children tend to learn to use a touchscreen way before they can read or write, using colours, images and symbols instead of words to navigate around apps and websites in order to get to a video or game they like.
Whatever the age of your kids, it’s important to keep them safe when browsing websites, using social networking services such as Facebook, and chatting with friends using instant messaging programs.
Although your children may know more about using a laptop, tablet and the internet than you do, it’s your responsibility to ensure they're protected from the parts of the web that present a danger to them.
The dangers (see below) may sound bad, but the good news is that you can prevent most of them happening without too much time, effort or money.
Common sense plays a bigger part than you might think. For a start, we’d recommend not allowing children to use a device - laptop, tablet or phone - in their own room. Asking them to use it in a communal area should discourage most inappropriate activities as it will be obvious what they’re up to even if you only glance in their direction.
The most important thing to do is to talk to each child and explain (in a way appropriate to their age) the dangers that the internet could pose to them, and why they can’t use their devices in their room.
Also, encourage them to tell you whenever they see anything that makes them uncomfortable or upsets them, or simply isn’t what they expected. You can delete inappropriate websites from your browser's history, and add the site's address to a parental control filter list (we'll come to this in a minute).
Also encourage them to tell you if they receive any threatening or frightening messages or emails - you can add the sender's address to most email programs' blocked list.
You should also make it plain what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable online. That’s something only you can decide, but you can’t expect your kids to know they’re doing something wrong if you haven’t set any boundaries.
You might, for example, tell your child that they're not allowed to download apps or files without your permission first, nor share a file with anyone without your consent. You could also set rules about whether they can use any instant messaging services, tell them not to reply to unsolicited emails or sign up for free accounts without you first checking that it's ok.
What are the dangers?
Online gaming risks
While much of the media focus tends to revolve around the problems children can encounter on social media sites such as Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram (all of which require account holders to be at least thirteen years old) recent research from security experts Kaspersky labs has found that online gaming is now a real source of concern.
In a study of 11-16 yr olds, Kaspersky discovered that 38 percent of children had encountered people pretending to be someone else on gaming platforms, while 23 percent had been asked personal or suspicious personal questions while online.
Perhaps the most worrying statistic though was that 20 percent of the children interviewed said that they trusted the gaming platform so much that they would see no problem meeting contacts from it in real life.
This is compounded by the fact that nearly a third of the children in the study said that their parents had no idea who they talked to when they played games online.