All parents should be concerned about the ever-increasing threats to child safety, privacy and self-image on the Internet, and we’ve rounded up the latest online dangers to keep you aware. (Also see: Is YouTube safe for kids?)
Research has found that an a round teenager's risk for depression jumps 27% when he or she frequently uses social media. And kids who use their phones for at least three hours a day are more likely to be suicidal.
While being online is a vital part of a child's education and social life these days both parents and kids should be aware of the dangers out there. Don't get terrified by the Internet. Just keep up to date with the latest threats - such as anonymising apps such as Sarahah - which we will keep updating here.
Also check out the Girls' Day Schools Trust (also suitable for boys) that has great tips and videos there too on Cyber Bullying, Identity and Self Esteem, Security and Privacy, Digital Footprints, Relationships and Grooming, and Sexting. The NSPCC also has a wealth of online-safety tips on its website.
Supporting articles: See our feature “How to keep children safe on the internet” that looks at Facebook and YouTube, plus parental-control software – more of which you’ll find in “Best parental control software 2017”. Also our in-depth article on how much screen time is healthy for kids looks at the developmental, social, psychological and academic effects of increased screen use by children of all ages.
Be careful of anonymising apps: Sarahah online danger
Sarahah is an app that is becoming very popular among young people. Sarahah (from the Arabic for ‘honesty’) was originally designed as an anonymous HR feedback app for business, allowing more honest correspondence between employer and employee.
Now teens and kids are using it to bully one another via Snapchat, and it’s one of the most popular apps on the app stores. The Sarahah link allows all of their followers to send anonymous comments to their Sarahah account. A user who wishes to send feedback doesn’t need to have a Sarahah account themselves, which makes their feedback untraceable.
Kids set this up in the hope of positive feedback, just as they do when they send risqué photos of themselves via other social media. With Sarahah they are opening themselves up for the worst kind of cyber-bullying.
Other anonymizing apps include Yik Yak and Ask.fm. And there will doubtless be more appearing and gaining popularity as the dangers of the others are exposed.
Snapchat dangers: Snap Map
Although an opt-in feature Snap Map is a pretty creepy function for most parents. Do you want people to know where your child is all the time? Do you want your child knowing where their friends and school mates are (“Why wasn’t I invited to that party”)?
Snap Map (aka The Stalker’s Friend) can be used to "build up a picture of home addresses, travel routes, schools and workplaces". Location information could be shared with people you don't know, such as friends met on other apps and websites.
Learn how to turn off Snap map.
Snapchat dangers: My Eyes Only
Snapchat’s Memories feature comes with a My Eyes Only folder that prevents others seeing Snaps you want to save. In many ways this seems great for child privacy but note too that it means children can just as easily hide photos and other Snaps from their parents too.
Snapchat dangers: beware the filters
Snapchat’s filters can be hilarious, although rainbow-vomiting unicorns lose their appeal after a few views. More worrying is the way its filters “beautify” selfies. This sexualisation of young children can have a negative effect on self image.
Snapchat filters, such as Flower Crown or Coachella, don’t just add silly effects – they alter facial structure, making kids look like porcelain dolls. They widen eyes, narrow noses, airbrush blemishes, slim faces and (maybe most disturbing) lighten skin.
While it’s difficult to ban Snapchat altogether it’s important that children realise the effects of this digital plastic surgery, and don’t become insecure as a result of this disempowering technology.
Instagram dangers: Instafamous
Other social apps can be just as dangerous to a child’s insecurities. Trending fashions such as the Thigh Gap (legs so thin that they do not touch above the knees) and the Thighbrow (the skin roll that forms at the top and front of the thigh whenever you bend forward, sit, or kneel) go rampant on Instagram, and are popularized by celebrities.
Maybe more worrying than kids wanting to get Instafamous through showing off such trends - or getting depressed about not matching these standards – is parents showing off their children in such poses and with various filters to show them off to the online world in the best light.
Apps are addictive by design
There’s a reason kids (and, let’s not fool ourselves, adults) get so addicted to certain apps. They’re made that way so we spend all our time on them. Stories, Streaks, Notifications, Scrolling, Scrolling, Scrolling, never-ending new videos on YouTube, Messages that tell you whether they’ve been read or not…
Online safety tips for parents
Block, Report and Screenshot: report disturbing, creepy or illegal posts to the relevant social network.
Turn off auto updates: it might be convenient and in many cases safer (updates often fix vulnerabilities) but if you switch to manual app updates you’ll see what each update actually fixes or adds in terms of features.
Explain the risks: talk to your children about the risks of apps, and try to keep abreast of the most popular (of course, you won’t be able to). Kids are smart, and when they realise that apps are playing tricks on them to get them addicted and putting them at risk, they should understand pretty quickly.
Make yourself available: if your child feels uncomfortable about things they’ve seen on social media or on the news, they need to feel like you’re there for them. Your own device might even be to blame for you not giving your child the proper attention he or she needs from you.
Lead by example: turn off your phone more. Set an example.
Set boundaries: ban mealtime device usage, don’t allow tech in the bedroom. Try “phone stacking” where everyone puts their device in the middle of the table, and the first to pick theirs up pays a forfeit.
Stop second screening: watching TV with a smartphone or tablet in hand isn’t multitasking, it’s dividing your attention. Media multitasking could even be harming your brain, some scientists have warned.
Digital detox: set times for no-tech. While technology is wonderful on many levels, if you think you can’t live without it for even a day then you have a problem. Make two lists: one of all your devices you “rely” on, and another of all the things you enjoy doing in life. Could cutting down on the gadgets help you realise more of life’s joys? Don’t be unrealistic and promise to swerve all tech for a year, so set yourself something small you can achieve (try lunch time when you could leave your screen and get outside) – and work your way up from there. Leave your phone at home when going for a run, and just enjoy life without a soundtrack every now and again.
Connect with other parents: Set rules together with parents of your child’s friends. It’s a lot easier if your kids aren’t the odd ones out.
Online safety tips for kids
• Be authentic
• Have a good filter in your head (“Would I want Mum or dad to see that?”)
• Fill your social feed with inspiring people who stand for something
• Be diverse in who you follow
• Remember that you leave a digital footprint wherever you post
• Mute group chats in WhatsApp and other Messenger apps
• Turn off Notifications – especially at night