It’s a tough old job bringing kids up. It’s not only the many everyday physical demands but the need to look out for them and feed them good stuff on emotional and psychological levels, as well as looking out for signs of them straying into unhealthy waters as they get older.

The innate instinct to protect however can be seriously challenged in the digital age with children of all ages potentially exposed to lots of nasty stuff lurking in the dark corners of the internet.

Of course, the internet provides lots of positive things and it’s absolutely essential that today’s children are well versed in all aspects of digital technologies for their future and economic well-being.

But that said to ignore the perils is irresponsible. The following points are the areas where children are at their most vulnerable online.

Cyber bullying

Bullying is one of those awful things that most children experience, in fact, it’s a part of growing up and many children bully others without thinking. They pick this behaviour up from the playground, peers, TV, siblings and sometimes just out on the street.

As a parent it’s relatively easy to guard against it when you see your child being bullied, or doing the bullying, and a little talk can straighten things out. But in the cyber world it’s much harder for parents to detect and in fact it can be much nastier and far more vitriolic than real world behaviour.
  • The internet provides distance, detachment and a sense of anonymity and kids can and do bully with absolute impunity.
 
  • Some kids who have been victims of cyber bullying have been pushed to their limits and unable to find a way to escape have taken their life.
 
  • Bullying can be based on many prejudices including:
  • Homophobic based on sexual orientation
  • Racist based on skin colour
  • Religious because of beliefs or faith.
  • Sizeist bullying referring to body size
  • Sexist bullying focusing on the opposite sex
  • Bullying because someone is different
 
  • Cyber-bullying can often be an extension of bullying at school or among peers and will typically follows kids home and into their bedrooms.
 
  • If bullying is persistent some children can develop depression, anxiety and eating problems. They even hurt themselves or turn to drugs and alcohol.

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Predators

The idea of online predators can often take on a bogey man status, the big bad wolf looking for an opportunity to gobble up innocent children, the shadowy individual with dark and sinister motives.
  • The danger can often be overstated and if you believe some sources these predators are numerous and are ever ready to pounce. This isn’t the case, they are a minority but that said an extremely dangerous one. When they do strike they can cause incalculable damage to their victims.
 
  • The dark web is a favourite meeting place for predators, it offers anonymity and by extension safety from exposure.
 
  • They typically congregate in dark web chat rooms and will actually converse with each based on their predilections. As an example, some will focus on children in the 5 to 6 age group, swapping tips and justifications for their abuse such as worshipping the Greek god Pan through their abusive acts towards young children.  
 
  • Many share their experiences and produce long-winded tracts justifying their behaviour, to be shared among themselves.
 
  • Some also offer advice on how to avoid detection and will produce deeply technical documents that provide step-by-step guides on technologies and processes to use to avoid being compromised online. 
 
  • Predators don’t conform to stereotypes. Many are clearly intellectually ‘intelligent’ and undoubtedly have successful social and working lives.
 
  • A favourite modus operandi for abusers is to use social media platforms to identify vulnerable children or those who can be easily manipulated.
 
  • They impersonate someone in their victim’s age group and then attempt to lure them into a private chat forum, away from the more public social media platform.
 
  • Once they have snared the victim they will then attempt to compromise that youngster and lead them down a path they find it difficult to retreat from.
 

Exposure to sexual content and solicitation

Exposure to inappropriate sexual content is a major issue. It takes on many forms but porn is one of the most obvious.
  • Porn is everywhere on websites, hidden on blogs and can even appear on social media. Estimates about the amount of porn on the internet vary from over 30% to around 5% of content. The point is children can easily stumble across it.
 
  • Because of easy access children can become acquainted with porn at a young age which can cause serious damage to their developing personalities.
 
  • It can become an addiction if they watch it every day and start sharing it with friends.
 
  • Statistics on pornography use say the average age of a child's first exposure to pornography is 11 years old. Further research claims children under the age of 10 now account for 22% of online porn consumption among those under 18.
  • However, exposure to porn isn’t the only danger faced by children online. There are some children who have experienced difficulties in their early lives such as death in the family, divorced parents and absent parents and as a result may have a tendency to use pornography more readily than others.

It isn’t a sign of deviancy rather it’s often a means for them to either unconsciously deal with or mask the emotional difficulties they are experiencing. It can also be an unconscious expression of anger at the turmoil in their lives.
  • They may frequently visit pornographic websites
 
  • They can engage in the use of use vulgar and threatening language in chat rooms, emails and online forums
 
  • They can be vulnerable to predators
 
  • Less common but certainly an issue, they may become involved in aggressive online sexual solicitation

What can parents do?

The essence of keeping children safe online can be distilled into the importance of having good, open and non-judgemental relationships with children.
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  • Because of the internet today’s digital native kids are faced with a range of threats their parents never really had to consider, or if they did, it was on a much smaller scale.
 
  • Parents and guardians can show an interest in what engages children online. This allows them to be open with you and helps maintain good communications. You can also talk to them about online dangers and encourage them to come to you if they come across something that disturbs them.
 
  • Familiarise yourself with social media platforms children use and especially the privacy settings. These can be vital in blocking bullies and safeguarding against predators and abusers.
 
  • It’s important not to shame children if they are found with compromising material or are engaging in compromising activities. They are still learning and shaming is often internalised which can lead to them becoming adults who are emotionally crippled. 
 
  • In terms of cyber-bullying it’s a good idea to identify the source of intimidation as it usually starts in the real world. Speak to the school if appropriate. Most schools have robust anti-bullying policies and good awareness and teaching around cyber bullying.
 
  • If this isn’t possible the simplest thing is to remove the child from the source of the bullying and then put blocks on the social media accounts from which the bullying originates.
 
  • Parental control software can play an important role as it allows parents to set filters. However, that said, internet service providers today also provide filter controls so you can, for instance, filter out certain websites at the router. This prevents children accidentally or intentionally accessing websites that could be harmful.
 
Teach children the importance of not disclosing personal or private information online such as pictures, videos, and their address or phone number. This can dramatically reduce the risk of cyberbullying, sexual solicitation and identity theft. Many children simply don’t understand the implications of over sharing.