THE internet is a vital part of children and young people’s lives, and most parents are aware that making sure youngsters are safe online is crucial – particularly at the moment when the lack of social contact means they’re spending a lot more time surfing the net.
But as well as ensuring children keep personal information to themselves and don’t access unsuitable websites, it’s also vitally important they can spot ‘fake news’ and misleading or untrustworthy information online, and that’s why the theme for this year’s Safer Internet Day on February 9 is ‘An internet we trust: exploring reliability in the online world’.
“As lockdowns continue to disrupt education and everyday life, it’s more important than ever that young people are given the tools and understanding they need for safe internet use,” stresses Will Gardner, director of the UK Safer Internet Centre (saferinternet.org.uk),
“With the internet continuing to develop quickly, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for young people, and adults, to understand what’s real and what may be fake,” he continues.
“This is particularly prevalent in the social media and influencer world – whether it be through false sponsored advertisements or filtered imagery, there’s a critical necessity for not only young people, but also parents to understand the implications of engaging with misinformation, and what impact this can have.”
The impact of misinformation and fake news can be huge and varied, of course, ranging from fears about Covid-19 spreading because of untrue stories about the virus and vaccine safety, to airbrushed photos of celebrities making young people aspire to unattainable ‘perfect’ bodies.
Jo Thurston, a Parent Talk advisor at the Action for Children (actionforchildren.org.uk) charity, says: “Being online has become a vital lifeline for kids to learn and keep in touch with their friends during the pandemic.
“Although the web can be a brilliant resource, there are also risks and it’s important parents know how to navigate them to keep their children safe. You don’t have to be a computer expert to help your child understand what the dangers are and what information should be trusted to use the internet safely.”
Here Gardner and Thurston share tips on how children – and other members of the family – can go online safely, and spot and report misleading and fake content.
1. Become an internet detective and always double-check
There are lots of resources to gather reliable information online, which can be combined with offline sources such as books, Gardiner points out.
“When you’re online, give yourself time to check and compare multiple sources, especially if you’re looking for news or facts on a particular topic,” he advises. “If you see promotional posts from celebrities, influencers and famous people, remember to look for clues that can help you work out their purpose.”
So, for example, if posts include #AD or ‘Paid promotion with…’, it doesn’t necessarily mean a celebrity likes or uses a product, but it does suggest they’re getting paid to promote it.
2. Be wary of accepting requests and talking to people you don’t know
Gardner says parents should stress to children that if they get a friend request on social media from someone they don’t recognise, or a trading request from someone they don’t know in games like Roblox, they shouldn’t accept it.
“Remember other people online may not be who they appear to be and no matter how long you’ve been chatting to them, someone you only know online is technically still a stranger,” he stresses.
3. Seek help and report
One of the most important things to do if children and young people aren’t sure about something is to seek help and advice from a trusted family member or friend, stress both Gardner and Thurston.
“Let your child know they can always come to you if they’re worried about any inappropriate chats, images, messages or things they see,” says Thurston. “Explain you can report any disturbing content and take action to keep the internet a safe place.”
Gardner adds: “The internet is a resource to enjoy and learn from, but be cautious of anything you’re not 100 per cent comfortable with or confident about. If you’re unsure, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask others for their opinions.”
Children and young people can report misleading content by clicking the reporting buttons on individual websites and apps – there’s more information about this on the UK Safer Internet Centre website – and Gardner says they can get further advice by visiting organisations such as Childline (childline.org.uk) and The Mix (themix.org.uk).
4. Sharing isn’t always caring
Work with your child to understand and identify what should and shouldn’t be shared on the internet, advises Gardner. “Always remember to check the original source of any content you decide to share and think about whether it’s appropriate and accurate,” he advises. “If you have any doubts about whether content could be potentially harmful, it’s best to set a more cautious example and avoid sharing it with your online community.”
5. Chat to your kids
“The most important thing is to keep communication really positive and open,” stresses Thurston. “Discuss and even spend time together on their favourite websites, ask what they’re enjoying online and if they can help you when you’re online or give you some tips about internet safety. This is a really good way to check their knowledge and understanding about what they’re doing online.”
Gardner points out that an open and honest dialogue is the best way to support your child online, and advises: “Try to make open communication about both the good and bad parts of using the internet and technology a normal part of family life. If you think your child is experiencing something worrying or upsetting online, be supportive and let them know they can always come to you.”
:: If you’re unsure of what to do next, contact your child’s school, try the UK Safer Internet Centre Advice Centre (saferinternet.org.uk/advice-centre/need-help), or Action for Children’s Parent Talk. (parents.actionforchildren.org.uk/chat).