Our children are more web-savvy than ever, but what measures can parents take to protect them against the dangers of cyber-bullying and online crime? Time Out Kids speaks to Sally Stephens from Norton by Symantec to get the facts.
As parents, we do everything we can to protect our kids, from teaching them the basics of road safety or stranger danger, to dealing with bullies at school. But as technology evolves, so do the related risks: while the average person in Dubai has unprecedented access to the internet, spending over 30 hours of the week online, a recent study by Norton online security discovered that nearly 70 per cent of us have also been affected by some kind of cyber crime in the Emirate.
‘Parents just aren’t aware of the risks,’ says Sally Stephens, Senior Director at Norton by Semantec in the Middle East. ‘We did a study here in the UAE, and every 60 seconds, two people are a victim of cyber crime. Yet only 20 per cent of crimes actually go reported.’
‘We’ve realised that some parents do not actually know what kind of technology their kids are using, or what they’re doing online,’ she adds, explaining that keeping children safe online has to begin with understanding what they are doing when they use a computer. Norton now offers free, downloadable software, called Norton Online Family, which helps parents monitor the sites that their children are visiting and manage their online activities, whether it’s via the family PC, a tablet or smart phone. However, Sally is keen to stress that web safety begins with a dialogue between parents and their children, starting with the basics, such as how long they’re actually online, to discussing the sites they are using, who they are talking to, and the information that they are giving out over the internet.
There are a number of key issues that families need to be aware of, she says. ‘Cyberbullying’ is a growing issue that’s faced by both children and adults, which is particularly related to our increased use of social media sites such as Facebook, and smartphone and tablet technology.
‘Norton did a survey in Canada and 25 per cent of the parents admitted that their kids had been bullied online,’ says Sally. ‘Cyberbullying has allowed kids to become a lot more viscious, because there’s a certain anonymity when you’re online. Traditionally, bullying was about intimidation in the playground, or starting a rumour behind a person’s back. Online, however, the effects can be a lot more damaging and far-reaching, with kids saying and doing things that they would never normally do to someone’s face.’
In extreme situations, online bullying has led to a number of high profile suicide cases, such as US teen, Megan Meiers. ‘It is incredibly important that parents get involved with both the victims and the bullies themselves,’ says Sally, as often children are not fully aware of the impact that cyberbullying can have. ‘We’ve also found that in most cases it’s girls who are more likely to be both bully and victim. It doesn’t surprise me, as boys have a tendency to be more hands on, whereas girls will be more manipulative.’
Just because a social networking site is marketed squarely at younger children, it does not mean that they are more likely to be safe from bullies, Sally warns. ‘While I don’t know the full details behind the technology of these sites, if kids are talking online to other kids, they are still open to bullies.’ And the only way that a network would be 100 per cent safe from other threats such as scams or, worse, predators, is if the system is closed (on a school’s own computer network, for example). ‘Remember that the majority of people committing cyber crimes are organised criminals,’ she adds. ‘These days it’s not about a hacker having a fairly harmless joke.’
When it comes to using social media, parents also need to educate their children about the permanence of posting something online, whether it’s a picture, a comment, or their personal thoughts in a blog.
‘Whenever you post something online, we call it a “digital tattoo”,’ says Sally. ‘It might only take a second to post something, but it will be there forever.’ With common internet searches bringing up names and links to social networking sites in a matter of seconds, it can be incredibly easy for a person’s reputation to be damaged online, even by the photos they are tagged on, she warns, citing the cases of young adults who have been photographed partying, only to miss out on a job because an employer has seen the images. ‘People, and kids especially, can have a false sense of security as they feel more anonymous online,’ she adds. ‘But on many social networking sites, you need to limit other peoples’ access to your words and images, so that only your chosen friends can see what you’re posting.’
Being vigilant about the information that children are sharing online is imperative in keeping them safe (which is where applications which monitor family web-usage can really come into their own). ‘Kids will do things such as lie about their own identity or pretend they are older when they visit chat rooms, which can put them at high risk,’ says Sally. ‘They could find themselves getting into trouble by giving away information they should not, whether it’s their address, or telling an unknown adult that nobody’s home.’
But before you disconnect your internet connection or confiscate that smart phone, the most common threats are easily preventable, provided you take the right, common sense precautions, says Sally.
• Have an open conversation with your children about online safety, discussing cyberbullying, downloads and general online conversation (including chat rooms and forums).
• Set limits for acceptable times spent online, depending on age, and set rules about which sites you are happy for them to visit.
• Regularly review the sites which you allow your children to visit.
• Install software which will monitor family internet usage (Norton’s free-of-charge software can be downloaded for PC or Mac, smartphones and tablets, and will monitor usage, enable you to decide which websites can’t be accessed, and will notify you if these sites are accessed).
• Preset high security settings online for browsers, memberships and social networking sites.
• Sit with younger children when they are online. With older children, make sure that the computer is located in a common area of the house so that you can keep a close eye on usage.
• Always ensure your connection is on a secure server (web addresses should always begin with ‘https’).
• Set the following key ground rules with your children: never give out passwords, or an address or location; don’t reveal who is or isn’t home; do not talk about possessions in the home; don’t click on links or instant messaging requests.
• Stress that it is never ok to meet someone they have just met online, no matter how much they are in contact over the internet.
• Limit general access on social networks to only friends.
• Discuss the risks of posting images and photographs online – they shouldn’t post anything they would not want the world to see.
• Do not allow older children to download files or make transactions without permission.
• Keep communicating with your children about everything they see on the internet.