This is a guest post by Catherine
For professionals in social work jobs, the need to keep children safe from danger is the principal goal when working with young people, but in recent years a new threat has emerged that poses a risk on an unimaginable scale: the digital world. The internet is an irreplaceable commodity with which nearly all children have become familiar, but the pace of change means protecting them from harm is an ongoing battle, with new apps, games and social networks appearing all the time. While the principles of safeguarding children online are similar to those offline, the task is made more challenging by the hidden nature of the web, meaning it’s more difficult to monitor young people’s activities and to intervene when necessary.
Engaging with children from an early age
While there isn’t an obvious age at which to alert children to the dangers of the online world, the sensible time is from the moment they start to use technology, whether it is computers, smartphones or tablets. In the earliest stages, when they are becoming familiar with the internet, warning children not to click unknown links or to always ask before accessing a new website are simple, but important, lessons to learn.
As they become more confident and independent in their use of the internet and begin to think about interacting with others online, either through social media or in multiplayer games, more serious discussions about the dangers posed by networking with unknown users can take place.
Activate parental controls
The internet can be informative, educational and fun, but it also offers a wealth of material that is inappropriate for children and young people who may stumble across it out of curiosity or even by accident. Parental controls, provided by the internet service providers, can easily be activated, meaning inappropriate content can be blocked so children can surf in safety. If the parental controls aren’t needed for adult browsing, children can have a separate Windows or Mac OS X log-in that will automatically default to parental controls as needed.
Enforce age limits – and don’t be afraid to say no!
Social media sites often require members to be a minimum age and, while it’s tempting to allow children to join earlier under pressure from their friends, it’s a good idea to enforce the age restriction. For children under eight, ensuring they access the internet under direct supervision is recommended and, for older youngsters, check the internet history as well as periodically observing their internet usage.
If, of course, you judge social media to pose too much risk to a child, for example if the child finds it difficult to maintain positive relationships or is a target for bullies, denying them the chance to use social media might have to be a necessary measure.
Allowing children to take full potential of the internet is an important part of academic, social and cultural development, but putting into place some sensible safeguards is essential in order to protect them from the dangers that sadly inhabit the digital world.