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Keeping kids cybersafe

"The internet and online technologies, including mobile phones, are incredible tools for children to explore the world around them and to communicate, learn, play and be entertained. Knowing how to use the internet safely, whether at home, school or in a public place, is a crucial life skill for children to learn."

Dr Christine Bennett, Chair, Medical Advisory Panel, Bupa Australia

The internet and our daily lives

The internet has become an essential tool for so many aspects of daily living. Most family members will interact with the online world in some way, at work, at home or at school. Young people use technology in ways that are different to the way their teachers and parents use it.

While adults tend to use technology as a functional tool for practical purposes, children and teens are increasingly using technologies, particularly the internet, as a key part of their social world and an important means to build their identities.1 For more and more kids and teens, it seems that if you don’t exist online it’s like you don’t exist.

To ensure a positive experience in the online environment, children and their parents need to know how to use technology safely.2 Recent research reveals that approximately 10% of Australian students in years 4–9 have experienced cyberbullying3. But there are some important steps you and your children can take to help stay safe while enjoying the benefits of the internet.

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What is cybersafety?

Cybersafety refers to the protection of children when they are online.4 Online dangers to children include exposure to illegal or inappropriate material, stranger danger, identity theft, invasion of privacy, harassment and cyberbullying.4 Just like children need to be taught about stranger danger in the real world, the virtual world also has its predators, and parents need to arm their children with rules and guidelines to help keep them safe.

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Managing content

The vast amount of information on the internet makes it very difficult for content to be monitored and regulated.5 To safeguard against inappropriate material there are various safety packages that you can use to protect your children on the internet in the form of internet content filters. Filters are computer programs designed to limit access to certain types of content on the internet.

It is important to note that the use of filters is currently not mandatory in Australia, so it is up to individuals, businesses and families to determine whether they choose to install filters on their computer systems. Filters can be a useful addition to parental supervision, and so it is important to choose a filter that is suitable for your family’s needs.

Filters operate in many ways, and different filters will be better suited to different families’ needs and age groups. The Australian Internet Industry Association (IIA) has a list of family-friendly filters that follow the codes of practice of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).6

It is important to remember that:5

  • A content filter is not a total guard (eg there is no protection against contact by others). It is therefore important to teach your child how to use the internet safely
  • A filter is not effective if it is not installed properly
  • It is important that parents understand the limitations of the content filter
  • Once they are old enough, children can start to take responsibility for their own internet use.5

You cannot make using the internet risk free for a child, but you can teach them the skills they need to navigate through it safely, in the same way as they develop skills to navigate through real life.5

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Social networking

Social networking sites are websites where members or friends display and share personal information such as their interests and tastes (for example in music, films or books), as well as upload photos or videos, music tracks and links to friends’ profiles. On some sites friends can chat, file share and/or blog.5 Examples of such sites are Facebook, My Space, Bebo, Flickr, LiveJournal, and Twitter.

Online multiplayer games (known as MMOs — massive multiplayer online games) such as World of Warcraft and Runescape also have chat facilities where players can interact, form teams and build strategies as they play with online friends and groups.7

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Staying safe online

Online environments are great places for keeping in touch with friends and family, telling others what you have been doing and finding out what they have been doing, hanging out and playing games.7 However, there are risks and dangers involved in using sites such as these.

Parents should especially share these safety tips with their children:

  • Do not disclose or publish personal information such as your home address, mobile phone number or school name on the internet. If your child wants to share this information, advise them to check with you first.
  • Check the security settings of the social networking site. Offer to do this with your child and help set their profile to “private”, so they can control who sees their personal page. Remember that even if their profile is private, online friends can still copy and send on information and photos.
  • Teach your children to think before they post any information online, including photos, as it can remain in cyberspace indefinitely and may be seen by a lot of people.
  • Be careful when making new friends online, as people may not be who they say they are.
  • Keep online friends online. If your child wants to meet someone, tell them they must be accompanied by yourself or another adult.

It is important that parents stay involved with what their children do, and talk to them about social networking. Parents can set up their own social network site and become their child’s “friend”. By doing this, you will gain great insight into their online world, and you can learn with them as they go. Most importantly, communicate with your child so that you know what they are doing and that they feel comfortable talking to you about their social networking — particularly if they are upset by anything they see or are asked to do.7

Scams

The internet holds an enormous amount of information, yet not all of it is true or correct. Children need to be taught to recognise what is true and what is not and need to be aware that even when it looks “official”, information on the internet is not always reliable. Remember, if a free online offer sounds too good to be true, it often is! As a parent you can learn how to recognise a scam.

Clues include an email from an unrecognised sender, or a website without a copyright or privacy policy. Advise children not to respond to unrecognisable emails or to complete forms online. In turn you can teach your child good browsing skills and to identify good sources of reliable information.8

If you have any concerns, you can report online scams to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s ScamWatch website www.scamwatch.gov.au

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Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is the deliberate, repeated use of hostile behaviour to harm someone using the internet, email or a mobile phone.7 Cyberbullying can happen to anyone and can be an extension of other bullying behaviour.9 It can occur individually or by groups of people such as a class group or an online community. The bully may act anonymously10, or through an unidentifiable nickname, or another name designed to mislead the victim.

Cyberbullying can include teasing, spreading of rumours online, and sending unwanted messages10, and can be particularly upsetting as it spreads quickly through an entire social network.5 As the internet is mostly accessed from home, cyber bullying can be particularly distressing as it too enters the victim’s home, invading their privacy or their ‘safe’ place.5

Blocking your child’s access to the internet is not a solution to prevent cyberbullying. Cyberbullying can occur without even involving the victim directly, as rumours and gossip can spread without the victim being online. The best way to protect your child from a cyberbully is to keep the lines of communication open. Talk to your child about cyberbullying before it happens. Discuss strategies that you both feel comfortable with, so your child knows what to expect from you if and when it happens.9

If you suspect that your child is being cyberbullied — there may be a change in their mood or behaviour — talk to them and discuss what is going on. Don’t threaten to take the computer, internet or their mobile phone away, as this will discourage them from coming to you with any problems.

It’s much better for young people to learn that they can stand up and speak out against cyberbullying, but they do need the support of their parents and sometimes their school too.9 Work together to save evidence that you may need for the school, internet provider or police.9 Do not respond to any messages and change contact details.10 Remember, if cyberbullying is threatening it is illegal10, and you should contact the police.9

The mobile phone as an internet device

Mobile phones are no longer just for making phone calls. They have cameras, can be used to send text messages and emails, chat and surf the net, access social networking sites and have tracking devices. In 2009, 841,000 children aged 5 to 14 years had access to their own mobile phone, and 4% of these children used their phone to access the internet.12

This increased mobility means that children can access the internet throughout the day, often when a parent or other responsible adult is not around to monitor or protect them.5 The ease of access to the internet means that children are at a greater risk of viewing unsuitable content, and of having a friend or stranger making inappropriate contact.11

Ultimately, the risks associated with the internet (described above) can also be applied to mobile phones. In addition to these, there are some safety rules that specifically apply to the use of mobile phones:9

  • Don’t share your mobile number with people you don’t know, and don’t post it on the internet — this is the best way to avoid being contacted by strangers
  • Don’t lend your phone to a stranger. In case of a genuine emergency, dial triple zero before lending them your phone to speak to emergency services
  • Don’t reply to or delete bullying text messages — tell a responsible adult such as a parent or a teacher. Similarly, it’s OK to hang up on a call if the person is saying inappropriate or distressing things.

Most importantly, teach your child that it’s OK to talk with you if they come across content, text messages, images or calls that make them feel uncomfortable, and reassure them that you won’t confiscate their telephone or ban them from using it. Fear of being banned or disconnected can be a big deterrent against open communication.9

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Further information

Websites

There are many useful websites with advice for children and parents. These include:

Telephone help lines

  • Cybersafety Contact Centre: 1800 880 176 between 9am and 6pm (AEST), Monday to Friday (free call for landline phones, usual charges apply to mobiles and payphones)
  • Kids helpline direct 1800 55 1800

View the factsheet on Digital Kids.

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Sources

  1. McGrath H. Young people and technology: A review of the current literature, 2nd ed (online). 2009 (Accessed August 2010) http://www.amf.org.au/Assets/Files/2ndEdition_Youngpeopleandtechnology_LitReview_June202009.pdf (PDF 408Kb)
  2. Cybersmart. Guide to online safety (online). (Accessed 9 August 2010). http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/
  3. The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, Cybersafety and wellbeing initiative (online). (Accessed August 2010) http://www.amf.org.au/
  4. Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Cybersmart Parents: Connecting parents to cybersafety resources. July 2010 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.acma.gov.au/webwr/_assets/main/lib310665/cybersmart%20parents_connecting%20parents%20to%20cybersafety%20resources.pdf (PDF 663Kb)
  5. Byron T. Safer Children in a Digital World: The Report of the Byron Review (online). 2008 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/byronreview
  6. Australian Internet Industry Association (IIA) (online). (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.iia.net.au/
  7. Cybersmart. The Smart Guide to Socialising on the Internet (online). 2009 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/
  8. Cybersmart. Cybersmart Guide for Families. (online). 2009 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/
  9. Cybersmart. Say no to cyberbullying. (online). 2009. (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/
  10. Reachout.com. Cyberbullying: What is it and how to get help. (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://au.reachout.com/find/articles/cyberbullying
  11. Cybersmart. Mobile phone safety (online). 2009 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/
  12. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Household Use of Information Technology 2008–2009 (online). Dec 2009 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.abs.gov.au/
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Last published: 22 October 2010

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information, except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.