Children And The Dangers Of The Virtual World

By   Simon Newman
Advisory Council Member , | Dec 19, 2022 02:29 am PST

Technology is continuously evolving and has become a staple in children’s lives today. It’s no surprise that children have developed into avid internet users as social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have become widely accessible. Many have also turned to online gaming as an added source of entertainment, with popular sites such as Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite positively benefiting from their constant usage. Online gaming and social media sites offer children an outlet to become part of a community, enabling them to socialise and connect with others in the virtual world. However, whilst the internet provides children with new experiences to enjoy, their constant access to online accounts has sparked concerns for their safety and wellbeing.

A recent survey conducted amongst 600 parents across the UK by Censuswide on behalf of International Cyber Expo found that 34% of parents are unaware of what online accounts their children are using, highlighting a worrying lack of awareness from parents surrounding their children’s online activity. What’s more, 26% of parents admit they do not know who their children are interacting with online. With some attributing this to the vast quantity of accounts to keep track of and others blaming their children’s dishonesty. Only a fifth of parents claim to know about all online accounts, yet they’re unable to easily access them to monitor their activity.

In an effort to protect children online, age restrictions have been introduced for most social media platforms and online gaming sites, requiring users to be at least 13 years of age to join. However, the effectiveness of these restrictive measures has been brought into question as underage children are routinely found using such applications. In fact, on average 25% of parents in the UK allow their children to use online gaming and social media accounts below the recommended age restriction. Thus, putting them at risk of falling victim to an array of dangers online such as bullying, cybercrime as well as the potential of being groomed by strangers. Additionally, when left to their own devices, children are more likely to access content ill-suited to their age group.  In some cases, this kind of exposure to inappropriate online content can have fatal consequences. As seen with the Molly Russell case in 2017, where an innocent 14-year-old, took her own life as a result of a losing battle with depression triggered by the negative effects of social media content.

The UK’s Online Safety Bill is another example of a measure taken to protect children against risk and harms online. The drafted online safety legislation aims to protect children against a comprehensive range of online dangers. Restrictions will be enforced to prevent harmful online speech and tackle abuse on social media platforms by holding sites accountable for their actions. However, incoming changes, particularly as it relates to the new ‘legal but harmful speech’ category have recently caused controversy. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss sought to amend the policy for adults only to prevent damage to their freedom of expression. However, this puts into question how platforms without age verification measures in place, will be able to protect children from accessing the same harmful content.

Evidently, there is a real need for parents to take an active interest in their children’s online activity to prevent putting them at risk. Though it may be challenging as threats become harder to identify online, this should not dissuade parents. Parents could consider using the resources available online to help them effectively deal with the challenging task at hand. For instance, the BBC’s child online safety guidance recommends parents to adjust their browser settings to protect them from accessing unsuitable sites. Internet safety organisations such as Internet Matters could assist with this as they offer an interactive guide on setting parental controls on devices across the household. In terms of advice for online gaming, experts at the Child Mind Institute recommends that parents enforce time limits for children. These limits should be communicated clearly, and it is important that parents do not waver easily in enforcing these rules either as children will notice and learn to challenge the decision otherwise.

Parents would benefit from basing their decisions about their children’s online activity on a combination of factors: guidance from authorities, their children’s maturity in understanding online threats as well as their ability to manage them. Online age restrictions should not be taken lightly, as it is not always easy to keep other users accountable for their actions.

Having said that, it is crucial that time is set aside to educate children on the threats that exist, tailoring these conversations to their age. For younger children, this might mean using short stories and TV shows that delve into the subject in a light-hearted manner, followed by a chat on lessons learned. For teenagers, it may be appropriate to tackle the subject head on.

Last but certainly not least, avoid lecturing. Having a conversation goes two ways, meaning parents should be listening and engaging with their children; an often forgotten but powerful tool. There is certainly a place and time for discipline, but parents should also endeavour to be a safe haven for their children. In the unfortunate case that they may fall victim to cybercrime, cyber bullying or the like, you want your child to seek your help and advice. The best way of building this rapport is to talk to them regularly, as well as be empathetic of their experiences and feelings. As the NSPCC advises, ask open-ended questions, refrain from interjecting or interrupting as they speak, be open to receiving questions and talking about your own experiences, and do not betray their confidence. There may come a time when parents will need to seek support from a third party; when this arises, it should be done tactfully. Often, this means being transparent with your children about next steps. The online world can be a scary place and an intimidating one to manage where your children’s safety is involved, but it becomes a lot easier with open communication.