Online safety for Kids & Parents


22 Feb

This paper provides information about online safety for service providers and other professionals who work with families and children. It will help professionals to provide support to families and to discuss ways to keep children and young people safe online. Relevant resources are included to share with parents and carers.

For specific information on cyberbullying, see Parental Involvement in Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying.

Internet use

Information technology is now used in virtually every home in Australia. Ninety-seven per cent of households with children aged under 15 years have access to the internet, with an average number of seven devices per household. Ninety-nine per cent of young people aged 15–17 years are online, making this age group the highest users. They spend an average of 18 hours per week online (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2016).

Social networking, entertainment and educational activities are the most popular activities online for children and young people, and there can be many positive outcomes of this use. Young people are increasingly exposed to an open and collaborative online culture, which allows them to access information, maintain friendships and relationships with family, and create and share content (Collin, Rahilly, Richardson, & Third, 2011).

However, children and young people are at a dynamic stage of development in which risk-taking behaviours and emerging decision-making can lead to negative outcomes (Viner, 2005). As a result, parents need to remain actively involved and vigilant regarding the nature of their children’s online activities, and to continue to communicate and negotiate with children and young people about their use of technology.

Parental involvement in the safe use of technology should start from a child's first use, and parents continue to be a critical influence in children and young people being responsible digital citizens and engaging in online activities safely.

What is online safety and why is it important?

Online safety is often used interchangeably with terms such as internet safety, cybersafety, internet security, online security and cyber security, although these terms can relate to different aspects of online engagement. For example, the risk of using computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices to access the internet and social media is that breaches of privacy may lead to fraud, identity theft and unauthorised access to personal information. Other risks for children and young people include image-based abuse, cyberbullying, stalking and exposure to unreliable information or illicit materials.

Criminal offenders are highly skilled at exploiting new modes of communication to gain access to children and young people, and children and young people can easily access adults-only material if there are no protective mechanisms in place (Queensland Police, 2014).

These situations can place a child or young person's emotional and physical wellbeing at risk. This is particularly the case where little or no attention has been paid to monitoring use, communicating with children or young people about use or securing the device being used. In these cases, and for the purpose of this paper, online safety is a child protection issue.

While online safety is important for protecting children and young people from dangerous and inappropriate websites and materials, this does not mean that parents should discourage their children from using digital technology. The challenge is to help children and young people enjoy the benefits of going online while having the skills and knowledge to identify and avoid the risks.

Office of the eSafety Commissioner

The Office of the eSafety Commissioner (the Office) is an independent statutory office that was created by the Enhancing Online Safety for Children’s Safety Act 2015. The Office was established in 2015 to coordinate and lead the online safety efforts across government, industry and the not-for-profit community.

The Office operates a world-first reporting scheme to deal with serious cyberbullying that affects Australian children. There is also a reporting function for Australians who come across illegal content online and the Office is taking the lead on tackling image-based abuse through an online portal and reporting tool.

The significance of being 13 years old

As part of their privacy policies, social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube specify that users must be at least 13 years old. Parents may be unaware of this requirement.

The minimum age stipulations are based on the requirements of the US Congress as set out in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.1 The act specifies that website operators must gain verifiable parental consent prior to collecting any personal information from a child younger than 13 years old (O'Keeffe et al., 2011). Many social networking sites avoid this requirement by setting a minimum age of use at 13 years old but there is no onus on website operators to verify the age of users.

Practical tips for parents to help children and young people use the internet

The following tips will help parents provide support and guidance for children and young people as they engage in online activities.

Monitoring and supervision

Monitoring a young person's online activities includes checking that websites are appropriate for a child's use and keeping an eye on the screen.

If parents are willing to provide children and young people with access to mobile phones and computers, then a responsibility to understand, model appropriate behaviour and communicate the basics of good digital citizenship should come with the access.

Advice on monitoring often focuses on keeping the device in a shared family area, yet in the age of wireless connections and internet-enabled smartphones this is increasingly difficult. Similarly, young people may control their own online details, such as passwords and web browser histories. Parents can address these difficulties in the following ways:

  • Develop a plan about internet use in partnership with family members. This can include:

    • details of appropriate online topics;
    • privacy setting checks;
    • physical locations for internet use and parental monitoring (looking over the shoulder or line of sight supervision);
    • limits on screen time;
    • limits on when wireless internet connections and/or mobile devices will be available; and
    • what may be identified as inappropriate posts on online profiles.
  • An internet-use agreement may be useful to develop with older children. Many schools have internet-use agreements that can be replicated and Queensland Police have produced an example .
  • Take an active role in discussing the benefits of online activities with children and young people, and what strategies they may use to respond to cyberbullying, other negative online behaviours or if they unintentionally access adult content. Discussions can include how these rules apply wherever they are online, including at home in their bedroom and when they are outside the home, for example at a friend's place.

Protection

Parents can be encouraged to:

  • Find out whether their child's school has an internet policy and how online safety is maintained. Inquiries should focus on the strategies used to educate children and young people about online safety and cyberbullying, whether parents are involved in cyberbullying initiatives and developing cyberbullying policies.
  • Point out to children and young people that some websites on the internet are for adults only and are not intended for children or young people to see. Discuss what strategies a young person might adopt if they access this content.
  • Use a family-friendly internet service provider (ISP) that provides proven online safety protocols. Filtering tools should not be solely relied on as a solution. Open discussion and communication with young people about monitoring and supervision is needed.
  • Empower children and young people to use the internet safely by mutually exploring safe sites and explaining why they are safe. It's also important to educate children and young people on why it's not safe to give out any personal details online.

Engagement and communication

Parents can be encouraged to:

  • Discuss with their children how they may recognise the difference between online information that is helpful or unhelpful, true or false, useful or not useful. For example, government or education websites may contain more accurate information than opinions that are posted on an unfamiliar person's blog.
  • Increase their own knowledge and become more adept at engaging in online activities and exploring social networking sites that are being used by their children. Learning alongside children and young people can be an effective way to achieve this—parents can be encouraged to let their children be the experts and help them to understand the tools they are using online.
  • Focus on the positive aspects of the internet—spend time looking together at sites that are fun, interesting or educational. Find sites together that are age and stage appropriate for their children.
  • Encourage their child to question things on the internet. When looking at a new site, their child could ask questions such as, "Who is in charge of this site?", "Have I found information or is it just opinion?" or "Is this site trying to influence me or sell me something?"
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