How many friends do you have? No, not actual friends. No-one cares about that statistic. What we all really want to know is your online life, your Facebook friends, how many followers you have on Twitter, whether you’re “insta-famous” or not. As a society we have become obsessed with developing extensive and fabulous online personas, and that seems to be skewering the example we are setting for our children and putting them at risk. Kids watch the way we all act online and the way we value social media, and they pay attention. The problem is children (like some adults) don’t have the emotional maturity and experience to understand the danger they could be putting themselves in. Predators hide behind screen names, waiting in the shadows for a victim they can exploit. It’s of the utmost importance therefore to understand how we can try to keep children safe online.
No-one really enjoys thinking about how children can be exploited in some of the most depraved ways, but the issue is, it happens. A part of our reality is that children are not always safe, and the growth of the online world has only made this more complicated. Sure, technology has meant parents can call, text or instant message their kids to make sure they are okay and know where they are; but that level of communication can also be infiltrated by people with less than honourable morals. The villains of these stories now have the ability to exploit and abuse children without even leaving their homes, making it harder to identify and stop them.
But what can we do? The good news is no villain is invincible. As the fairy tales and superhero movies teach us: good eventually wins. (For the purpose of this conversation, Avengers: Infinity War never happened. We’re forgetting the name Thanos.) With the right battle plans in place, the good guys always end up unmasking the bad guys and foiling their terrible plans. This is what we can do to keep children safe, if we work together. With children making up 1 in every 3 internet users, it’s clear we can’t just pretend the internet is something for adults. Children are infiltrating the online world and we need to protect them as they do. Admittedly, this isn’t as easy as a movie, because instead of 1 baddie, we’re looking at 80,000 people in the UK posing some kind of sexual threat to children, but we’re like the Scooby Doo gang, we always succeed.
With child abuse becoming more and more of a dominant problem, it can feel like there’s no way to stop it but realistically there is. Tech companies can help protect children from going onto sites that are too mature for them; and also search for those who may seek to exploit children. There’s so much data out there, let’s use it to help keep children safe! Another angle to explore is the idea of body image and confidence, because some predators can exploit children by playing on insecurities that exist, encouraging them to send inappropriate pictures in exchange for compliments and emotional gratification the child may think they’re missing. 1 in 50 schoolchildren has sent a nude or semi-nude image to an adult. One in fifty. We’re obviously failing somewhere in educating our children about respecting their bodies. Whether these images are sent due to low self esteem about their bodies or a misguided belief that a body is only worth something if it is naked, either way, this is unacceptable. Why not lead by example then, and start respecting our own bodies. Children imitate, so if we are seen to be acting in respectful ways towards ourselves (whether that’s eating healthily, wearing clothes that cover up more or glorifying celebrities for their talent not their looks) those principles will feed down to the younger generations.
Social media also plays a key role in online safety, as 1 in 4 of 8-11 year olds and 3 in 4 of 12-15 year olds has a social media account so we need to make sure they are behaving responsibly with their social personas. 1 in 4 children have reported experiencing something upsetting on a social networking site, when all they should be doing is talking to their school friends about their homework, planning their next football match or fangirling over the Jonas Brothers… (are the Jonas Brothers still the thing to fangirl over? McFly? Hannah Montana? My point still stands though.) Children shouldn’t have to deal with any form of negative experience online, and this can be online bullying or the more extreme, online sexual exploitation and abuse. By “friending” the wrong people, children can open up their lives and vulnerable selves to uncomfortable, exploitative or illegal activities. This stems from potentially not being aware of why you shouldn’t accept a friend request from someone you don’t know. Twitter and Instagram are also platforms for people who are less than responsible with the way their share their data, feelings and ‘selfies’ to gain millions of followers. Is it time we start holding those people accountable for the way they are changing what it means to be online? The role models for children are becoming people who pose in practically no clothes, talk more about the importance of having a relationship than succeeding academically and share intimate portraits of their personal lives. It’s no wonder children are exploited, because we’re setting the example that exploitative actions aren’t that different from the norm. We’re showing them it’s okay to send nude pictures, because who knows, it could get you famous.
So, talk to your kids about using the internet safely. Run sessions in schools about social media accounts, how to keep them private and why they should be just for your friends in the real world. Call out celebrities who you think are setting inappropriate examples. It may seem unfair to make children aware of these dangers so young, but if they are going to be going online then they need to be aware of how dangerous that can be. The trade-off between not wanting to teach them about predators at a young age and keeping them safe is an easy one. Education is key here. We need to be more open with our children in order to protect them. Protecting their innocence about the risks should not be prioritised. Let’s educate, respect and inspire our way forward. Let’s keep children safe.