Across the world every minute there are 41 million messages sent on Facebook, 347,444 people scrolling Instagram, 18 million text messages sent, 2.1 million snaps on Snapchat and 1.4 million Tinder swipes.
And at any given moment there are about 750,000 predators trawling the internet – online stalkers who befriend children now hang out on gaming sites and social platforms like Instagram.
Cyber Safety Solutions CEO and former Victorian police officer, Susan McLean, recently delivered the final of Kilvington Grammar’s PEP talks, Caring for Kids in an Online World. With 20 years’ experience as a cyber safety expert, Susan’s presentation was enlightening, confronting and at times deeply disturbing.
The reality is, says Susan, today’s children are raised online. It is their primary form of socialising and communicating. They have no fear of technology or cyberspace and it’s extremely important to them to be connected. She stressed that the biggest risk to children’s safety is the online world, and if we think about the issues children are exposed to when they go online, such as digital reputation issues, sexting, cyberbullying, grooming, online pornography, problematic gaming (eg. Fortnite) it’s hard to disagree.
These issues concern every child and the worst mistake a parent can make is to think it won’t happen to their children. Susan reminded us that a child’s ultimate protector in the online world are their parents and reminds us in no uncertain terms to be the parent, not the friend.
Susan introduced to us the term ‘friendly families’ which refers to parents who take relaxed approach to cyber safety for fear of not being ‘liked’ by their child and a desire to be their ‘friend’. Unfortunately, she says, the biggest risk for your child is not at home – but rather, it’s at school, out in the community or at ‘friendly family’ homes where parents don’t have a clue what’s really going on.
The Apps that Children and Teens are Using
Susan advises parents to learn what’s going on. Find out the sites and apps your children are using and know what they’re doing online. She warned that if an App is popular with children, it is popular with pedophiles and that online predators come up will all sorts of ways to infiltrate children’s sites and lure kids in. Importantly, she emphasised that social media sites are NOT suitable for children under the age of 13.
Following are some of the most widely used apps:
• Facebook – a free social networking website that allows users to create profiles, upload photos and video and send messages to friends and family.
• Instagram – a photo sharing app where people follow each other and like and comment on pics posted. These posts go to all your followers and although the account can be set to private, kids DON’T. They want to have at least 200 followers (see A Parent’s Guide to Instagram, recently released on Susan’s Facebook page).
• Snapchat – a photo sharing app where images are sent directly from one account to another. Images only disappear, they do not delete. It’s known as the ‘safe sexting’ app.
• Kik – an encrypted messaging app that promotes anonymity and encourages users to ‘meet new people’. Susan claims it is the number one app for sexual predators.
• Omegle – an anonymous chat website with webcam which has been around for about five years. You don’t need to register (and it’s full of naked men). Kids in primary schools know about it and go there and there are reports of girls getting groomed starting to come through.
• Yubo – an app you can swipe left or right to instantly connect with those who use snapchat. Uses geolocation and requests for nudes abound – it’s known as Tinder for teens. Encourages kids to connect with strangers!
• TikTok – a short-form video sharing app where kids lip-sync and upload videos. It is the number 1 App for young people worldwide (and another favourite for online predators).
• Likee – a video sharing app that aims to topple TikTok which is popular with teens and recently introduced a parental control feature.
• House Party – an App that allows groups of up to eight friends to join a video chat like being at a party. Users can be exposed to inappropriate live streaming content.
• Discord – was developed as a means for gamers to talk to each other as they played.
• Other apps include Spotafriend, Monkey and Sarahah.
Susan then talked frankly about some of the darker issues children and teens face online.
Cyber bullying is one of the major concerns for parents these days, and takes many forms including repeated, nasty messages, spreading of lies and rumours, sharing sexually explicit images, intentional exclusion, using a person’s screen name to pretend to be them, forwarding and/or liking bullying comments, and posting threats to harm.
Another worrying trend is psychological blackmail where young people put out threats linked to mental health. Such as, “if you block me I will KMS (kill myself)” or, “If you tell anyone what I told you I will KMS.”
Sadly, the nature of online bullying has changed, and we are now seeing a new level of meanness. Susan sees a reluctance of children and teens to speak up and cautions that we need to make sure young women are given the opportunity to speak up and ensure boys are behaving respectfully (and vice versa).
Sexting (note that kids don’t use that term!) is the sharing of sexual imagery and is a criminal offence. If you take, are in possession of, or send a naked or sexually explicit pic or video of a person under the age of 18 (including yourself) it is an offence. Also, if you continually badger another person, or someone badges you to send nudes, a person can be charged with online harassment type offences. Likewise, if you receive an image or a perpetrator is given one and then continues to ask for more and threatens to post the image online if no more are sent, they can be charged with blackmail or sextortion.
Online grooming is conducted in a similar fashion and is often a preliminary step to procuring, where the adult, through actions and words attempts to loosen the child’s inhibitions regarding sexual activity, or heighten their curiosity by sending pornographic material or talking about sexual matters.
If you suspect your child has been groomed it is very important to:
• Take screen shots and print out as evidence
• Log off and DO NOT engage with the suspect
• Attend your local police station with the evidence, account details and device
• Do not report the suspect account or shut down your child’s account – these are vital for evidence.
Problematic gaming normally involves young and teenage boys often connected to a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) such as Fortnite. MMOG refers to videogames that allow a large number of players to participate simultaneously over an internet connection. It’s important to note that Fortnite is NOT SUITABLE for primary schoolers.
When it comes to games, Susan provides the following advice:
• Check the rating first. See what it’s all about as some games have misleading names
• Google the game to find comments
• Are there security settings? Can you turn off ‘chat’ or similar? Is their inbuilt reporting of problems?
• Supervise kids while they’re playing – check who they engage with
• Play it yourself – is it suitable for YOUR child?
Top Tips for Keeping Children Safe
Susan provided some invaluable tips for keeping children safe that every parent should know:
• Be the best PARENT not the best FRIEND and learn how to say NO.
• Get devices out of bedrooms (and bathrooms).
• Get savvy – know what your children are doing online, what apps they’re using and games they’re playing.
• Talk early and talk often – engage with your children about inappropriate language, their bodies and sexual relationships (Susan suggested a great place to talk is in the car on the way to sport as they can’t escape and don’t need to look at you!).
Get smart about systems and settings
• Get to know the settings of the phone/computer and use them.
• Set up passcodes and impose time-limits for Apps.
• Keep a list of your child’s passwords/passcodes.
• Turn the location OFF on Facebook and Instagram.
• Always check and test your online filters (make sure they are working!).
• Beware of decoy apps – a variety of which is Secret Calculator (which kids use to hide apps and photos they don’t want parents to see).
• Read the rules and the terms and conditions with your child and follow them.
• Fundraising sites that kids use may be using that encourage public profiles – it’s important they not use their own photo and know that the information on their page is public.
• When you sign up for co-curricular activities, read what you are signing, especially in regard to photos and where they will be used.
Perform regular checks
• Do a weekly check of all the lists on your child’s devices including their phone contacts list and Facebook and other social media lists.
• Also check email addresses, profile pics, friends/followers, likes, and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi hotspot names.
• Limit online communications to ONLY people your child knows personally.
• Google your children at least twice a year (and Google yourself!).
Get help if you need it!
• There are third party products such as Family Zone which is an innovative cyber safety platform used by over 200,000 families every day to manage screen time and protect their kids from online risks.
• Susan recommends parents know about the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.
• She also recommended families watch SBS series, The Hunting, which provides a fantastic basis for discussing cyber safety issues at home.