Why everything you think you know about internet safety is wrong

Digital technology has changed everything in our lives, including parenting. A whole new set of risks faces our children, from cyberbullying to pornography, sexting to self-harm. It’s not that young people have changed, particularly; but the internet amplifies many of the risks they face already and provide new, scary forms for their expression.

The result is that parents – and teachers – can feel that children’s lives are being conducted out of reach of supervision, in a frightening new context. The main response up until now has been to focus on filters, parental controls and on monitoring what young people are doing online. We have probably all seen instructions to ‘keep the computer in the living room’ so you can see what your children are up to.

This sort of advice continues to be trotted out even by organisations with some expertise in internet safety, which really should know better. In a mobile age, it is useless at best. Even a child who doesn’t have his own smart phone is only a couple of clicks away from seeing something you’d rather he didn’t on a friend’s device in the playground.

Filters have their place and are extremely useful for younger children, but they’re certainly not the complete answer to child internet safety in the world of always-on mobile devices. Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that constantly looking over your child’s shoulder at their online activities is paradoxically actually likely to make them less safe, rather than more.

At The Parent Zone, our research with the Oxford Internet Institute and Virgin Media suggests that over-zealous monitoring is actually correlated with diminished internet safety. It was the children who felt free to be confident and creative online, rather than those who were restricted and observed, who were safer. Even though they were likely to encounter more risks, they were less likely to come to harm, because they were more confident about switching off or moving away.

To navigate the internet safely, children need to learn to be digitally literate and confident – and this digital literacy broadly has three elements:

  • technical literacy – which means knowing your way around technologies and having technical skills;
  • media literacy – understanding different platforms and being able to judge the quality and reliability of online sources;
  • social literacy – understanding online etiquette and the way things are done online.

In developing these skills, research suggests that the kind of parenting that works best offline is the kind that also works best online. Children tend to thrive when their parents show genuine interest in their activities and their developing identities, when there are clear boundaries but there is also a sense of unconditional love.

Most parents aren’t going to be coding whizzes and it’s unlikely that most of us will be on top of the latest fashionable apps for teens, so we may only ever be able to have limited impact on the first two elements of digital literacy. But we can really help with the social behaviour online by understanding the issues and how best to respond and communicate.

With CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command of the National Crime Agency, The Parent Zone has launched Parent Info, providing information on a wide range of adolescent issues that are aggravated or given new outlets by the internet, from eating disorders and lack of sleep to the really gritty things such as grooming and extremism. Parent Info can be taken as a feed by schools and hosted on their websites; it’s currently being tested with 100 schools and will be rolled out to all of them next term. It can also be accessed by parents directly.

The problems thrown up by the internet are really social problems, not technical ones, and there is a limit to what technical tools can do to solve them. The internet is a fantastic tool for learning, communication, entertainment, creativity and civic activity – and the very good news for parents is that the more active they encourage their children to do all this online, the more resilient they will become. We cannot eradicate the risks, but we can certainly do a lot to reduce the harms.

Geraldine Bedell is a director of The Parent Zone, which aims to make the internet work for families, and the editor of Parent info.