Here’s a question for the parents reading this. How hot are you on internet security? Is the computer your family use where you can see it? Have you switched on the parental controls? Do you know what it is your children are looking at when they spend hours online? Do you even know if they are surfing or chatting?
Boy #1 is not really into computers at the moment. At 5, he has other interests, or at least I Iike to think he does, so apart from watching the odd excerpt from Disney films on youtube, or visiting the C-Beebies site from time to time, his on-line exposure to-date has been limited. But I’m reminded that this period of grace is running out every time that ad for pc’s using an 8 year old girl pops up on tv.
The laid-back parent in me says not to worry, there’s plenty of time to fret about it. Which is true, I suppose. But at what age should I worry? I think that it’s probably sooner than I imagine.
This concern was highlighted yesterday when I read Frog in the Field’s post 'Always Use the Green Cross Code' where she writes about some worrying statistics concerning parent’s attitudes to their children’s online activity, and also lists some helpful hints on how to make the whole thing a little safer.
Now, I know what those of you with slightly older children than mine might be saying. ‘My child’s much too sensible to do anything silly.’ ‘I would know if anything was wrong.’ ‘He/she’s just too normal to get involved in anything I wouldn’t be happy about.’
Because that’s just what a good friend of mine thought about her early teenage daughter. She’s given me permission to write about this in the hope that it will prevent similar things happening to other children.
Her daughter was signed up to a social networking site when visiting some friends, who told her that it was great fun and that they could message her through it. Being a good parent who was aware that the internet can be a dangerous place, my friend discovered this from her daughter when she got home, and the outcome was that my friend – let’s call her Sue – asked her daughter not to use the site.
Sue’s daughter didn’t seem interested at first. Then she came home from school one day saying it was fine to use the site because people could only see her details if she gave them permission. It wasn’t public, it was safe, and only her friends would be able to see what she wrote.
Still Sue wasn’t happy. But her daughter said she was just fussing and that her mum didn't understand it all like she did. So the site got used early in the mornings before breakfast. And it was at this point that what I think of as the ingredients for a perfect storm began to gather.
Sue’s daughter was having trouble with a girl at school. She mentioned it online to a ‘friend’. She thought she knew who this person was. It turned out that she didn’t. He was simply someone who had looked through her group of friends’ profiles and had started sending messages to all of them. And being young teenage girls, no warning bells rang. No, being teenage girls (and don’t judge, we’ve all been there), they thought it nice attention, fun, and harmless.
So, Sue’s daughter began to pour her heart out about the troublesome girl at school to this 'friend'. She started talking to him about the music she was into. Also harmless.
Until he wrote to her about cutting herself. She was young and impressionable, and feeling lonely. So she tried it.
He said he'd like to meet up sometime in the future. So she gave him her school e-mail address. Then she gave him her home e-mail address.
Now – thank god – my friend Sue is no fool. By this stage she was becoming very suspicious, and had even asked her daughter if she had given out personal details to anyone, which was of course denied. One morning though, after her daughter had not logged out before going to school, Sue looked into the browser history and was able to read all her conversations. In her own words: "I thought I was going to die. My well balanced, intelligent daughter was cutting herself and had given her school email address and private email address to this person."
Luckily, Sue had found out in time. Her daughter had only given this ‘friend’ her details that same day, and by swift action she was able to deal with the situation. Sue immediately followed her daughter into the school and had her email shut down, then they both sat and talked with a trained counsellor. The so-called ‘friend’ was warned that parents were aware of his activity, and her daughter’s social networking account was closed.
Sue’s final word on this?
“My daughter is happier now, more outgoing, no longer cutting. Thank heavens, it could all have been so much worse, and we're sensible parents, or so we thought...”
Please. Check out Frog’s post for the guidelines. And turn on the parental controls.