We are all spending way more time at home at the moment, and truth be told, probably too much time on screens. While staying connected with family and friends has been reduced to only online contact in most cases, there are risks involved with being online – particularly for children.

The internet is a great tool for keeping our kids connected while they’re home, but do you know if they are accessing the cyber world safely? Would you even know what to look for, or how to check if your children are being exposed to dangerous situations online?

As parents and carers, it is our role to support and guide our kids through the maze of the online world, and make sure they’re having safe experiences.

Many families are now home-schooling and using the web as an information source. Kids are having downtime online as well, and keeping in touch with friends via online platforms. With so much exposure to screens, it’s vital we keep ourselves aware not only of what they’re viewing but potentially who they’re talking to… cyber bullying, predators and adult content are all real and dangerous risks to anyone using the web.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian teenagers are spending up to 18 hours a week online, and this was before we were sent into lockdown! The most popular online activity for the demographic was social networking, used by 91 percent of those aged 15-19 and 83 per cent of teens go online three or more times every day (and that’s just what’s reported… the use of smartphones would suggest these figures to be very conservative).

So if cyber security isn’t already part of your parenting toolkit, it should be!

How do you get cyber safety up and running at home?

There’s plenty of information (ironically on the internet!) about how to help keep your children safe when they go online. One place to start is the Federal Government’s E-safety Commissioner’s website. It is a thorough source of timely information, not only for parents but also for kids. It can be used as a conversation starter with teenagers to provide them with tools and tips about cyber safety, and it covers topics like mental health, social media, fake news, bullying and protecting their digital reputation.

At home, be honest and open – keep the lines of communication open so your child knows that no matter what, if something goes wrong, you will be there to support them. As soon as they are old enough to be online, you should talk to them about what they’re reading or playing and who they’re communicating with… and it’s important that you listen! Keep a list of the apps they use, write down unfamiliar names they mention. Talk to them about what you expect from them and their friends when they interact online so they understand and respect your rules.

Keep everything out in the open – co-view and co-play with young kids when they are online. The more you know and understand about what they’re playing, the safer they will be. It also sets the scene as they get older and want to escape to somewhere private… if kids know from a young age what is expected of them, they will be more accepting of it.

Help your children to be good online citizens – and model the same behaviours. It’s incredibly important to discuss what an online reputation is, and how they must always be careful about how they interact, what they share and how they represent themselves online… the internet isn’t private!

Talk to them about strategies to deal with negative online experiences and help them make smart decisions to build their confidence. Discuss cyber bullying with them, what it might look or sound like, how to recognise it and what to do if they feel they are being bullied online.

Limit online messaging apps and check that location-sharing functions are disabled. Remind them that personal information is just that, personal, and should never be shared. Things like phone numbers, home address, the school they attend, their email address, photos… can all be used in ways they might not have considered. If they wouldn’t share a piece of information with a stranger, they shouldn’t be sharing it online.

Set time limits for use and develop a family technology plan that everyone can agree to. This will help you to keep everyone onboard, if they’ve all had input into the plan. Check in with them regularly. With younger children, check their browser history to familiarise yourself with what they’re looking at, and be open with children of all ages, you can only help keep them safe if you know what they’re doing.

Set up parental controls on younger children’s devices to block or filter inappropriate content and regularly monitor what they’ve been viewing. It can be all too easy for an innocent search online to lead to a not so innocent result. Investigate putting search restrictions on devices to limit the chances of them ending up on a website you’d rather they didn’t.

Know who they’re talking to… unfortunately, no everyone on the internet is who they say they are. Children need to remember that if they don’t know a person in the ‘real world’ they shouldn’t be talking to them online.

It’s important to have rules in place at home that establish time limits for screens and give kids the chance to remove themselves from the online world. With much of their schooling currently online, it’s even more important now that they are encouraged to find enjoyment and interests away from their devices.

Turn off notifications for social media and other apps so they aren’t constantly being reminded about what’s happening online, and consider an appropriate ‘turn off’ time at night, where all devices are shut down until the next day. Parental controls can be set to do this automatically, so the phone or iPad locks itself during certain hours and ‘forces’ a screen break overnight.

How do you know if screens are negatively impacting your children?

With young children recommended to have no more than one hour a day on screens, and teenagers no more than two, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs your kids might be suffering from screen overload, or experiencing something online that might be bothering them.

Watch out for changes in their behaviour such as:

  • tiredness, sleep disturbance, headaches
  • eye strain
  • changes in eating patterns
  • reduced personal hygiene
  • constantly talking about particular online programs, such as a gaming site or social media platform
  • extreme anger when being asked to take a break from online activity
  • appearing anxious or irritable when away from the computer/device
  • becoming withdrawn from friends and family.

If you do notice your child showing signs of distress after they’ve been online, be prepared to talk to them about it, encourage them to share with you, or if they’re not comfortable talking to you about it, have them reach out to a family friend or relative you both trust.

Alternatively, there are support services such as Kids Helpline, that both you and your children can access for information and advice.

As with all things to do with parenting, the most important positive impact you can have on your children is by modelling the behaviour you want to see in them. Put down the phone, talk more as a family, be present and be open. Screens and devices are here to stay, whether we like it or not, so making sure we know how to use them to keep our families safe online is a must-do for all of us.