Protecting your child against digital dangers

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It’s the digital age, and children start using computers, cellphones and other digital devices from a young age. As a result, children literally have the internet at their fingertips. It is a rich resource for school projects and assignments, and it’s the simplest method of finding information fast, but the internet also presents a number of dangers for young users. The advent of social networking allows children to communicate with anybody and share information that might put them at risk.

Protecting children against these risks can prove challenging. Parents and educators should familiarise themselves with the internet, and specifically the different types of social networking platforms available in order to better understand the inherent dangers of each.

Facebook – an online collaboration platform that allows users to post public comments, send private messages, upload photos, and join interest groups. A common risk associated with the use of Facebook is phishing, which occurs when a person or organisation uses someone’s login details to gain access to that person’s account with the intention of obtaining personal information and even bank details from the affected person and his or her friends. The attacker can impersonate the user, sending friends messages that appear to originate from the user, and can also abuse friends’ trust to convince them to follow a link, install a malicious program, or to log in to a Phishing site themselves.

Twitter – a micro-blogging site that lets users post short messages known as “tweets”. Users can update their personal status or “tweet” messages to any other Twitter account. This means that users can send personal messages to celebrities, friends, or complete strangers. Cyber-bullying has become a serious problem amongst Twitter users, in that bullies can target the victim with hurtful messages and can spread malicious rumours to anyone in the victim’s social circle at the touch of a button. This can be emotionally harmful to a child. One of the problems is that it often goes unnoticed by parents, especially if the parents are not Twitter users themselves.

Skype – a program that allows users to engage in real-time text-based conversations, make free phone calls, and video calls to other users, over a contact-to-contact network. Skype has become a preferred method for many sexual predators to find their victims.

Live chat – there are numerous online chat rooms in which users can start a text-based conversation with anyone who is using the chat room at the same time. Sexual predators can pretend to be children or teenagers, using child-like screen names and false photographs, with the intention of gaining the trust of the other users in the chat room. Predators then befriend children and try to encourage the child to agree to a face-to-face meeting.

Although there is no guaranteed way of ensuring that children do not fall prey to these online dangers, there are a number of preventative measures that can be taken. The first step for parents is to ensure that the home computer and the child’s cell phone have the appropriate safety features and blocks installed. This can be requested from the relevant service providers when purchasing the product. 

Next, parents need to become comfortable with using the internet and gain an understanding of how it works. Many of the tell-tale signs of a child at risk can be picked up if parents understand the digital language and the reference framework of the child.

It is also imperative that the parent and child have an open discussion about the internet and its pitfalls and lay down some ground rules. The child must understand that giving out personal information such as addresses, school names and contact numbers is dangerous. Parents should request that the privacy settings on the child’s social networking accounts are strict. This means that, where applicable, only the child’s trusted friends can view the child’s photos and messages.

Finally, parents could consider creating their own social media accounts in order to monitor the child’s social interactions. Many children, especially teenagers, perceive this to be intrusive and might be concerned about parents posting comments or photos that may harm their reputation. It is therefore important for parents to remain in the background and play an observing role rather than an active role in the child’s social network.

The benefits of the internet certainly outweigh the dangers. By putting the right preventative measures in place, parents can ensure that children are both empowered and kept safe.
To learn more about the internet consider attending the part-time University of Cape Town Internet Super-User course presented online throughout South Africa. Contact Tamsin on 021 447 7565 or visit www.getsmarter.co.za for more information.



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