I write this, having recently reached an important milestone in my own journey as a parent – we have just bought my 11-year-old son his first smartphone, in preparation for secondary school. Despite my own knowledge and training in online safety, I was surprised by the lack of clear information on how to go about this in a way that gives him a degree of freedom but keeps him safe online at the same time.
For a start, setting him up with a Google account (as the phone is Android) presented an immediate problem – you need to be over 13 officially to have your own Google account. However, following lots of research and a lack of clear information, I joined the legions of other parents who set up a separate account for my son but with my own birthday instead of his. Initially, I didn’t feel comfortable with this – but there really didn’t seem to be an easy alternative. That said, I have taken other steps to ensure that his usage is appropriate for his age and also put in place steps to monitor his usage.
There is valuable advice on this and other aspects of online safety in the latest Online Safety Newsletter for Parents from the Safe Schools and Communities Team within Dorset Police.
Key steps I took were to set the password for my son’s Google account – so I retain control of it. I also set up age-appropriate controls via the mobile phone provider when I acquired the SIM card for the phone. Another important step is to set age restrictions on Google Play, to prevent access to inappropriate apps or other downloadable content from this service, as well as prevent the downloading of apps from unknown sources (set via the security settings on the phone).
At this stage, I do not plan to allow my son to use social media apps, such as Instagram, Snapchat or Musical.ly – even though many of his friends are using them. All have an age restriction of 13+ in their Terms & Conditions – however, the apps themselves often have a PEGI rating of 3+, allowing anyone to download them regardless of age. There is a lot more information about the issues relating to social media use in the SSCT newsletter. In school, we deal with numerous issues involving inappropriate behaviour on social media sites and our ability to intervene to support students is restricted, particularly when parents also get directly involved online – I would strongly recommend against this.
The latest SSCT newsletter also contains a wealth of advice regarding online gaming – another area where the role of parents in being proactive is vital. Here’s a question – would you be happy if your child was role-playing bad language, discrimination, drug use, sex (including rape) and violence (including torture)? If they have access to Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, they may well be – these games are rated 18+ for a reason!
I have no doubt that my own journey as a parent whose son has joined the online world will not be a smooth one. The time will come when he’ll experience real peer pressure to be on social media or online gaming. However, I hope that, by following the advice given in the SSCT newsletter and the wealth of resources it refers to, we can maintain an open dialogue and ensure he remains safe online. Time will tell!
Have a wonderful summer break.
Mr J Pitt