Social networking sites, online gaming and keeping children safe online

Social networking, online gaming and using the internet is very popular particularly among children and young people. Find out what the potential dangers are and how to deal with them to make sure your child can enjoy using the internet and these sites safely.

What are social networking sites?

Social networking sites (like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram) are online ‘communities’ of internet users with similar interests. Members of the community create an online ‘profile’ which provides other users with varying amounts of personal information.

Once users have joined the network, they can communicate with each other and share things like music, photos and films. The sites are a fun way for your child to stay connected with their friends, family and peers.

The dangers

Social networking sites are seen as being very ‘cool’ by children and they may be pressured by their friends into joining them. The sites don’t actually present any threats that don’t already exist elsewhere online. The danger is that the threats exist in a new online environment you or your child may not be familiar with.

As with most potential online dangers, the problems can start if your child doesn’t look after their personal information properly. The risks you need to be aware of are:

  • cyberbullying (bullying using digital technology)
  • invasion of privacy
  • identity theft
  • your child seeing offensive images and messages
  • the presence of strangers who may be there to ‘groom’ other members

Registering and choosing safe settings

If your child's about to join a networking site, there are things you can do to improve their security before they even start using it.

Setting technical parental controls

You can use parental settings on the computer to make sure your child’s personal information is only seen by people they want to share it with or to control your child's gaming. This could be to block your child from playing certain games that may have inappropriate content or from playing online unsupervised.

You can check the equipment's user manual or the manufacturer's website to see what controls you have access to. You can also contact your internet service provider (ISP) or mobile phone operator to find out about any child safety measures they offer.

However, be aware that some sites are totally open to the public.

Safety tools

Learn about and make sure your child knows about the safety tools available to them on the service they're using. This might include a block function to stop unwanted contact or the option of pre-approving comments posted onto their profile before they are made public.

Profile/screen name

Although your child may be able to limit who has access to their profile, their profile/screen name shouldn't include their real name.

Staying safe while using social networking sites

The following guidelines will help make sure your child is safe while they are members of social networking sites:

  • make sure that they don’t publish personal information like their location, email address, phone number or date of birth
  • make sure your child is very careful about what images and messages they post, even among trusted friends – once they are online they can be shared widely and are extremely difficult to get removed
  • encourage them to talk to you if they come across anything they find offensive or upsetting
  • keep a record of anything abusive or offensive they’ve received and report any trouble to the site management (most sites have a simple reporting procedure, normally activated by clicking on a link on the page)
  • make sure they're aware that publishing or sharing anything which would mean breaking a copyright agreement is illegal
  • if your child makes an online friend and wants to meet up with them in real life, you should go along with them to check the person is who they say they are
  • tell them to be aware of online scams – offers which seem too good to be true usually are
  • encourage them not to get into any online discussions about sex as these tend to attract potentially dangerous users
  • if you suspect someone may be grooming your child on a social networking site, or your child is being stalked or harassed, you should contact the police or Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)

How children chat online

It's also helpful to learn how your child communicates online. Children often use shortened versions of words or acronyms of phrases - for example 'LOL' for ‘laughing out loud’.

It’s very common for people to do this when using message boards and social networking sites. You can find out what any of these acronyms mean by searching for them online.

Acceptable internet use

Some examples of acceptable use might include:

  • the internet-connected computer must be in a family room with the screen facing outward so you can see what's going on
  • if your child accidentally goes to an unsuitable website they should tell you - you can remove it from the 'history' folder and add the address to the parental control filter list
  • it's never OK to use abusive or threatening language in any online communication
  • your child should take breaks from the computer every 30 minutes for health and safety reasons
  • your child shouldn't download unknown files from the internet without you agreeing - it’s best to never download unknown files at all

Child-friendly search engines

You should make sure your child is aware of child-friendly search engines. These filter out inappropriate internet sites so that they are able to search the internet safely. Your child can also use traditional search engines with safe search settings turned on.

Online gaming

Video gaming on computers and games consoles can be educational and sometimes benefit your child physically . As technology has improved and popularity has increased, a number of different types of game and playing styles have become available.

The competition in the market and the ever-increasing demands of gamers, have meant that games have developed added depth and detail, and more personalisation.

To give yourself the best chance of helping your child stay safe, find out about all the different types of game children play online.

Age and content ratings for games

Many games are for adults and may contain themes, language and images that are inappropriate for your child. It is important that you make sure the games they are playing are suitable for them.

All video games sold in the UK must have age ratings clearly marked on the front and back of their boxes. The age ratings are chosen using the Pan-European Games Information (PEGI) system. PEGI classifications and labels are required on products unsuitable for children under 12 and it is a requirement to make sure PEGI 12, 16 and 18-rated products are only sold to those of the right age.

It is illegal for a retailer to sell a video game with a PEGI age rating of 12, 16 or 18 to someone below that age. Also, where necessary, games are asked to display icons on their boxes to give an idea of the content. These icons include drugs, violence, bad language and themes of a sexual nature.

Until 30 July 2012 age ratings were chosen by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), and the PEGI system was used for games that did not require classification.

Chatting and communicating with other players

While playing online, players can communicate with each other by:

  • sending messages which can be typed as part of the game
  • chatting online while playing the game
  • physically speaking using headsets/microphones

Although many gaming environments and communities are moderated, some of the communication taking place may be unmonitored. This can place your child at risk of cyberbullying or contact from potentially dangerous strangers.

Tips for staying safe while playing online

You can help keep your child safe by following these tips:

  • chat to them about their gaming and ask who they are in contact with
  • research games before deciding whether they are right for your child – consumer opinion forums are widely available online, along with publications and websites dedicated to reviewing games
  • familiarise yourself with the games to check they’re suitable – you can do this by playing them yourself or by watching your child playing them
  • get them to use a screen name that doesn’t include any clues about their real name
  • advise them to never give out personal information such as their email address, phone number or location
  • encourage them to tell you if they are being bullied or if there are any users they feel uncomfortable about - many games have the facility to ‘block’ other players
  • report any threatening or suspicious behaviour to the game’s administrators or to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP)

As with all online environments, if your child makes a friend online and wants to meet them you should always go along with them.

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