Digital intervention: how to help your children stay safe online

Melanie Swan discovers how some parents are still lagging behind when it comes to keeping their children safe online

Experts say parents should be involved in their children’s online lives Getty
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Twelve years ago, Julia Hicks, swept up in the flush of newly-wed excitement, began blogging about her life as a young Russian living in the UK with her British husband. It became one of Russia's top 10 blogs and she gladly shared personal images detailing her everyday life.

However, her pictures were soon taken by an online scammer, manipulated and used in sexually explicit materials. Now, eight years later, Hicks lives in Dubai with her two sons, aged 11 and 4, and has learnt her lesson. While she still has an active online presence, posting recipes through Instagram to nearly 10,000 followers, she is also acutely aware that educating her children, as well as keeping herself up-to-date with the dangers of digital, is critical. "Now I can explain to my sons that the price of glory and exposure is that you have to be very thick-skinned, but it comes at a cost," she says.

Hicks says she believes young people share far more information about their private lives than ever before. "There are lots of games, for example Roblox, which I banned my son from playing, because people are searching for information," she says. "This includes where parents work, where people are from, so I tried to explain to my son that it's not necessarily safe to share such things with people you can't see. I had to explain that this 'little boy' could be a grown-up man or woman using the information for something completely different."

Communication is key but so is trust

Navigating the minefields of parenting when it comes to online privacy is not easy, but experts say communication between parents and children is the key factor in keeping youngsters safe. As technology is ever-evolving, the need to ensure better education persists, but many parents feel intimidated or unable to communicate with their children about their online activity.

Only 35 per cent of parents in the UAE use parental control software to help restrict their children's online activities, from blocking websites to limiting time online, according to research by cyber- security company Kaspersky. Only 36 per cent were found to regularly talk to their children about the dangers, while only 50 per cent of parents checked their children's devices after use. Yet digital penetration in the UAE is one of the highest in the world, with 98.4 per cent of the population having online access, according to Internet World Stats 2019.

I explain that once they share online, it's there forever, even if it's deleted, because it stays in the memory. So it's a very complicated conversation.

Hicks says the key is trust, otherwise children simply won't share what they are doing online, making it even more difficult to protect them. "I might have my son sit with me while I cook dinner, so I can take a quick look at what he's doing on the iPad," she explains. "I can see his facial expressions and I can take an interest in what he's doing, asking him to explain things, getting him into a conversation about it in order to ask questions."

Currently, all of his accounts are connected to his father's email address, but Hicks knows that will not always be the case. "I also have to teach him about protecting his own privacy," she says. She has warned him about issues including sharing personal details, such as passwords and his date of birth. "I explain that once they share online, it's there forever, even if it's deleted, because it stays in the memory. So it's a very complicated conversation."

Participate in online activities together 

Hind Al Mualla, chief of Creativity, Happiness and Innovation at Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority, says internet safety is crucial in their advice on positive parenting. The authority regularly organises free sessions at schools with experts addressing such topics. Al Mualla says this ensures parents feel there is a place to learn and share concerns. It encourages them to keep lines of communication open with their children. "It's important they don't feel intimidated by technology," she explains.

To help tackle this issue, Al Mualla suggests families participate in online activities together, so parents become part of the world their children are living in. "It allows space for dialogue," she says. "We want there to be an ecosystem to host these dialogues. We want all the schools to have these kinds of events."

Maher Yamout, senior security researcher from Kaspersky Middle East, Turkey and Africa, also believes parents need to be more involved in their children's online lives. He advises befriending them on social media, learning more about modern trends and chatting regularly about their online experiences. However, he says we have to remember there is a fine balance between interest and intrusion. "Parents must not cross the line of the private life of a child but should create a communication strategy in which they understand they can reach out whenever they have any worries," he says.

Staying aware of the newest trends

Dubai resident Mylene Pezzotti has two children, a son aged 15 and a daughter aged 12. With her daughter, she says issues of others’ predatory behaviour are a constant discussion, while with her son the conversation is more about behavioural issues, such as coming home on time. “It’s not necessarily about reprimanding what you see, but to be aware,” she says. “If you can have that conversation openly, your kids will more easily allow you to follow them. You can comment in positive ways, keep lines of communication open and it can improve your relationship. It allows you into their world.”

Pezzotti says she is "above average" in her knowledge of social media compared to many other mothers at the school her children go to. The same goes for their open family dynamic. Her children allow her to follow them on their social media accounts, even when she has discovered bad behaviour. "It's very important to be following your kids, to be involved in the good and the bad, not to stalk them but to use it as a means of awareness."

FILE PHOTO: A person holds a smartphone with Tik Tok logo displayed in this picture illustration taken November 7, 2019. Picture taken November 7, 2019. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Staying aware of new trends is vital, Yamout adds, particularly as online gaming and social media is evolving rapidly and parents are often left out of the picture. TikTok, a video sharing app launched in 2017, is a case in point. "Teens are the highest user base of the TikTok app and many parents do not use this network at all," Yamout says. "The same goes with online games, where only the kids are users. It may cause problems because, if the children encounter anything dangerous, such as cyberbullying, parents will not be aware of the problems their kids are facing."

While this minefield brings more challenges to the juggling act of parenting, ultimately it comes down to this: good old-fashioned face-to-face communication can still go a long way in the digital era.