Picture the scene. The beautiful newborn baby is swaddled in cloth, held in her mother’s arms with father close by, admired by the grandparents. But they are not all in the same room. The proud parents have just posted a picture of their daughter, born only a few hours before, onto Facebook for friends and family to see. A common event it may be, but one that means this baby has a digital footprint within hours of being born. Most babies under the age of two in developed countries have an online presence, with few parents showing any concern about the amount of information available about their children in future years.
Many children below the age of nine will be the first generation to experience the effect of living in a digital world during their entire lifetime. They will inherit their digital profiles as a work in progress from parents who often assume the information they post carries the right privacy and security levels. These parents do not consider a child’s ultrasound photos or doctors’ reports off limits. Parents are also writing blogs describing their children’s lives, even posting YouTube videos such as 2007 viral sensation ‘Charlie bit my finger’.
This sharing of the ‘family album’ online means there is no hiding for today’s children. They have no choice in entering the digital world. It seems the decision is made for them; by their parents. There is no malice intended, parents might not be aware that these online records could stay with their child for the rest of her life. For example, imagine if a parent starts to advocate for causes like autism or diabetes after their child has been diagnosed with the best of intentions. The child has been ‘outed’ without the opportunity to give permission.
But the very same parents will probably show more caution about what their toddler gets up to online, when they hand them their smartphone for a five minute game. The digital age has swept into everyday life. People use it freely, but do not always consider the dangers lurking. And the digital landscape that parents have to navigate is changing fast.
Most homes used to have a family computer. Parents could safely introduce their children to the Internet, keeping an eye on what they were doing by using a degree of monitoring and controls, such as parental control software. There are mobile phones, tablets and mini-computers that can be used anywhere. Most parents find these a real challenge to monitor, especially when handing them to their child since they were a toddler.
The demand from younger children is growing, with three to four year olds playing on Mum and Dad’s laptop, tablet or mobile phone. Ever handed your temperamental toddler your phone to play a game in a social situation? Long gone are the days of ‘I’m bored’ as the mobile phone has become the modern-day soother.
Toddlers seem to know what to do with an iPad instinctively. It is not unknown for smaller children to swipe at the window to ‘zoom in’ on the bird they see at the bottom of the garden. This is a good example of how they see technology as a natural extension of themselves, with little or no understanding that they do not have the same ‘magical’ powers within their fingertips. While their brains are still developing this comes as no surprise, and in some ways technology is shaping them at the very core of their being.
Six year olds would rather interact with their cousins by gaming against each other on their favourite hand-held gadget such as the Nintendo DS. They naturally turn to Super Mario Kart when they get tired of running after each other playing tag in the backyard. The Bluetooth connection allows them to play in the same race while sitting in the same room. Silence no longer means they are up to something naughty, more likely they are gaming. Happily, hide-and-seek seems to have stood the test of time and remains a classic hit for children, no matter what their age. But kids are entertained using technology at an increasingly younger age, with access to a wealth of technology, like never before.
There have been noticeable increases in the pattern of Internet use by very young children, from new-borns to eight year olds. Internet usage of ‘tweens’ (nine to 12 year olds) resembles that of teenagers five to six years ago, while the Internet use of younger children (4-8) is also rapidly rising. Despite very young children being active Internet users, policies are typically directed towards older children and teenagers. There is very little thought given to the protection of very young children online, what they might be doing there, and the risks they may be faceing.
PRESSING DIGITAL BABIES’ BUTTONS
So what are children from one to eight doing online and what are the possible issues we need to consider? To start with, let’s look at how many are accessing the Internet.
UK: A third of three- to four-year-olds go online via a desktop PC, laptop or netbook. Six percent go online using a tablet computer and three percent via a mobile phone. Also, 87 percent of five- to seven-year olds are known to use the Internet — a rise from 68 percent in 2007 (Ofcom, 2012).
Germany: 21 percent of six- to seven-year olds and 48 percent of the eight- to nine-year olds use the Internet ‘at least rarely’.
These more recent increases in Europe reflect a worldwide trend, especially in developed countries. For example, in South Korea (the country with the world’s highest high-speed Internet penetration), 93 percent of three- to nine-year olds go online for an average of eight to nine hours a week (2012).
In the US, 25 percent of three year olds go online daily, rising to about 50 percent by age five and nearly 70 percent by age eight (2011). In Australia, 79 percent of children aged between five and eight years old go online at home (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012).
These are surprisingly high figures that have undoubtedly increased since these reports were produced. But what are children of this age doing online? The majority of children in this group treat the Internet as a source of entertainment. Those under the age of three and four are more likely to spend time watching a video. For example, YouTube is the second favourite site for children under five in the UK.
Sites like YouTube or Tumblr offer a range of educational and entertainment videos for the very young. For example, YouTube’s Sesame Street channel recently reached a billion views. But once a child is set up with a laptop or mobile gadget, the easy-to-use graphics mean those as young as two or three can activate other videos. Usually a suggested playlist for the adult in charge appears alongside the content, meaning very young children can access adult-orientated videos on these sites too.
When they reach three or four, they become more interested in playing games online. Children as young as five are joining virtual worlds such as Minecraft, Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin. But these digital environments have a social networking aspect to them. Parents are well aware of the risks of cyberbullying for older children, but the younger ones are far less resilient. They can become distressed when things go wrong or are socially excluded from games by known friends. Younger children struggle to deal with virtual losses, hijacked or ruined game, or losing virtual currency.
The sad fact is that at the moment, the risks facing children of this age on the Internet are only offset by their parents. A study in Australia found that children between five and eight were more vulnerable to Internet harm than older children. Most of the 57 children who took part in the study learned about Internet risks from their parents or other family members. They were able to identify content risks such as sexual content, violence or inappropriate language, but were naïve when it came to ‘real life’ Internet scenarios. For example, they failed to identify inappropriate communication, unreliable information or revealing personal information, as a risk. Some even said yes to being invited to a birthday party by someone they only knew on the Internet. In the UK, they did better in a recent YouGov study; with 71 percent of four- to 11-year olds agreeing that making friends with people they didn’t know in real life could put them in danger.
Toddlers and preschool children enjoy playing with digital material and often do so as part of their interaction with adults. For example, the mum or dad handing their mobile gadget to their child to play with to behave. Young children are fast becoming the biggest user group of mobile technology, accessing the Internet through many different gadgets. Newly released technologies, like mobile phones and tablets, are proving to be baby and toddler-friendly, with no requirement for complex motor skills. One single button will usually switch them on.
These mobile gadgets include touch screen tablets, e-readers, laptops or smart toys. As new technology appears in toys, parents can struggle to keep their children safe, as the security and safety settings can be complicated. Many children’s apps will draw on specific user information in mobile phones and touch screen tablets without the child or parent knowing. This information may include the child’s identity details, geo-location or phone number. Some apps also provide links to social network sites, without revealing before the user downloads it.
Out of 400 children’s apps, the Federal Trade Commission in the US found:
• Nearly 60 percent (235) of the apps reviewed transmitted device IDs to the developer or, more commonly, an advertising network, analytics company or other third party.
• 22 percent (88) of the apps reviewed contained links to social networking services, while only nine percent (36) disclosed these links before download.
As children get older they start to widen their use of gadgets to include browsing for information, completing homework and socialising. This is a trend most parents across the world will have seen with their young ones. Having an older sibling will also influence how and when a child will start using the Internet. In any aspect of life, young children will try to copy an older brother or sister that they look up to. Older children may encourage their use of the Internet, showing them how to use and access it. Maybe even how to use social network sites like Facebook. A YouGov study in the UK found that nearly a quarter of nine- to 10-year olds had been taught about the Internet by their brother or sister.
HOW TO BE A GOOD DIGITAL PARENT
It is difficult to predict where this generation of digital babies will take the future of technology. Some of today’s programmers admit they began coding around the age of five or six, and we are now actively encouraging even younger children to get online. Coding at three? Who knows, but it’s believed that childhood to early adolescence is the best age for children to learn, while their brains are still developing. The trend to introduce very young children to the digital world seems unstoppable. So, rather like teaching your child to swim or cross the road, it’s important, as a parent, that you help them learn this important life skill early on.
Digital babes under five. As we have seen, videos are probably one of the very first Internet interactions a toddler will experience, along with gaming apps like Angry Birds. It’s never been easier to watch a film, but did you know you can limit the content on services like YouTube? When you opt in to Safety Mode, videos with mature content or age restrictions will not appear in the video search, related videos, playlists, shows and movies.
You can apply this in two easy steps:
• First, go to the bottom of any page on YouTube and click the grey ‘safety’ button to open the safety preference settings.
If you have a YouTube/Google account you can sign in and lock the Safety Mode. That way no-one else can change the settings when using it from that browser. • Second, choose to turn the Safety Mode to ‘on’ and click ‘Save’. Neat.
While no filter is 100 percent accurate, YouTube uses community flagging, hides objectionable comments and uses pornographic image detection to identify and hide inappropriate content. The Safety Mode will not remove content from the site but keeps it off the page for users who opt in. Google’s Safe Search filters also give parents the ability to change their browser settings, to prevent adult content from appearing in their child’s search results.
Remember to start setting some boundaries from a young age. Set time limits on how long your child can spend on gadgets. Make sure your gadgets are out of reach and set up passwords or PINs to keep them locked. Do not share these with your child.
Buy or download parental control software, switch it on and keep it updated. Only buy or download apps, games, online TV, and films with age ratings. Check these before allowing your child to play or watch them. Share your digital rules with grandparents, babysitters and your child’s friends’ parents, so they know what to do when looking after your child. If they show your child inappropriate material, have a conversation with them about how unhappy you are about it. Please don’t assume they realise or recognise the dangers. They may not be aware of its damage, and you would do well to educate the other parent or carer. Things are moving so fast that grandparents might be applying rules that are five years out-of-date, no malice intended, but unwittingly putting their grandchild in harm’s way. And nobody wants that.
Set the home page to an appropriate child’s website if you have a family computer or mobile gadget. When using public Wi-Fi in cafes or hotels, remember this might not include parental controls. While you drink your latté, your child might be accessing all sorts on your mobile gadget or revealing personal information. As you would if you were in the park, keep your eye on them at all times.
Digital kids up to nine. These children live in a virtual world rather than living in a material world. In these ‘secret’ kingdoms, kids create avatars, like cartoon characters, through which they communicate, learn, play games and generally express themselves. There are hundreds of these worlds on the Internet, aimed at different ages. Some aimed at younger children have controlled text chats, which include ‘profanity’ filters to block offensive or sexually related conversations. The staff or contractors monitor and moderate user behaviour.
But you should also be aware that there are other virtual worlds children can find that are not designed for them. With younger children, avoid sites with unrestricted chat, especially voice chat. Look for those that are moderated by site moderators 24/7. Also look to see if it’s easy to report abuse or get the moderator’s help. Look at the site’s term of use, ideally with your child sitting beside you.
The number one action you can take is to talk to your child about their online safety. Please allow them to chat to you about any concerns or issues without facing any judgment. It would help if you kept them talking openly about what they do.
The most likely risks, just like in the school playground, are cyberbullying, peer harassment and social-circle dramas. You might find ‘clubby’ behaviour and kids playing at being older, for example talking about boyfriends, girlfriends or break-ups. Make sure you get to know their world. Ask them to show you around and give you a guided tour occasionally. They must not be made to feel you are spying on them, but that you are interested in what they find fun. Find out what their avatar looks like, the type of screen names they have chosen and what kind of message this sends out to others. A great early step in teaching them about their digital identity.
See who they are friends with: are they other children from school? If not, make sure you talk with them about how people online are not always who they seem. Teach your child that human beings have feelings behind all these avatars. They need to learn to respect themselves and others. For example, to respect other people’s virtual property, privacy and identity. It is a valuable lesson in digital citizenship, protecting and empowering them, as they learn to navigate real and virtual social spaces.
Remember cyberbullying can happen to almost anyone and, let’s face it, kids can be mean to each other. Examples include kids abusing the abuse-reporting system and getting someone kicked out by ‘telling on them’ when they haven’t done anything wrong. Another favourite is using the blocking tool to ignore or exclude someone. Even adults are known to do this. Make sure you are close on hand to support your child emotionally if these things happen. Don’t ignore the feelings this provokes within your child and, like you would with a playground fight, talk through what it means and what they can do differently.
The virtual world is a good place for your child to learn the art of creating robust passwords. Children share passwords to gain acceptance, forgetting that friends sometimes fall out or move on. It’s a great idea to sit with your child and take them through the password rules, working with them to change their password to something hard for people to guess. Let them know that a stolen password can lead to anything from embarrassing impersonation and bullying, to property or identity theft.
Digital kids up to 12. At this age, it’s important not to give in to your child nagging you to use certain technologies or view online content if you don’t feel they are mature enough; no matter what they tell you their friends are doing. At one of the most informative stages of their lives, when most will learn to read and write, the Internet opens them up to an infinite number of opportunities. Like all the great explorers, they can’t wait to get going and are hungry to discover the World Wide Web. But like any budding adventurer, make sure they understand they must have the right tools in place first.
Agree on a list of websites they can visit and discuss the kind of personal information they should not be sharing. Ensure you have parental controls in place, not just on the family computer but any other mobile gadgets they might have access to or own. Agree time limits on how long they can spend using the Internet or playing games consoles. It would help if you also considered what older siblings might be showing them and agree some general rules as a whole family. If they are the older sibling, make sure you talk through what is acceptable to share and what not to share with their younger siblings. Ensure you know what age ratings are appropriate for games, online TV, films and apps. Double check that you have security protection on all gadgets available to them.
As your child becomes more independent, it’s important to set some technical boundaries before you hand any mobile gadget over to them. Once they have it in their hands it will be difficult for you to change how they use it. It’s also a good idea to run through the physical side of looking after a mobile gadget. Remind them to keep it hidden when they are out and about to minimise the risk of theft. Also teach them how to set a password or swipe code.
Hold out on giving them permission to access social media sites underage. For example, the official age to open a Facebook account is 13. Also, pay close attention to the mobile apps your child is using. What information does it collect? Remember some apps can track your child’s location.
Talk to your child about the type of personal information they should not share online, such as their address, school name or location. Make sure they understand the consequences of location services and apps, where strangers can find out where they live or go to school. Your children may well be using geo-location services without you or them knowing. GPS or Wi-Fi on your child’s gadgets, such as game consoles and tablets, can see where they are to receive local information.
If you want to switch off the location service on an iPhone go to Settings > General > Location Services; on Android phones go to Settings > Location.
THE DIGITAL JOURNEY
Digital mobile gadgets and the online world should be part of daily conversations within any family. You must show your child that you understand the digital world and how important technology is to individuals. It’s good to talk about its amazing benefits and discuss the more difficult subjects. Please don’t make them feel alone when tackling things like cyberbullying or inappropriate images. Like any other aspect of life, make sure your child finds you approachable to share their digital existence.
Given the dramatic increase in Internet uptake by children, in some ways parents have been left without clear direction on the benefits or risks involved. Make sure you support your child’s engagement with the Internet and that it remains safe and beneficial. In an ideal world, grandparents and other carers should be onboard with the online protection of your child. Lots of grandparents now use the Internet for their hobbies and keep in touch with friends and families online. From text messages and emails, to webcams or sharing photos on social networking sites, these cyber savvy grandparents are using the Internet equally to their grandchildren.
Most grandparents want to be the fun people and not the ones who set the ground rules. So this can put them in a good position to discuss online issues with your child that you might not. Please don’t underestimate the strong bond they may have with each other. Grandparents can take what they might already be teaching their grandchildren in the real world and apply them to the digital. For example, showing kindness to each other and considering other people’s feelings.
After all, the same lessons of growing up that apply in real life apply online too, just in a digital world context. The Internet is all about people; human beings connect in various good and bad ways. If parents get it right with this age of digital babies, it will be second nature to them, a bit like learning to ride a bike. They might not remember how they learned, but they will never forget once they have.