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How can children stay safe online?

Posted on 18 April 2012 .
Tags: society

I’m at the House of Lords today, presenting new findings from the European Online Grooming Project. I’ve already blogged on the importance of treating at risk men so they don’t offend in the first place and the need for policy makers, ISPs, service agencies, parents and teachers to take collective responsibility for this problem. But what can we do to help children stay safe when they’re using the internet?

What’s clear is that the online environment is changing the behaviour of some young people, with the result that they’re putting themselves at risk. The anonymity of the internet disinhibits young people as much as it does adults, with youngsters using sexual screen names and language, or even posting pictures of themselves online in a state of undress. In our discussions with young people we found out they ‘compete’ to get the most ‘friends’, leaving their profile pages publicly available. All of this increases the chances that they’ll be approached by a groomer, who scans online spaces to identify and target victims.

So, what does all this mean for improving online safety? Lots of good work has already been done, such as CEOPs ThinkUKnow programme. But these safety campaigns don’t address the uncomfortable truth that some children are behaving in a sexualised way online. Clearly, really effective campaigns should reflect this in their messaging. Another issue that needs attention is about how young people perceive online groomers and that they think they’re easily identifiable because they’re all ‘fat old men’. In fact, the groomers we interviewed were of all ages and some of them significantly altered their identity online, pretending to be younger, or female, to better target and engage young people.

The heartening news is that we can use the results of this research to improve safety messages so that they really inform and empower young people. From our youth workshops we know that parents have a key role to play here. By nurturing openness in the home about online behaviour, children will feel confident, and not foolish, if they ever need to ask for help after receiving an inappropriate message or indecent image. It’s only through honest and positive dialogue between young people, parents, caregivers and teachers, supported by effectively targeted safety messages, that young people will stay safe online.
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