Did your child receive a PC, tablet, mobile phone or games console over the Christmas period?  If so, it will almost certainly be capable of accessing the internet.

Two things spring to mind: protecting your children and the amount of screen time that they have.  Parental controls enable parents to set boundaries for their children online in order that they are not exposed to adult content, themes and concepts that they will not be emotionally or psychologically ready for. Even so, please be aware that even the most determined of online predators can if so inclined work around these to contact children.  Although parental controls do work, they should not be considered to be foolproof.

Get started

So how do you go about this? Well, the easiest way is to use or play with the device before giving it to your child.  Go online or read the manuals to help you set up the parental controls and relevant safeguards on the device.   Most of these set up routines are intuitive and literally take five minutes to complete.  If you’re a bit more of a dabbler, configure and personalise the machine to your child – perhaps change the front screen to a picture of them or something that they like.  This both makes the child feel as if it is their personal device, and gives you a chance to add and configure the appropriate safeguarding procedures in place.  Work with your child without comprimising the safety of those parental controls.

This may involve you as the parent creating an online password and account.  The majority of tablets are either Android devices or Apple.  These can be configured prior to use by the parent – there is a free app called Family Link, which is on Google.  It literally takes five minutes to set up, and allows you to set screen time, police content and enables you to gently track their whereabouts if they are out and about with their friends.


Games consoles and online apps

The Sony Playstation has such a set up, and can enable you as the parent to add time limits to usage, monitor content and restrict any online purchases.

Games such as Fortnite Battle Royale, which enables the child to buy or upgrade game features can cost you as a parent a small fortune if your child has access to your credit card details.  There have been numerous instances in recent years where parents have had the shock of their life because their child has inadvertently purchased upgrades and run up a bill of a few hundred pounds when they open their next credit card statement.  Another good reason for keeping an eye on the access rights that you have granted to your child online.

Smart devices

With the rise of smart devices, children can have even more fun, both in terms of learning and at your expense.  The Amazon Echo for example allows you to create shopping lists.  If you have one, don’t enable it for online shopping, as some parents have been surprised when their children had added to their online choices included dolls houses off of Amazon, and a really big tin of biscuits.  Always enable the parental controls on smart devices.  And now, there is a child friendly version of the Echo, which is available just to make life more interesting for parents.

Picture credit: Wired Magazine

Another thing to be aware of is the ability for children to access audio and video content via these devices.  While it’s not entirely unpleasant for your children to discover the albums that you listened to in your youth on Spotify all by themselves, listening to them singing “Too drunk to ****” by The Dead Kennedys could be somewhat galling.

And with the advent of Smart TVs, it’s now even easier for children to access inappropriate content.  Netflix and Amazon Prime offer all sorts of adult cartoons that would instantly attract children’s attention without them realising or perhaps even understanding that they contain adult content and themes.  As a result, we have eight year olds that are aware that offerings such as South Park and Rick and Morty are online.  Both platforms have extensive parental controls if set up correctly.

Online Crack

There is also the matter of addictive behaviours developing, even with seemingly innocent apps.  Candy Crush Saga is a game that involves matching three candies of the same colour. When the game starts off, it is very easy to win…then as the game progresses through the levels, they become harder. Thus, each successive win generates a strong sense of satisfaction, or as psychologists like to call the effect, a ‘mini reward’. 

This reward releases a neurochemical called Dopamine into our brains, the same one as when you enjoy a nice chocolate bar or a cigarette.  Dopamine is one of the main protagonists in training brains to develop habits, and actually has an a critical role in developmental learning and reinforcing behaviours.  Learning and addiction are interlinked – it’s the pleasure/pain principle, and if any parents have studied any form of psychology, then they will almost certainly remember Maslow’s hierachy of needs. You can see how this works in the young brain…

Self-Actualisation – Achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities.  You have all heard them.  “I have got to level 130 on Doomsday Deathslayer!”…”I have built a Piggy Squashing factory in Minecraft”.  Kids love to brag in the playground about how well they have done with a game, and the kudos that goes with it.

Esteem – Prestige, accomplishment. “I now know how to build a castle in Minecraft”…”I can play Psychobilly Freakout on Guitar Heroes”.   There’s the pride aspect.  In the old days it was “Daddy, look at this Lego car that I built”.

Belonging and Love Needs – Family and friends.  “I played Fortnite with my sister last night, and I whooped her at it”…”I’ll see you all on Roblox tonight”.

Safety and physiological needs – security and safety, food, water, warmth and rest. “I want to be home in the warm playing Minecraft with Mum by the fire with a milkshake”.

So, in short, the more a game like Candy Crush is played, the more addictive it becomes.  Similarly, games like Wordbrain for adults and children alike, also triggers an addictive response.  That’s why games like WordBrain, Candy Crush Saga, Angry Birds and Fortnite are lucrative for the designers.

Setting boundaries

As a parent, we shouldn’t be afraid to say ‘NO’ to our children.  No internet after 7pm for example, especially if they have school in the morning.  By setting time limits to internet and computer use, we’re getting our children into a routine and introducing a gentle discipline to their lives.  Children, like adults, need sleep. 

Most parents are guilty of online lapses from time to time.  We’ll quite happily let the kids watch YouTube on our Smart tellies while we’re doing the housework or cooking their tea.  Anyone who’s experienced the tedium of Dan TDM will know your pain.  Even so, occasionally something will pop up in their online searches where trolls have added a fake Dan TDM video when Dan’s voice is replaced by, erm, very naughty sounds…we have all been caught out at some point.  If you have been surfing Facebook, no doubt one of your friends will have posted a seemingly innocent video, which when it reaches the point at which what you think is whatever is about to happen, will happen, it happens with the audio replaced by loud screams.  Very amusing if you have that sort of thick skinned humour normally, not so much when you’re on a packed commuter train or most importantly, when the children have to ask you what was that noise.  I find  that telling them it’s the sound of foxes calling is a decent cop out (for now). 

Current research indicates that an average child spends about three hours online per day.  And often, a child will become so engrossed in what they are doing on their smart device, it’s often to the exclusion of their family around them.  Perhaps it would be good to set up some ground rules, ones which are easy for children to follow and remember.  These are often referred to online as a ‘Family Agreement’.

  • Keep all devices downstairs.
  • Teach your children about age restrictions and why they are there.
  • Teach your children about apps, which ones are good and which ones are bad.  Always keep a dialogue open with your child about their online activities. For downloading apps and sharing files, make sure that they always ask your permission first.
  • If your child seems troubled by anything online, talk to them, address and act on their concerns.
  • Tell your children upfront that you are monitoring their online use.  This will ensure that there are no trust issues later on.  Don’t rely solely on software solutions, otherwise you will create trust issues between yourself and your child.
  • Don’t be afraid to assert your authority if your child steps out of line and ignores boundaries.  Remove their privileges if necessary for a fixed period of time. Remember: you are still the parent.

We also don’t stop to think that while we’re not paying  that much attention, our children might be using apps such as Roblox or which allow them to communicate with their peers or worse, persons with malicious intent.  The minimum age for a Facebook account is 13.  Nearly 60% of children have a Facebook or other social media account by the age of 10 – it is clear that these legal boundaries are being openly transgressed and often ignored by parents.   By creating a healthy environment with a balanced use of information technology, our children will get the most out of it.  It is important to remember that they are children and they must be themselves reminded that there is more to life than staring down a screen for hours on end.

Useful Links

Internet Matters.  This site is one of the primary resources for online internet matters and concerns, and has an extensive section on child online safety.

Toms Guide. This site has a number of useful articles on parental controls and how to use them effectively.

Childnet. If you want to set up a family agreement with the young members of the family and get them into good online habits and healthy behaviours, this is a good starting point.  Below is a simple guide to follow.

Online Addiction Survey. If you’re concerned about your own online behaviours, try this survey.  It will give you some idea of your own internet behaviours. Children often emulate their parents, so it is worth being mindful of this.

Yellow (General)