Protect your children online

Research shows exposure to explicit content can harm children and young people’s perception of sex, healthy relationships, and how they view their own bodies. Good internet service providers provide parental controls which filter and block content. This is one of the first steps to take to stop your child from being exposed to hard-core porn and other forms of extreme content, including political and religious ideologies.

However be aware that a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can be set up on most devices and this creates a tunnel through which communications can pass, unhindered by your service provider's filters. Also, internet access via friends' WiFi and public WiFi hotspots will also bypass filters, as will 4G and 5G connectivity to mobile devices. If there is a way round it, children will find it.

That means additional layers of protection are needed. This can be achieved by deploying parental controls at the device level, such as those included with Apple iOS Screen Time, Microsoft Windows Family Safety and Amazon Fire OS. There are also some very good third-party parental control solutions available including NetNanny and Bark. Some a free to use, but tend to have limited features.

Social media and communications services are not as well protected by conventional parental controls and are a major route to harmful material. The most popular apps for teenagers in 2021 were YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, WhatsApp but trends change rapidly and there are other popular apps you may not have heard of including REFACE, Omegle, Kik, Discord and Houseparty. Many that claim to be suitable for the 12+ age group may be a medium for harmful content. The insidious AI-driven way they deliver potentially harmful content to users, is an additional risk factor. They may also contain embedded links to hard-core porn and other material hosted outside the platform and this can be accessed in a few easy steps.

Protecting your child on social media can be difficult. You can block specific social media apps but, given peer pressure, many children will find it hard if they are excluded from popular platforms. Fortunately, in 2020 TikTok brought in a family paring facility, which enables parental monitoring and Instagram is introducing parental controls from 2022, Many other social media and messaging apps, commonly used by teens, are still lacking in this area. The only way to enable some freedom, while protecting your child, is to monitor closely using the available tools. If potentially harmful material is encountered, step in and have a conversation with your child. Educating them on the dangers is a powerful intervention.

Whether you chose in-built controls, or paid-for solutions, you will need to ensure admin accounts are restricted on all devices to prevent your child from overriding controls and set up separate accounts for each child in your family. Protection is possible but all solutions require parental monitoring and intervention to ensure the highest level of protection. An open dialog with your child may be painful but is perhaps the best protection you can provide.

Find out further information on the NSPCC website