Keeping your children safe online
By: Callum Denault
Published on: February 23 2023
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses potentially triggering subject matter, including sexual abuse, body dysmorphia, and harmful content seen online. Please read at your own discretion.
While the internet is an incredible tool for learning new things and staying connected with people, it can also expose children to things they shouldn’t see or deal with.
One example is the leaks from Facebook which show the company knew how Instagram causes body image problems in a large fraction of young girls who are using that platform. While they were not heavily focused on, recent reports have shown social media causes just as many issues in teenage boys, who are often obsessed with making themselves bigger and more muscular.
Fortunately, the issues caused by body dysmorphia and other image disorders can be treated. There are also ways to protect your children from other dangers online.
Protecting your child from online predators and groomers
Grooming is a tactic predators use to manipulate children and make them vulnerable to being abused, often sexually. Sometimes groomers intend to lure children into human trafficking.
The relationship a groomer builds can take different forms, such as a romantic relationship, an authority figure, a mentor, and/or a dominant and persistent figure. They can reach children through different methods online, including social media, email, texting/calling apps such as WhatsApp, as well as messaging and/or voice chat functions in online video games, forums, and other apps.
Groomers use various tactics to trick children into being close to them, in order to separate them from friends and family, which makes the child dependent on the groomer. These tactics include pretending to be younger, buying them gifts, showering them in attention, giving advice, acting like they are understanding, and taking them on trips.
There are various signs that a child might be being groomed. These signs include if they are being secretive about how they spend their time (including online), have money or items they cannot explain how they got, like clothing and technology, changes in how much time they spend online, as well as if they spend long periods away from home or otherwise missing. Other signs include behaviour or knowledge inappropriate for their age, such as having an older boyfriend/girlfriend, underage drinking, taking drugs, as well as either acting sexual, or demonstrating a knowledge of sex that is unusual for a child to know.
While a lot of online content can be tame or even educational, some of the things going viral on social media can teach children to do harmful things, or just be unhealthy for them to watch.
Some of the challenges that people are dared to take on through trends can pose the risk of serious, potentially life-threatening injuries. People sometimes take challenges that are obviously dangerous, such as the “fire challenge,” where people cover themselves in accelerant and set themselves on fire.
Other challenges seem safe but pose hidden dangers, such as challenges that involve eating a spoonful of raw cinnamon or a ghost pepper. While cinnamon is harmless to digest, its dryness not only makes it hard to swallow, but triggers a gag reflex that could let the dry powder enter your lungs, where it can cause serious damage. Eating extraordinarily hot peppers—like ghost peppers—can cause heavy vomiting in some people and/or cause to other issues that lead to hospitalization. There are also a couple challenges that are not intended to be risky but can only be safely done by a professional, such as the back cracking challenge that is meant to help relieve back pain but can misalign someone’s spine if done incorrectly.
While YouTube Kids can be a good way to set your child up to age-appropriate content, its status as a social media platform where pretty much anyone can upload content makes it hard for the website’s algorithm to keep everything safe. A recent study found YouTube Kids allowed some videos on the platform, which could be detrimental to children’s health by promoting diet culture and skin bleaching—which could damage the audience’s self-esteem—as well as videos that positively discussed drugs such as cocaine and crystal meth.
This is an ongoing problem that YouTube is admittedly getting better at fixing, as it responded to the “Elsagate” controversy a few years ago. In 2017, the company deleted over 150 000 videos and 270 accounts in order to get rid of inappropriate content, including videos depicting children in sexualized or abusive contexts. These videos slipped onto YouTube Kids because their uploaders used certain key words that are popular search terms, such as “learn colours” or Elsa from Disney’s Frozen, to trick the YouTube algorithm into thinking these are child-friendly videos.
Parents should keep an eye out for how their children respond to the content they watch, even content that was made for kids. YouTube Kids sensation, CoComelon, has been criticized for causing symptoms of withdrawal in children, who would reportedly have tantrums after their parents ended their CoComelon sessions. This has been attributed to the channel’s fast-paced videos which have short shots and many cuts.
In order to help wean your kids off of CoComelon or other shows you feel as a parent they should stop watching, it is recommended you remain calm and move your child to a relaxing environment like a bedroom or backyard. Children pick up on their parents’ emotions, and engaging in a calming activity—like listening to soothing music, reading a book, or walking outside—can calm them down. Allowing children to vent about their “big emotions,” and teaching them coping strategies to deal with stress are other ways to help them overcome a TV or YouTube addiction.
Monitoring what your child sees online
So, if there is so much content online that can be harmful to your children, what can you do to protect them? The best is by making sure you know what kind of things they are watching.
You can do this by making sure you are familiar with the kinds of apps your kids are using. It is a good idea to use the same platforms your children do, search up apps you haven’t heard of before letting your kids use them, and talk with your kids/teenagers about what they are looking at online.
Parental controls are a great way to limit the kind of content your child can access on their own online. They can be added to iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, MacBook, Google Play, Windows, or Android. You can also download parental control apps, although not all of them are free. Note that no parental control method is perfect, and you should still be aware of what your children are doing online.
Different social media platforms have parental controls as well, including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as the aforementioned YouTube Kids which can sometimes be ineffective.
As long as parents take measures to keep them safe, children and teens can benefit a great deal from using the internet.