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Digital Dangers: How To Keep Your Children Safe Online

 By Javed Khan, Barnardo’s Chief Executive

Childhoods in my day meant cricket in the park, football in the street or, during periods of inclement weather, stuck inside with only two TV channels for entertainment.

And although children obviously do still spend lots of time outdoors, they have plenty more to divert them in times of boredom than I ever did - including the internet.

While the internet has opened up a whole world of possibility and there is undoubtedly some wonderful content available for children, we shouldn't kid ourselves that the online world is any safer than real life.

It's absolutely vital we give children the tools and knowledge to keep themselves safe.

Dangers lurk on the internet just as they do in the real world and at Barnardo's we know first-hand how children are particularly at risk of online grooming and sexual exploitation.

In 2016-17, Barnardo’s supported 3,430 people through its child sexual exploitation support services, an increase of 38% on the previous year.

A survey of our specialist child sexual exploitation services last year showed how nearly two thirds of children groomed online who were referred to us were sexually exploited after meeting the attacker they met online.

Children's internet use has reached record highs, with five-15 year-olds spending around 15 hours each week online and now 90% of households in Great Britain have internet access.

And the rise of smartphone and tablet use means that children's relationships are now increasingly conducted online, often unchaperoned and hidden from view.

Children can be exposed to more adult content and inappropriate behaviour, which might lead to a lack of understanding about healthy relationships and can ultimately leave children vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse.

Children are very susceptible to being groomed online and then sexually abused offline. What starts as an innocent and harmless chat in their bedrooms can very quickly develop into a dangerous relationship with devastating consequences.

And we're not talking about stereotypical vulnerable victims either; anyone's child with access to mobile technology can be groomed and exploited.

The news this week that the National Crime Agency has identified another 110 victims in the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal keeps the issue fresh in the public’s consciousness.

Awareness like this – and work in schools - will help to keep children safe and protect them from the devastating damage that our experts see first-hand as they support vulnerable children and help them to rebuild their shattered lives.

But parents need to be part of the solution too. It's crucial they make their children aware of the dangers online and explain how they can keep themselves safe.

As a father of four these dangers concern me and as parents we must all try to better understand the mobile technology our children use and what they are using it for.

This is why the Dare2Care website is so welcome as the knowledge it contains will help parents and professionals recognise signs of abuse in their children sooner.

Parents need to talk to their children about relationships and help them to understand the implications of sending explicit material by explaining that nothing they want kept private should be sent by text message or posted online.

Parents can equip themselves with the knowledge to start having these conversations with their children by reading Barnardo's Be Safe Guide – which is handily hosted right here on the Dare2Care website.

They might be different from the stranger danger talks and 'home by tea time' decrees my parents issued when I was young but the world has moved on since then.