Subscriber OnlyYour Family

Children and smartphones: How to protect and guide them from bullying, phishing and grooming

How can parents best guide their children and keep them safe from many different types of harm when the threat is right in front of them in their own home?

The continual rise of cybercrime against children across the globe has shown they are routinely targeted with phishing, grooming and attempts at fraud. Tech companies are struggling to safeguard users against rapidly moving cybercrimes as technology continues to evolve at a swift rate. With cybercrime apparently constantly on the rise and more children having access to devices, parents need to be vigilant in protecting children when they are on smartphones, tablets and consoles.

So how best can a parent guide their children and keep them safe when the threat is in the palm of their hand? “Approach the online world in the same way you approach the offline world,” says Philip Arneill, head of education and innovation at CyberSafeKids. “Parents would never dream of sending their kids out of the house without knowing where they were going and who they were meeting, and the same rules should apply when it comes to being online.”

Children today are often confident about how to interact with the online world and about their skills and knowledge in staying safe online. However, they are targeted in many different ways online, and understanding the risks involved will help a parent implement the house rules on devices. Exploiting popular games, mimicking others, and targeting children with cheats and mods for games can open up a device to significant threat.

Online grooming, manipulation and bullying of children have resulted in a disturbing increase in the sharing of images and private information, putting children heavily at risk. Protecting children from various cybercrimes is linked to maintaining the rules around the use of devices and encouraging and instilling good online practice.


“It’s important to make sure children understand what to do if they’re contacted online by people they don’t know through games or social media apps,” says Arneill. “Keep a close eye on followers lists, and as a non-negotiable rule, only accept follow or friend requests from people that you know in the offline world. If you get abusive or inappropriate messages, understand how to block and report them to the social media platforms that you are using.”

Arneill continues with his advice for children who love gaming. “Set payment rules and make sure they never have unsupervised access to a credit card. Sometimes, payment details may be stored within apps or games, so it’s important to make sure that that’s not the case and that spending limits are agreed, or, children need to ask permission before buying anything online.

“There should never be any reason for children to give away sensitive personal information online and if prompted [and it is appropriate] to do so, always choose to submit an email address over a phone number. Open and trusting ongoing dialogue about your children’s online life will allow them to come to you quickly and without fear of punishment when they encounter challenges online.”

Teaching children how to safely partake in the online world is a fine balance of protecting them without frightening them. Arneill says to “use common sense and make analogies with the offline world. Ask children questions such as: What would you do if a stranger approached you in the park and asked you for a picture? If you stopped in the street and someone began talking to you, would you tell them your full name and date of birth? What would happen if you went to the cinema to watch an 18-rated film? Usually when you pose these kinds of questions, children laugh or are horrified at the very thought, because they’re taught in school about the importance of not trusting everyone they meet and ‘stranger danger’.

“The threat of inappropriate content and contact increases infinitely online, so by making these analogies, it’s possible to teach children that the common-sense approach they need to take to life offline should be exactly the same one they take when it comes to online life. This is the fundamental message for parents and children of our very successful Same Rules Apply campaign.”

There are always benefits to technology, but Arneill highlights a few simple things children can be aware of when online:

· Strong passwords are the most basic means of protecting personal information and accounts. Use multi-factor authentication on email and banking apps.

· Make sure you know who is following your accounts and seeing what you are posting.

· Don’t accept follow or friend requests from anyone you don’t know in the offline world.

· Think carefully before you post.

· Make sure your location settings are switched off on all your devices. If you’re posting pictures of your family online, remember that unless you switch off your location settings, images can be geotagged and traced to a geographical location, so it’s a good idea, particularly if you’re sharing in real time, to be aware of this and not inadvertently breach your (or other’s) right to privacy and protection of personal information.

· Don’t click or open any suspicious links for content that you receive. If you receive unsolicited emails, always check the sender’s address, even if it looks like a trusted source, and never, ever, click on any links.

· If you get into trouble, something goes wrong, or you just need help and advice, always ask a trusted adult. Hiding these things will only make them worse.

Read more from our screentime series here.