This morning I packed MiniMe off to her first day of secondary school. She looked so grown up in her slightly-too-big uniform and the maturing process seems to have happened overnight.
In fact it’s probably been accelerating over the last few months and it’s mostly down to one thing – her Blackberry.
Before she got it in May she mooched about the house, sometimes getting together with her friend down the road if she was in, the odd sleepover and many utterances of ‘I’m bored’ mixed in with reading, watching telly and stints on MovieStar Planet.
Then she got her Blackberry Curve (in ice blue, natch) and suddenly the house is full of nattering girls, there are reciprocal sleepovers every weekend and BBM is never silent till bedtime. They can mobilise within minutes to go for a bike ride or head to the park whereas before it was a herculean task to get three of them together in the one place. WW2 really would have been over by Christmas had the Brits been armed with instant messaging.
HimIndoors and I discussed the pros and cons of getting the phone for a long time before I succumbed to an offer from 3 that was better than the PAYG text and calls only phone she had been using.
I have heard people criticise parents for letting their children have smart phones too young but the only qualms I had were that she might run up expensive bills but the contract warns her when she’s reaching her text, calls or download limits and she can only total £12 a month. I am not overly worried about her being online.
Why? Because I trust her and she trusts me.
Over the last few years at work I’ve done a few presentations about internet safety and I’m guessing the best way to make our kids safe online is to make ourselves safe first. I reckon the more parents there are on Facebook, the safer a place it will be.
I started MiniMe online when she was three on Cbeebies. She sat on my knee and we did everything together. By the time she was five she was navigating round the site pretty much on her own but the computer was where I could see the screen.
From there she progressed to the Barbie site. This site lets you ‘talk’ to other Barbie girls in a virtual Barbie world but only using a set of pre-determined phrases – there was no free text. It was using Barbie that we both learned the lesson about not sharing passwords. She shared it with her best friend who wasn’t a VIP but she really hacked off MiniMe by moving all her virtual furniture around and dressing her avatar in clothes that didn’t even match! She’s never shared a password since, except with me. This was also the site where I explained that the 12-year-old girl from Florida she was ‘talking’ to could just as likely be a 53-year-old man sitting in a house in Helensburgh. She got the message.
From Barbie she moved on to Stardoll, Moshi Monsters and Bin Weevils. Stardoll was the steepest learning curve but the one that showed we were both getting it right.
On Stardoll you can instant message other VIPs using free text and they appear like email. One night she got a message and came to me immediately because, although she didn’t understand the message she knew it wasn’t right. The sentence included just about every swear word I could think of but it didn’t make sense – it looked like a child was just repeating random swear words it had heard. I decided we would block him/her but by the time we’d worked out how, they’d already been blocked as he’d sent the same message to numerous people. That little episode put her off Stardoll for two weeks but she went back on a little bit wiser.
By this time we’d already been through the rules about not sharing any personal information with anyone online, even if you think you know them. I gave her the example of my old Hotmail account getting hacked and the hackers sending an email to all my contacts about me being mugged and stranded in Belfast with no money and could they wire £400 to pay a hotel bill. No one fell for it but it was a good example for her.
Now we’re onto MovieStar Planet. Before she got her Blackberry she used to ask for a Facebook account and I always refused, even though her friends all had them. We still go on sometimes to see how unsecure their accounts are, to look at the dodgy photos they’re posting and the inappropriate language they’re using. She even gets how bad that would all look to a teacher or a future employer if they stumbled upon it. However, now she has her Blackberry she’s not interested in Facebook.
I’m not saying that she’ll never get herself into trouble online – just look at the number of professional social media users who slip up now and again. But I can say hand on heart that I have tried to equip her for a life online as best I can. Some of that has been to teach myself so I can teach her. But the most important thing has been to keep communication open. She knows she can come to me about anything and she won’t be in trouble, I won’t take away her internet access and it won’t be her fault if she’s stuck to the rules.
We don’t let our kids loose on the road without teaching them some road sense so why do we let them loose on the internet with smart phones and laptops in their rooms without a second thought?
Enough ranting, here’s my eight-step programme to making our kids safe online:
- start them young on sites with no messaging
- keep the computer somewhere with passing traffic until you’re confident they know what they’re doing
- don’t assume that what they’re being taught at school is up-to-date – at one talk I went to they hadn’t heard of Google hacking and how it can get you past security settings
- make sure that you’re being as safe as possible online
- young people experiment with identity all the time and the internet is just another place to do it – don’t try to prevent them being there
- keep communication open
- teach your child some critical thinking – the books in a library have been handpicked as suitable by experts, online content often hasn’t
- the internet and social media are a necessity for life at university and work these days so it’s best for them to learn how to use them properly
pipl.com – search on your child’s/own name every now and again to see what’s out there about you
www.thinkyouknow.com – age-appropriate internet safety games devised by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre
http://www.googleguide.com/ – how to use Google for novices, experts and teens
I am available to give the internet safety talk . . .