Sophie Ballinger, Eureka! Web & Media Manager

By Sophie Ballinger, Eureka! Web & Media Manager

The internet is a truly amazing resource with information, entertainment, and more photos of cats than you can shake a stick at, quite literally at our fingertips. But with such free flow of information comes potential risk, especially when our children are increasingly going online for their school-work, entertainment and socialising.

Technology – the Eureka! approach

At Eureka! our general approach to technology and social media is based on recognising how both of these have now become an intrinsic part of our everyday lives, and particularly for children who grow up from birth with an almost intuitive understanding of how to make the most of it.  In our museum however we make no apology for taking a light touch approach to technology – in all of our six galleries for the simple reason that we want to promote and encourage play between children and parents without the distractions of smartphones, tablets and other interactive tools.  Technology in our museum is only used in instances where it can proactively inspire focused creativity and exploration and add value to the experience.

That said, we are acutely aware that technology has the potential to saturate every waking hour and minute of young children’s lives.  And here in the UK we are ahead of global trends when it comes to our children’s online activities. In September 2011 the London School of Economics (LSE) published the findings of its EU Kids Online survey, which involved interviewing more than 25,000 children across 25 countries. The LSE survey found that, on average, UK children spend 102 minutes online every day (much higher than the EU average of 88 minutes), and that the age that most children start using the internet is 8 years old, putting UK children amongst the youngest in Europe (and, in all likelihood, the world) when they first go online unsupervised.

Safer Internet Day 2013

Whilst it’s easy to say that many risks existed for children long before we communicated by fax, let alone email, internet scare-stories could make even the most laid-back of parents consider locking up their laptops the moment their child starts to read. But the opportunities for online education and social development really do outweigh the risks, and there are steps you can take to keep your little ones safe whilst negotiating the online world… So, as we mark Safer Internet Day on 5 February, what should parents be doing?

Boy & girl using a laptop1. Get involved in your child’s online activities

It may sound obvious, but just as Eureka! encourages children to explore and discover the real world in our museum galleries, the best way to teach your child how to behave in the online realm is to show them. Especially with younger children, it’s really worth spending time online with them.

Look at some of the popular children’s sites such as Club Penguin and Moshi Monsters. These sites are designed to be fun, but also as a training environment for children before they start using the main social networks. Children can’t communicate via private messages on these sites, and parents need to register the accounts on behalf of their children.

2. Use online protection tools

Many sites recommend placing your PC in a shared area of the house, but with use of laptops and smartphones on the increase this advice is increasingly outdated and unrealistic for many. Instead, all major browsers include parental safe controls and you can set up safe searches on Google and other popular searching engines. There are a number of child-friendly search engines around too, such as Ask Kids or Yahoo Kids, which you could set up as your homepage to ensure that the starting point for any online activities is child-friendly.

3. Set up parental control software

It might even be worth considering setting up parental control software on any computers that your children use. The software doesn’t have to cost you a penny – the PC Advisor website has this list of the five best, free, parental control programmes.

4. Set clear rules

Sit down with your child and agree some clear rules with them before letting them use the internet un-supervised. Some of the rules suggested by the website Kidshealth are:

  • Never trade personal photographs online.
  • Never reveal personal information, such as address, phone number, or school name or location.
  • Never agree to meet anyone from a chat room in person.
  • Always tell a grown up about any communication or conversation that was scary.

Many sites suggest banning the use of online chatrooms, but it is inevitable that many children will encounter them in some form, and with more than 1/3 of EU children admitting to sometimes ignoring what their parents had said about their online usage the best approach is to talk honestly and openly about these rooms, some of the risks, and reinforcing your rules.

5. Report anything suspicious

If you fear for the safety of your child there are rules in place to protect them. The fact is that often adults and other children get away with unacceptable online behaviour simply because they are never reported. The most popular social networks have “report” functions – whether it is reporting spammers, bullying or predatory behaviour – so use them!

More great online resources for parents:

This blog also appeared as a column in the Friday 15 February edition of the Halifax Courier.

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