Today I received a message from a good friend who has children asking for some advice. The contents of her message would probably shock many people, but unfortunately it's something that I am all to aware of in one form or another.
As you can see, the actions of the unknown individual in this instance caused a child to physically harm themselves, not to mention the probable harm to their mental health going forward. In this case my advice was to report it to the police as they of course have legal avenues available to them which could result in identifying the individual.
For me though this highlights an area which I spend a lot of time educating parents on and will try to use this article to do so in an attempt to reach a greater audience, through the positive power of social media that does also exist.
So a little background for those who don't know me. I served 22 years in the RAF Police and got to see some lovely parts of the world and also some not so lovely parts of the world. On the whole I enjoyed much of that time, growing up I had always been a bit of a geek and was very fortunate to land a role in Digital Forensics & Incident Response for my last tour (You can read more on that journey here). I may not have been fortunate to have children of my own but there are children I love and care about so suffice to say I have a vested interest in this subject and anything that surrounds it. Having been exposed to analysing the end result of where activity such as this can eventually lead to, I want to do as much as possible in trying to stop it at source, before evil can get it's hooks into the most vulnerable individuals in our lives, the children.
I'm not a young man anymore but I still remember my dad sitting me down when I was about 8 or 9 and having a talk with me about 'Stranger Danger' not talking to strangers, not accepting sweets from them or getting into a car with them. All very sensible advice and definitely advice that is still good in todays world! But I honestly believe many parents are unaware of the modern stranger danger that exists, whether thats because they genuinely don't care or because they dont understand the internet and the technology that exists today, I can only help to combat the latter of those attitudes by trying to educate, through activities like this. In the modern technological world we now find ourselves in those strangers can portray themselves as any other 12 year old boy or girl, into all the same activities and have the same likes as our children and they can spend months getting to know that child, grooming them and earning their trust, right up until the point where your child gets up in the middle of the night, leaves the house and never returns. Now that might be hard reading, but it is the watered down version of what can happen because I don't physically or mentally have it in me to write what happens next. I make no apologies though for making you switch on and imagine what's next, because you should have these thoughts in your mind to help you to protect your child.
In many cases your child is far smarter than you when it comes to technology and probably very good at hiding activities from you, if you arent paying attention to them and in some cases even if you are. I want to take some time to go identify some of the apps to be wary of and also some of the more common techniques for hiding activity. I will also touch on some ways that you can monitor your childs activities.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but is a good visual identifier for those apps which could be exposing your child to sexual predators on the interent or even cyber bullying from other children in their social circles.
It is useful knowing these apps and discussing them with your child to ensure they are using them responsibly and are fully aware of the dangers that they could be exposed to by using them.
Its worth noting here that you may well be very aware that your child has an instagram or facebook account and maybe you are also very attentive to the activity taking place on there, you are a friend on their account and keep a close eye on what they post, this is all very responsible activity for which you are to be commended, but its also worth considering, do they have a second account? one you are not aware of, or have visibility of? It is a commonplace technique that young people are using these days to keep certain activity private and away from parental eyes. This is where it can become difficult for parents who genuinely care about what their child is doing online and something I will try to cover shortly.
So how can you monitor what your child is doing online on their smartphone or tablet? There are various ways you can try to do this and they range from simple to complicated, but by complicated I dont mean in a technical way, but you will see what I mean.
- Putting a simple set of rules in place will certainly be a good starting point. People can only be added as friends when you have been included in that process and they have explained that they personally know the friend. You are also a friend on their account and can see any activity that is posted. You know their password for the account and they are aware that you will have visibility of any chats on there.
- Making sure that the permissions on each of these apps are locked down as much as possible so that they are not exposed to strangers. There are many good tutorials online about how to do this by using a simple google search, but if you are at all in doubt feel free to reach out to me.
- Only allowing them to use their devices downstairs in the home and the device gets left downstairs when not in use, eg. they go to bed in the evening.
- Simply sitting down with the child and giving them the 'Stranger Danger' chat and including the modern day twist to that tale. Many children are intelligent and just need the information and to know that you care and why you are concerned. Some will of course still not care and will be succeptible to the dangers going forward. This is where it gets complicated as I said before.
I am not here to discuss the ethics of trust and privacy with regards to your own children but I am going to offer advice that you can either take or leave. There are apps available that will allow you to monitor your childs online activity, messaging and even physical location. I am not going to recommend apps but just making you aware there are some very good solutions available which are generally paid for and provided by well known anti virus vendors.
My own opinion on the matter, having been exposed to the imagery I have, is that privacy and trust needs to be earned by children and we are there to protect them from the very worst that the world has to offer, but this is a decision you need to make and now at least you have some of the information available to you to make that decision.
I hope that this article has been of some use and I am always available should you want to reach out for a chat or advice as I am never too busy to help protect children! Please share this article far and wide amongst your network to help spread a very important message.
Some useful links to resources of information will follow: