Keeping children safe online and in the real world

Recently, in a quiet Yorkshire village, a car with three young men pulled up along an 11-year child. She was out walking her dog near her home after a difficult day at her new secondary school. She was dressed in a pink jacket decorated with unicorns, and sparkly leggings. She was carrying her favourite cuddly toy. She was singing to make herself feel better.

The front seat of the car was empty, with two of the males in the back. The driver got out and approached the girl. He said that he had heard her singing. He said she was amazing, that his dad was an agent, and his mother was a vocal coach. He told the girl to get in the car, saying he could teach her some techniques to improve her voice and that he could get her on the X Factor.

What would your child do in these circumstances? Would they get in the car? How as parents and carers can we help to keep our children safe?

Think about everything that we already do to keep our children safe. We teach them how to cross the road safely.  We teach them table manners, personal hygiene, how to ride a bike, how to read and write, how to have a healthy lifestyle. We help with homework (now there is a challenge!) Teaching them how to be safe in the online and real world doesn’t have to be daunting. Here are 5 simple things you can do to keep your child safe:

  1. Talk to your child. From an early age, think about how you can make them aware of risks they might face in a way that doesn’t frighten them. There are plenty of resources out there to help you in doing this. The NSPCC Pants campaign is an excellent example of a very simple way for children to protect themselves against sexual abuse. I designed games and quizzes to do with my children and made it a fun activity. I talked through different scenarios with them so they always had a toolkit of responses to draw upon if they ever felt threatened. And when they got older they started sharing ideas and resources with me.
  2. When your child starts accessing the internet, don’t assume that they are safe because school have held an online safety talk, or because they are upstairs in their room. Make sure that they are aware of simple safety tips, such what images they shouldn’t upload or share; not using their real names online or their images as profile pictures; not accessing apps such as Instagram until they are at the recommended age; not giving away personal information; how to deal with aggressive or upsetting behaviour; and being cautious about friend or follow requests from people they don’t know. If you are one of the many parents who feels out of their depth when it comes to the internet, technology and social media, find out about the free events running in your area or available online. Most of these will take place at your local library, or they will be able to point you in the right direction. Online, CEOP Think u Know and UK Safer Internet Centre are great places to start. Vodaphone’s Digital Parenting is also a great regular newsletter full of up to date information and useful tips.
  3. When your child starts venturing out on their own, make sure you know where they are and who they are going to be with. Give them tips on how to keep safe. Ask them what they would do in certain situations and talk through the best way to respond. This could be what to say when they are in a tricky situation; sending a coded text message to you which means they need help; always having their phones charged (and knowing that even if they are out of credit or have no mobile phone signal, they can still make emergency calls); not getting too close to a parked car where a driver or passenger is asking for something; and trusting their instincts. Don’t assume one conversation is enough. Share stories you have seen in the news and ask them what they would do in those situations. Keep it on the agenda.
  4. Make yourself approachable and able to talk about anything your child asks you. Some of their questions will probably make your toes curl with embarrassment. But consider this, if you don’t answer them, then who will? Don’t forget children have the internet at their fingertips and anything you won’t or don’t talk about, they will look up online. And which sites will they be looking at or stumbling upon? Not ones you would ever want them to be accessing.
  5. Don’t exclude boys. They need answers and guidance too. The world is just as confusing and dangerous for them. They need to understand those risks and what to do in situations, otherwise you are communicating to them an expectation that they can and should be able to take care of themselves. That will make them more vulnerable, and less likely to tell you if anything does happen or worries them.

Most important all children need clear guidance on how to be respectful, loving and caring in relationships and never to see grooming, coercion or manipulation as some sort of game or acceptable behaviour. Don’t assume your child will automatically understand what a healthy relationship looks like. Did you when you were their age?

And in case you are wondering, the child in this case is safe and well. She had a mother who talked to her about risks, and what to do in situations exactly like these. She remembered and followed that advice. She made the boys in the car understand that she was not going to go with them without a fight, and that she was not an easy or low risk target. She is one of the lucky ones. Other children would have climbed right into that front seat. Please make sure your child isn’t one of them.