For many families, the milestone of their kids beginning another school year is commemorated with photographs of them dressed in pressed uniforms, shoes shiny and new, beaming out the front of their home or school.
But this seemingly innocent rite of passage was the subject of a warning by the federal police’s Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation for parents to be mindful about sharing kids’ details and school locations, and to check their privacy settings on devices, because even “innocent photos” have been used by child sex offenders targeting children.
When it comes to online safety, however, the first-day-of-school snap isn’t the only concern.
Older children are spending more time online across multiple devices and apps used for school and play, making them even more susceptible to the various dangers lurking on the internet. Stephen Kho, a cybersecurity expert at Avast, says parents must be aware of “how scammers and other online dangers can be present across commonly used applications”.
“High school is when many kids get access to social media,” he explains. “Instagram, TikTok and Discord require users to be at least 13 years of age, so 11- and 12-year-olds are going to want to get on there with their older friends, too.
“By being aware of the applications their children are using, parents and guardians can have conversations with their children and provide guidance on protecting their privacy, staying safe and respectfully engaging with others.”
Kho suggests parents make cybersecurity a regular topic of conversation at home, discussing topics such as what constitutes personal information and who that should be shared with, how sensitive data stays online for a long time, the risks of talking to strangers, and the importance of recognising when they are not treated well and speaking up about it.
Creating an atmosphere that enables them to be comfortable in those conversations is imperative.
“It is important that parents are having online safety chats with their kids and the specifics of what to include in [those] conversations are going to depend on their age, maturity level and your own knowledge of what they need,” he explains. “Ask them if they have seen any funny viral videos they can share with you. The point of these questions is to show your child that you are interested in their digital world.”
It can be challenging for parents to control or even understand some of the apps their kids use, but it’s important in order to make informed decisions about what their children are exposed to. According to Kho, any apps that include chat features between strangers can easily be a scam scenario.
“It’s possible for scammers to impersonate peers to attempt to gain personal information or private images and videos which can lead to cyberbullying, online coercion or blackmail,” he says.
Parents and guardians must know what apps young people are most likely to be on. Aside from TikTok and Instagram, there’s a host of growing mobile and PC apps for messaging, gaming, photograph-sharing and livestreaming attracting young people across the world.
Improving your digital literacy can go a long way in safely managing online life. Kho recommends setting up firm foundations around app and software use, the use of strong passwords and the installation (and regular updating) of comprehensive anti-virus software. Understanding how phishing works is also important.
“The internet provides children with a wide range of opportunities for social connection, self-expression, learning and entertainment and it’s never too early to talk to your kids about how to use devices and apps safely,” he says.
“There is a wealth of online safety material for parents available which can [help] parents with children of any age to be more prepared in protecting their family online.”
• Sarah Ayoub is a journalist, academic and author of books for young adults and children