A parent’s guide to children and the Internet

From primary school to the teen years - how to deal with screen time, the internet and gaming

A parent’s guide to children and the Internet

When you were little there was probably just one screen in the entire house – the tv.

It's a far cry from today when the average British family has eight screens around the house – and kids use them for everything from homework to organising their social lives.

The result is that, according to watchdog Ofcom, children under three spend three hours a day onscreen, rising to four hours for five to eleven-year-olds and six-and-a-half hours for teens.

Safer Internet Day lands on the 5th February, and is a good reminder that adults need to be vigilant about their childrens' use of phones, ipads, laptops, and other streaming devices.

So now web-based gadgets are part of our children’s lives, how can parents make sure the pros always outweigh the cons?

Tanith Carey is an author and writer of six parenting books including Mum Hacks, Girls, Uninterrupted, Where’s my little girl gone? How to be an Amazing Mum and Taming the Tiger Parent.

From interactive games played by five year olds to the dreaded social media apps beloved by teens, these are her tips on monitoring that internet exposure...

Age 5 to 7

What they’re into: YouTube Kids, CBBC games

Little ones may be a dab hand at using tablets and smartphones, which they love for interactive games. But it’s never too early to introduce limits. Throughout our children’s lives, there will be stuff we don't want them to see.

The good news is that internet service providers are now doing much more to help parents prevent children wandering across anything inappropriate or upsetting.

Over the last few years, the big four, TalkTalk, BT, Sky and Virgin have made it easy to control all the devices in your home at your router, the point at which the internet comes into your home. You can now switch on settings which close down the internet at the same time each night, as well as block social media networks during homework time, which will be useful later on.

One of the fastest growing trends for little ones is the YouTube Kids app. This helps because you can create play-lists of kids’ favourite programmes and there’s also a timer so they don’t spend too long watching. It’s reassuring too that they can’t stray into unsuitable territory and there won’t be any nasty comments underneath videos.

At this age, websites like CBBC Games are safe introductions to social networking because they are carefully moderated to block inappropriate use; games that encourage kids to create include Minecraft, LittleBigPlanet and LegoWorlds.

Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet International told Good Living: ‘This is the shallow end of the internet where children can learn the rules. At this age, you don't need to alarm little ones about the nastier things they might come across'.

He explains ‘Instead explain there’s stuff out there that’s "not meant for them" and to tell a grown-up as soon as they see anything upsetting.’

Overall, this is an important age for kids to learn about themselves and develop social skills through play. Above all, the golden rule is not to give kids screens as pacifiers and make sure they’re spending more time playing in the real world than onscreen.

Age 8 to 11

What they’re into: WhatsApp, video games

This is the age when kids start asking for their own gadgets. But resist the pester power.

To make it easier for you to see how your kids are using the internet you could put off giving them their own devices and continue sharing devices, like tablets, for as long as possible and make a family agreement that these can only be used in the living areas of the home, and are not allowed in bedrooms. 

At this age kids can get into gaming.
 While Minecraft is a great way to stretch their imaginations because they create their own virtual worlds, remember it’s also popular with adults and bullying often breaks out when other players move in and wreck their creations.
 So at this age, tell kids to restrict to playing with their friends rather than with the wider network.

Respect video age ratings too. Children this age are not emotionally ready to deal with the extreme violence, especially now that 3D graphics are so realistic.

As kids start to wander further afield on the web, internet safety expert Will says: ‘Talk about telling. The key message is they can always come to you about what they’ve seen and they won’t get into trouble. Arm them with basic strategies too, like closing the laptop lid and turning the tablet over until they can get a grown-up.’

Most of all, stay involved. Ask them what websites they have visited that day. Make sure there’s a digital sunset in your home an hour before bedtime because screens give off blue light which tends to keep kids’ brains ticking over.

Age 11 to 16

What they’re into: Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook, Fortnite

By the time they reach secondary school, nearly eight out of ten kids have their own mobiles so that parents can keep in touch.

This is also the time of life when young people have key exams, so hold the line on electronics because over-use can damage their results. 
Set up a drop zone in the hallway where they put their phones when they come in from school until homework is done.

Now they’re using messaging apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp, sexting and cyberbullying become bigger risks.
 Remind your child of the basic principles: Be kind online. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face and once they’ve sent a message or picture, it’s out of their control.

Talk about situations they’ve heard about where people their age have been caught out sending embarrassing photos and remind them sexting is against the law.

Talk about why they will be always be safer if they adjust their device's privacy setting to friends only.

Childnet education manager, Caroline Hurst says: ‘Parents shouldn’t forget that however fast social networks change, they still have the life skills to teach kids how to use them sensibly. So feel more confident than you probably do!’

In 2017 Facebook released a new version of Facebook Messenger – Facebook Messenger Kids, which doesn't require phone numbers. Kids can only connect with parent-approved contacts and messages don't disappear so can be checked if necessary.

How much is too much?

If you find yourself saying yes to some of these questions, it may be time to re-set the limits

·     Are kids more interested in sitting alone on a tablet than seeing real friends or going out?

·     Are they getting physical problems linked to hunching over screens, like sore eyes or back pain?

·     Do they overreact when you ask them to come off their screen or lie about how much time they are online?

·     Are they losing sleep or neglecting school work to be on their devices?

We have some great interactive and creative games to keep kids occupied during agreed screen-time – just shop the range online or in store