12 questions answered about parenting in the digital age Top tips for successful online parenting

Vicki Shotbolt ParentZoneBeing online is a huge part of children and young people's lives. But with technology changing all the time and new apps, games and networks becoming popular every day it can be difficult to keep up. Whether you're worried your child knows more than you, or you're comfortable with new technology it can be hard to know what to do to help keep your child safe online.

We asked parenting expert Vicki Shotbolt, founder of The Parent Zone, for her top tips for successful online parenting.

"Digital parenting isn't different to offline parenting in lots of ways. What can be tricky is that the online world is often hidden from view. Sadly, children don't enjoy the same protection online as they do offline."
Vicki Shotbolt / Founder of the Parent Zone

How can parents overcome challenges?

"Treat the online world in much the same way as you'd treat the offline world. You wouldn't let your child leave the house unless you knew where they were going, for example. You should apply the same thinking online. So ask your child:

  • where they go online
  • who they chat to
  • who gets in touch with them
  • what they do online.

Don't make it a 'special' conversation. Just ask as often as you would if you were talking about the offline world."

How can parents support their children to use social networks safely and responsibly?

"Managing friendships and dealing with relationships can be tricky no matter how old you are. Social networks can make it so much more complicated.

There are some basic rules you should discuss with your children such as:

  • treating people online in the same way as you would face-to-face
  • remembering that privacy controls are there for a reason
  • talk about what they should share, and what they might want to keep private
  • show how things like privacy tools can help.

Don't assume they know more than you - children don't always know how to use blocking and reporting tools. So it's your job to find out what the tools are on the services your children use."

boys with ipad

Where can parents find advice and support?

"Finding good advice and information is never easy. How do you know what to trust and what works? It's worth talking to your child's school – ask them to point you to good information.

"Reputable sites and service providers (like mobile phone operators) should also provide information on child safety on their websites. If they don't, you should think twice about their service. We also offer lots of further information and help at www.theparentzone.co.uk"

You've researched digital parenting - what did you discover?

"Good parenting is the single best way to keep your children safer online.

"Helping children to be resilient – able to cope with difficulties and challenges - affects how likely they are to have negative experiences online. It even affects how likely they are to benefit from the opportunities that technology can offer.

"Resilient children are more likely to set their own limits and safeguards. To do things like block users that are troubling them, or leave services that have content that upsets them."

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How should parents change their digital parenting as their child gets older?

"Responding to your child's changing needs can be the toughest part of parenting. Finding that your teenage son or daughter would rather not talk to you about things can be hurtful. Letting them take their first independent steps – like trips to the shops – can feel terrifying.

"What's important is to remember that good parenting is about unconditional support and love. You don't have to know everything they're doing to still be the major influence in their life.

"Children need to develop their independence, take risks and find their own ways to cope with things. There comes a point when it isn't possible to keep track of what your child does online. You'll be relying on things you taught them early on, and doing everything you can to make sure they know you're there if they need you."

mother and boy with games console

What's the best age to start having conversations about online safety with children?

"There isn't a 'best age' to start talking about staying safe online any more than there is about staying safe in the real world.

"From the moment you start to interact with your child around technology you should be thinking about them using it safely."

"From the moment you start to interact with your child around technology you should be thinking about them using it safely. When they're very young that might mean telling them not to click on anything without showing you first. As they get older you'll be able to explain more complicated things."

What advice would you give parents whose child got their first tablet or smartphone?

"Your child's first tablet or smartphone gives you a great opportunity. You can sit together and decide which controls you're going to set up. You can make sure you feel confident that they're ready to explore the online world on a very personal device.

"Talk to them about which apps they can download, how you're going to manage costs and what they should do if they see something that upsets them."

"Whatever you do, don't be tempted to just hand it over in the box. Get involved in the setup because once it's done the opportunity's gone."

Broadband providers now offer free parental controls. Is it worth setting these up?

"Each family has to decide for themselves whether it's right to use filters. It will depend on the age of their children, and how they choose to manage the content that comes into their homes.

"Broadband filters are easy to setup and give you the confidence that some content will be blocked at source. That can be particularly comforting for families with younger children – but it's important to remember that filters are only one part of a parent's online safety toolkit.

"Filters, for example, only block the content coming into your home – they don't help at all when your child is out and about."

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How do parents with children of different ages, all sharing the same tablet, manage what each child sees?

"Families sharing technology means that setting up controls can be a bit of a challenge. However, there are some simple things you can think about that will help.

"Some tablets allow you to create different user profiles. If you're buying a tablet for children to share, that's one of the first things to check for.

"Of course, it means you'll need to encourage your children to log in, and out, of their profile. They'll be more willing to do this if they feel they have ownership of their profile. Get them to think about it like a diary: their place to keep the things they like, rather than something that's simply an annoying step with a password."

What support can parents expect from their child's school if things go wrong online?

"Schools deal differently to issues that happen online, compared to issue offline. This is because unlike offline issues, it isn't always clear if online issues start in, or out, of school.

"Parents and schools need to work together to keep children safe. This means parents should expect clear policies and responses to issues. It isn't enough for a school to pass issues back to parents and equally, parents should expect to be kept informed."

girl on tablet

How can parents keep up to date with what their children are doing online?

"Staying up to date with the online world is almost impossible. But that doesn't mean parents should give up. The best way to stay up to date is simply to ask.

"Ask about their online lives as often as you do their offline lives – and talk to their friends and their friends' parents as well.

"The internet won't be a mystery if you show an interest and let your children show you what they like. Just remember not to criticise it too much. It is their culture and every generation needs something different."

... And finally, if a parent only had 5 minutes to keep their child safe online, what would you recommend?

"The most useful thing a parent can do in 5 minutes is to ask the who, where and what question, and listen really carefully to the answers:

  • where do they go online?
  • who do they chat to?
  • who gets in touch with them?
  • what do they do online?"

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