I have a good friend who’s 11 year-old daughter (yes, below the permitted Facebook age) was befriended by someone who’s entire profile consisted of Simpson characters. She loves the Simpsons, and went along with this Facebook friendship. They chatted online. They messaged each other. They posted to each other’s walls.

Then, he suggested that they should meet.

At this point as my friend recounted this story to me, my heart skipped a beat. If you’re like most parents I know, your heart probably just did the same. We’ve all heard about children meeting strangers who they thought were other 12 year-olds, but turned out to be 30 year-olds with less than friendly intent. Those episodes rarely turn out well and fuel our concerns about internet safety.

What are the lessons I take from this as the eldest two of my four children approach the age of social networks?

It’s not that I need to keep them off the networks.

We are bamboozled with articles, like this recent one published in the UK with titles like “How to protect your children from the internet”, and which make proclamations on our behalf such as “the number-one thing we’re trying to protect them from [is] technology”.

I don’t think that kind of language is helpful. Online social networks will form a much bigger part of our children’s lives than they do our own. Yes, even more than the Instagram frenzied crowds at school events. They will be a very significant part of our children’s educational and professional lives. As they grow up, our children need to understand how they work, their strengths and their limitations. They need to use the internet and age-appropriate social networks alongside their peers. That’s why I really dislike the terminology used by well-meaning articles like the above (even though they actually contain some good advice). They take valid fear about internet safety, blow them up out of all proportion, and make social networks an evil that we need to pull out our jousts, mount our horses and go to battle with.

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The internet is not something our children should be protected from – it’s one of many essential resources for life that they need to learn to use alongside all the others. Learning to use it includes learning how NOT to use it.

What does that mean in practice?

8 Internet Safety Tips for Children

  1. Don’t leave your children unmonitored on the internet in their early interactions. Look over their shoulders, check their history. Let them know you’re doing it and why.
  2. At home, keep computers and tablets in open spaces, like the living room or kitchen. Don’t let your kids disappear to their bedroom with your (their?) smartphone, tablet or laptop for hours on end. Set an example by not doing this yourself.
  3. Have no devices available for them to use at bedtime. TVs in the bedroom for our generation was a terrible idea for kids; today the same is true of internet devices. They will stay up far longer than they should, and will not get the sleep they need.
  4. Agree which sites are allowed and which aren’t. And why. Thinking through the why will help you find your line between being over-protective and looking out for your kids. Find sites that they like and which you’re OK for them to use; if they have somewhere good to go, it’ll help them not go places you’d rather they didn’t. Check age restrictions on any social networks they want to use. And if you’re looking at social networks, make sure you read this Parent’s Guide to Social Media by Stark Raving Mad Mommy (@starkravingmadM)
  5. Use child-protection software on the devices your children use most often. There are free as well as paid software applications to do this.

These next 3 guidelines are the most important. It’s naive to think you’ve got your kids protected, even if your laptop is nailed to the kitchen table with child-filters installed and an armed platoon of internet-child-protection marines stationed behind them ready to blat any miscreants up Beelzebub’s non-speaking .

Your kids will access the internet in all kinds of places where you will have no control. They need to be armed with their own protection mechanisms, and understand the rules and the consequences of not following them.

In the same breath, accept that even arming them with the knowledge of how to use the Internet and Social Networks, there’s probably still going to be a gap between what they know (and what they tell you they do), and what they actually do. It’s as true of the physical world as it is of the virtual one. So do make sure they know what to do, but be vigilant as they will test (and occasionally completely blow) the boundaries online as much as they will elsewhere.


  1. Explain how to avoid danger. That they shouldn’t share where they live, what school they go to, what clubs they attend and so on. Let them know why – they will more likely remember (and follow) the rules if they know why they’re there.
  2. Explain how to deal with dangers online. That means what to look out for and what to do if they feel the slightest danger (simple rule – tell mum or dad whenever anyone wants to meet you in the real world or if you see something inappropriate).
  3. As they get to the right age (which is usually before you think they do), explain what’s appropriate to share and what’s not. Especially with regards to photos and videos. Explain that posting rude stuff, which includes sexting on WhatsApp, is actually illegal and could get them in trouble with the police.

So what happened with my friend’s daughter? Being rather street-wise, she said that she would only meet if her father could come. At which point, the ‘friend’ started to suggest why it might not be great to bring dad, as he’d really like to kiss her, and dad might not approve. Heart missed a beat again. Thankfully, she then told dad about the dialogue and the authorities were alerted. As soon as the ‘friend’ got a whiff of parental involvement, he closed his account and disappeared into the ether, never to be found.

I’m over the moon that my friend’s daughter is safe.

But I hate that the predator got away. Especially because he probably has dozens of other accounts that are still prowling. And someone else’s child may not be as sensible or well-informed as my friend’s.

What I find disgusting about the story with my friend’s daughter is the same as what every parent would. But the lesson we should take away from this is not that we should keep children off social networks. Unless of course they are below age restrictions (13 for Facebook). Rather, we need to educate them on internet safety, make sure we spend the time helping them understand the risks and limitations, and what to do when in doubt.

It’s wonderful that this young girl had the presence of mind not to follow the 20% of children online who’ve gone to see someone that they’d only met online (though a proportion did go with their parents), and that she told dad and got him involved. If only every child were so savvy.

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