Generation gap that exposes children to danger online

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Do you know enough abut social media to protect your family? They key may be to ask another teenager. Sarah Freeman reports on a new scheme launched in North Yorkshire.

Ask most people over the age of 30 to run through a list of popular social media sites and it usually won’t take long.

Without pausing for breath, Twitter will be quickly followed by Facebook, there might be a mention of YouTube, possibly LinkedIn, but the names dry up pretty quickly.

“There are dozens of sites out there, that young people are using every single day, but most parents don’t know about them,” says Katie Ward, one of the teenagers who has been helping the NSPCC and the North Yorkshire Safeguarding Children’s Board develop a new campaign to both educate parents and protect youngsters from the worst online abuse.

“I remember at one of the first meetings we had, the average age in the room was probably about 40 and beyond Facebook and Twitter no one really had any idea of what the really popular sites were,” says Katie, who is also a member of the Youth Parliament for Leeds. “It’s partly understandable. It’s such a fast moving area and social networks fall in and out of fashion, but that’s why parents need to be aware. If they don’t know what sites their children are accessing then it becomes almost impossible to ensure they are safe.”

While most schools now educate pupils about the dangers of grooming, warn against posting personal details online and take a hardline against cyber-bullying, there is no uniform approach. It was one of the reasons why the NSPCC was keen to be involved in the new e-safety campaign, which was officially launched last night.

Born out of a pilot scheme which began last summer in Hambleton and Richmondshire, the idea is to target eight to 12-year-olds as well as their parents.

“When we talked about who would have the best chance of getting the real facts about social media across to those just starting to go online, we pretty much immediately came to the conclusion that the message should come from someone nearer in age to them, someone who doesn’t scaremonger, but who just tells it like it is,” adds Katie. “Take something like Snapchat. The idea is that someone can post a message, photo or video which disappears after a few seconds. However, it is pretty easy to take a screen grab of the post, so then it becomes a permanent record.

“When I was at school there were one or two people I knew who became a victim of online bullying. In my experience these tend not to be strangers, but friends or rather people you thought were friends.”

As a result of those initial sessions the NSPCC has now produced an interactive play which will travel to a number of schools in the county, with the rest having access to a free DVD of the play. In order to complete the loop between school and home, parents are also being sent a link to a new online information leaflet which addresses a number of e-safety issues, along with tips, suggestions and further sources of help and support.

“The issue of online safety can feel daunting for parents and very different to what they experienced growing up,” says an NSPCC spokesman. “However, whether we like it or not, the internet is here to stay and will only increase in popularity and be used in more aspects of our lives.

“Being sure that online content is age appropriate can be difficult. While a curious child will always be able to search for specific topics, many inappropriate sites disguise themselves by offering free games and prizes.

“We need to make sure that parents are aware of all the parental controls which are available to them. However, unprepared parents may feel about dealing with the issue, it’s vital they talk to their children about what they do online and if something does happen the key is not to overact, but to deal with it calmly and practically.”