One third of British parents spy on their kids’ internet activity as cyber-dangers replace sex and drugs as the biggest concern and one in five children admit to having ‘secret online friends’

  • Experts polled 1,007 parents and 1,000 children about the latter going online
  • Half the kids had bad reactions to their parents’ Big Brother-style surveillance
  • This, they added, made it harder to talk about the challenges they face online 
  • In fact, a third said they had made secret online accounts to avoid prying eyes 

One third of British parents spy on their kids’ internet activity as cyber-dangers have replaced sex and drugs as their biggest concern, a study has found.

However, this approach may be exacerbating the problem, with a third of children aged 11–17 reacting by creating secret social media accounts to avoid prying eyes.

A survey of 1,007 parents and 1,000 children by research firm Censuswide revealed that one-in-five of the youngsters admitted to having ‘secret online friends’.

Moreover, half of the children surveyed said that they felt both hurt when they were spied on and less able to talk to their parents about the challenges they faced online.

Parents, meanwhile, confessed to struggling to handle such issues, while 20 per cent of kids who spoke openly about cyber-bullying said that they wouldn’t again. 

Lockdown may have heightened these dangers, with families turning to the internet more and nearly half of all parents citing online time as a source of arguments.

One third of British parents spy on their kids’ internet activity due to fears around cyber-dangers. However, this may be exacerbating the problem, with a third of children aged 11–17 reacting by creating secret social media accounts to avoid prying eyes (stock image)

‘I am a firm believer that social media is not the enemy. It’s actually a fantastic platform for self-expression, creativity and development,’ said Joseph Sykora of software firm Cogenis, which specialises in machine learning and psychology.

‘Of course there are risks, but we’re doing our children a disservice by simply spying on them, because we’re not teaching them how to cope.’

‘Open, consensual communication is the key to developing a healthy and safe relationship with their online environment.’

To address the challenges that parents and children face online — and inspired by Mr Sykora’s own family’s experiences — Cogenis has developed Wing, a new artificial-intelligence powered ‘safety net’ app for parents. 

Rather than adopting a Big-Brother-style, total-surveillance approach — which they argue robs children of both their privacy and ability to ‘build up resilience to online threats’ — Wing uses AI to non-intrusively scan internet activity for the parent.

The app then only alerts caregivers when it spots something concerning — rather than sharing all of the child’s data — using ‘colours and a weather-analogy’  (e.g. red for anger) to help parents understand their kids’ online experiences.

‘Experts believe the way to protect children is to work with them, not behind their backs,’ the firm said in a press release.

‘This is why Wing has to be installed on the child’s phone with their permission, rather than a secret tool to spy on their activity without consent.’

To address the challenges that parents and children face online — and inspired by Mr Sykora’s own family’s experiences — Cogenis has developed Wing, a new artificial-intelligence powered ‘safety net’ app for parents

Rather than adopting a Big-Brother-style, total-surveillance approach — which they argue robs children of both their privacy and ability to ‘build up resilience to online threats’ — Wing uses AI to non-intrusively scan internet activity for the parent. The app then only alerts caregivers when it spots something concerning, using ‘colours and a weather-analogy’ (e.g. red for anger) to help parents understand their kids’ online experiences

‘Children don’t fully develop the prefrontal cortex — an important region for emotion regulation — until early adulthood, potentially placing them at a higher risk of being influenced by negative content,’ said Wing in-house psychologist Jessica Swainston.

‘However, restrictive parenting behaviours can lead to secrecy, and often serves the needs of the parent — not the child.’

‘It is far better to give children the technical skills needed to function in society in the digital age,’ she concluded.

 ‘Experts believe the way to protect children is to work with them, not behind their backs,’ the firm said in a press release. ‘This is why Wing has to be installed on the child’s phone with their permission, rather than a secret tool to spy on their activity without consent’

METHODS FOR PARENTS TO KEEP THEIR CHILDREN SAFE ONLINE

Children as young as two are using social media, research from charity Barnardo’s has suggested.

Internet companies are being pushed to do more to combat harmful content online but parents can also take steps to alter how their children use the web.

Here are some suggestions of how parents can help their children.

Use parental controls

Both iOS and Google offer features that enable parents to filter content and set time limits on apps.

For iOS devices, such as an iPhone or iPad, you can make use of the Screen Time feature to block certain apps, content types or functions.

On iOS 12, this can be done by going to settings and selecting Screen Time.

For Android, you can install the Family Link app from the Google Play Store.

Talk to your children

Many charities, including the NSPCC, say talking to children about their online activity is vital to keep them safe.

Its website features a number of tips on how to start a conversation with children about using social media and the wider internet, including having parents visit sites with their children to learn about them together and discussing how to stay safe online and act responsibly.

Understand their internet usage

There are tools available for parents to learn more about how social media platforms operate.

Net Aware, a website run in partnership by the NSPCC and O2, offers information about social media sites, including age requirement guidance.

Limit screen time 

The World Health Organisation recommends parents should limit young children to 60 minutes of screen time every day.

The guidelines, published in April, suggest children aged between two and five are restricted to an hour of daily sedentary screen time.

They also recommend babies avoid any sedentary screen time, including watching TV or sitting still playing games on devices.

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