Many children between the ages of 14 and 18 are engaging in risky behaviour online – and while parents say they are aware of the dangers, many are doing nothing to protect their children, according to the results of a recent survey.

The MSN survey, run by Microsoft as part of Safer Internet Day on 8 February, suggests that nearly half (44%) of children have lied about their age when online; over a third (37%) of those who had been contacted by a stranger (75%) responded; and only 4% told someone older that they trusted, such as a parent or teacher.

What’s more, 39% of children between the ages of 14 and 18 look at websites or play online games that their parents would likely disapprove of, and two-thirds (67%) clear out their browser history to make sure their parents can’t view their online activity.

The survey, looking at the attitudes and behaviours of both parents and children around online safety, was conducted last month across 11 countries, including South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Spain, Finland, Italy, Portugal, Turkey, Russia, Greece and Egypt.

The results suggest that parents are generally aware of the potential online dangers and are talking to their children about the issues —in fact, the majority of parents believe talking about online safety is as important as talking to their children about sex.

However, says Nazeer Suliman, consumer and online lead at Microsoft South Africa, parents are not always consistent and often trust their tech-savvy children to behave responsibly online without further intervention from the parents themselves.

While 87% of parents have spoken to their children about online safety, only a third (36%) use online parental controls or filtering software, and a quarter (26%) do nothing to limit or control their children’s internet use at home.

In addition, while parents are talking, they are not always asking questions and listening: 44% aren’t certain about whether their children are restricting access to their social media sites. More than one-third of parents (36%) who responded do not monitor their children’s online activities at all, leaving them open to various potential dangers.

Arthur Goldstuck, MD, World Wide Worx says that the finding reinforce their research that shows that parents tend to be oblivious of what their children are doing online – even when they know the dangers their children may face. “In many cases, the parents are far less tech-savvy than their children, and so are incapable of monitoring or responding to what their children are doing online. Our advice has always been that parents must be actively involved in their children’s online lives, and we support the call for them to use the technology tools available. Children may be highly skilled at using the Internet and cellphone features, but they don’t know how to deal with the human issues that arise in many situations, and this is where open lines of communication with their parents will prove their value,” says Goldstuck.

Safer Internet Day is organised by the Insafe network, a European Commission initiative to promote safer and more responsible use of online technology and mobile phones among young people across the world.

Key Findings of the Safer Internet Day survey hosted on MSN South Africa

Children

  • 67% of teenagers have cleaned out their browser history and/or cache to make sure their parents can’t see what they were looking at online. 17% say they always do it.
  • 39% of teenagers look at websites or play online games of which their parents would not approve.
  • 44% of teenagers have lied about their age online.
  • 15% of teenagers allow all internet users access to their information on social networks.
  • However, 85% restrict access to only family and friends or use privacy settings to limit access in some way.
  • 75% of teenagers have been contacted by a stranger via the internet, and as many as 37% of these have responded to them out of curiosity.
  • Out of those who have been contacted by a stranger online, 10% have been scared by it, and 11% have been worried.
  • 15% of teenagers have admitted to communicating something via a social network that was intended to be hurtful or intimidating.
  • 23% of teenagers would feel comfortable about making friends with adults online, which they would not ordinarily do, and 18% would feel comfortable revealing secrets online they would not ordinarily share.

Parents

  • 87% of parents have talked with their children about potential online dangers — that’s a higher percentage than have had the “birds and the bees” talk (74%).
  • 65% of parents are confident that their children are taking necessary safety precautions with the information they are sharing online.
  • Over a third (36%) of parents admit they do not monitor their children’s online movements or internet postings.
  • 26% of parents do not take any actions to limit or control their children’s internet use at home. 36% use online parental controls or filtering software to block websites.
  • 44% of parents do not know whether their children have privacy settings on their social networks.
  • 69% of parents take steps to ensure their children don’t stumble on any adult- related sites they have visited.

General Tips for Parents:

For children up to age 10:

  • Always sit with your kids at this age when they’re online
  • Foster open and positive communication: it’s a good idea to talk with your children about computers and stay open to their questions and curiosity
  • Use family safety tools to create appropriate profiles for each family member and to help filter the Internet. For more information, see Windows Live Family SafetyWindows 7 Parental Controls, or Windows Vista Parental Controls. Also help to protect your children from offensive pop-up windows by using the pop-up blocker that’s built in to Internet Explorer

For children ages 11 to 14:

  • Set family safety tools on the medium security setting, which should have some limitations on content, websites and activities
  • Keep Internet-connected computers in an open area where you can easily supervise your kids’ activities
  • Encourage your children to tell you if something or someone online makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened
  • Use Internet Explorer 9’s Windows Live Family Safety Pack and/or Windows 7 Parental Controls to help manage and monitor where your kids go online

For children ages 15 to 18:

  • Teens are savvy about the Internet but they still need parents to remind them of appropriate safety guidelines. Create a list of Internet house rules as a family and remind teens what personal information should not be given over the Internet
  • Investigate Internet-filtering tools, such as Windows Vista Parental ControlsWindows 7 Parental Controls, or Windows Live Family Safety, as a complement to parental supervision
  • Insist that your children never agree to meet an online friend
  • Teach your kids responsible, ethical, online behaviour. They should not be using the Internet to spread gossip, bully or threaten others