While many of us are reluctant to see our children step beyond the garden gate on their own, and would think twice about letting them walk to school or to a friend’s, we are far more relaxed about the internet. According to the 2010 Sexualisation of Young People Review by Linda Papadopoulos, we grant out children independence in cyberspace early, with 99% of eight to 17 year-olds having access to the internet, and 60% of 12 to 15 year-olds saying that they mainly use it on their own.  Worryingly, Papadopoulos found that almost half of children say their parents set no rules for internet use.

One of the problems with the fast-moving pace of technological change is that teenagers tend to be at least one step ahead of their parents. Even if parents do switch filters on (and many don’t bother or don’t know how to), older kids who want to get round them usually can. In their report “The Secret Online Lives of Teens”, McAfee and Harris Interactive found that more than six in ten teens say they know how to conceal what they do online from their parents. Nearly a third of teenagers clear the browser history before logging off and one in six has created secret social networking profiles or email addresses.

We wouldn’t dream of letting our children walk around an unfamiliar city on their own. However, if we allow them to navigate the internet alone, we are opening the door to a virtual world where our own map-reading skills are flawed. Once the cyber door is opened it can be difficult to close, and we are not able to accompany our children once they have passed through. It’s not like with television where we can check the schedules and know what programmes our child will be watching. With the internet, as Tanith Carey points out in her book Where Has My Little Girl Gone? (20011, Lion Hudson), a child “can travel into whatever realms (he or) she likes.” The internet becomes a “lawless private world where adults have no place.”

Internet security measures and filters are very important but to successfully protect our children online, we need to keep the conversation going, not abandon them to technology because it gives us a bit of peace and quiet. In fact, the more involved we are with our children’s computer use, the better.

One decision that can make a huge difference is whether to let your child have a computer in his/her room. Tanith Carey recommends parents insist that the computer their child uses is in a public place in the home, where it can be seen and shared by the whole family. While this isn’t fail-safe, it reduces the chance that your child will be tempted to browse for something unsuitable, knowing that you might walk past at any minute.

Younger children are likely to be pleased and excited to have a parent surfing along with them to start with. A good first step is to help them find a selection of sites they like and create a favourites list. As most under-tens are usually happy to stick with what they know, ask them to just access sites in that favourites list when they use the computer on their own.

When kids want to look further afield, give them kids’ search engines to use. Google and Yahoo are incredible resources, but the access they give to children is just too much. Kidsclick, Ask Jeeves for Kids and Looksmart kids are better alternatives. They are written in simple language and are easy to negotiate. Plus if children try the 21st century equivalent of looking up rude words in a dictionary, no sexual or pornographic content will come up, even if they try searching for it.

YouTube is another amazing resource and can be educational as well as amusing and entertaining. However, be aware that the videos that appear as suggestions on the right-hand-side of the screen can quickly steer into nasty territory. For example, Tanith Carey mentions the “funny animal videos that teen girls love can quickly divert into subject areas that are more disturbing.” Take a few minutes to switch on the YouTube safety mode at the very bottom of the webpage.

As parents we need to teach our children a healthy scepticism, namely that information on the web is not always reliable and should not be taken at face value. We can do this by helping our children question what they see online. Ask them to work out who created a site and what is its purpose. Is it based on opinion or fact? Is it to educate, to entertain or to sell? When you’re using the internet, share the experience with your children. Obviously, be sure you pick appropriate websites, but next time you’re looking for a deal on the cost of posting USA parcels, or you want to get the best price for a train ticket, for example, show how you navigate the site, where the adverts are and so on.

Furthermore, it’s important to stress that not all websites are the same. “While they are still young,” says Tanith Carey, “most girls don’t want to come across scary or explicit material.” A good way of explaining it is to say that just as films have an age guidance rating, there are also websites which are not suitable for children. If your child does come across unpleasant material, your reaction is important. To keep communication channels open and to avoid future secrecy, don’t make your child feel like they are to blame; thank them for telling you.

The main message is to combine internet safety systems, and your own interest and knowledge with good, open communication. That way you can avoid losing your kids in cyber space.

On Online Security Guide you get tips and tricks on how to get the most out of Online Security.