The internet is a fantastic place but just like any place it has risks. Do you as a parent talk to your child about the difference between real and virtual online friends, understand the power of personal information, use privacy settings to protect your information and understand the phenomenon of social networking such as Facebook?

As part of Safer Internet Day 2012 (Tuesday, 7 February), West Mercia Police and the four Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards across West Mercia (Herefordshire, Shropshire, Telford & Wrekin and Worcestershire) are encouraging families to talk to each other more about their online activities in a bid to connect the generations and help keep children safe online.

The theme for this year’s Safer Internet Day is ‘Discovering the digital world together safely’ which aims to explore the challenges of parenting in an online age.

Talking to children about their online lives is one of the best things parents can do to protect them so they can enjoy the opportunities offered by the internet. However, with the pace at which technology is changing, the internet can often become a daunting and confusing place for parents.

“It’s important parents, professionals and carers aren’t intimidated by how their children are using technology,” says Detective Superintendent Martin Lakeman, Head of Public Protection at West Mercia Police. He added, “As a parent myself, I know how challenging it can be: where do you go to find out about the internet, what questions do you ask and will you understand or even like the answer?

“For the first time, there is somewhere you and your children can find the answers to these questions. Last year we launched WES (Worcestershire E Safety) which is a one stop shop for all the best national resources around the internet and how to stay safe online. It covers important aspects such as social networking, gaming, mobile phone technology and cyber bullying. It’s a great resource to explore together with your children”.

One of the key features of WES (http://wes.networcs.net/) is the internet survey which provides the Safeguarding Boards with vital information about what children are doing on online. To date, nearly 9,000 children have completed the survey and it is hoped that every child in Herefordshire, Shropshire, Telford & Wrekin and Worcestershire will complete it.

Det Supt Lakeman added: “Please encourage your children to fill in the questionnaire on WES. The findings over the last 12 months indicate some positive things as well as some very concerning trends.

“96 per cent of children say they feel safe on the internet. However, 17 per cent of those say they had concerns about people they’d met online but worryingly a quarter of them didn’t tell anyone about it.

“Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed say they are on Facebook. You need to be 13 years old to have a Facebook account, but 62 per cent of 11 year olds and 35 percent of 8 year olds say they had a Facebook account. This is very concerning because children are claiming to be older than they are which means they are at a greater risk of coming into contact with sexualised language and behaviour.

“I would urge all families to take a look at WES, and get to know the SMART Rules which will help you enjoy the internet safely.”

The SMART rules are a simple guide to staying safe:

S is for SAFE – keep safe by not giving out personal information such as your email address, phone number, home address or school photos.

M is for MEETING – don’t’ agree to meet up with someone you have only been chatting to online and don’t know in the real world. Make sure you have a parent or carer’s permission and they can come along to any meeting.

A is for ACCEPTING – don’t accept emails, pictures, files or texts from people you don’t know or trust. This could lead to problems as they may contain viruses or nasty messages.

R is for RELIABLE – information you find on the internet may not be true, people can lie about who they are.

T is for TELL – tell a parent, carer or trusted adult if someone or something makes you feel uncomfortable or worried or if you know or someone you know is being bullied online.

Finally, take some time out to discover the internet together, it should be something that families can share and enjoy. Parents can become “cooler” in the eyes of their children by becoming part of their world.

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